Rivalry Q & A: Can BYU snap 6 game skid?

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Rivalry week is upon us as the Utes return to Provo for the first time in four years.

BYU hosts archrival Utah on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. MDT in the 92nd meeting between the schools.

To preview this week’s game, The Daily Utah Chronicle’s Brittni Colindres and The Daily Universe’s Josh Ellis answered eight questions about each school’s chances to walk away with a win on Saturday.

With the game in Provo this season, what kind of effect will that have on both teams?

Colindres: I feel like a lot of the time when a team hits the road, the edge is given to the home team. Whether that be because it’s the home team’s stomping grounds, the energy the home crowd provides, or simply not having to travel, etc., usually those things factor into why people make the predictions they do. Obviously, predictions aren’t just based on that, but I think it has an influence to sway people one way or another. This in-state rivalry isn’t a far drive for the Utes (or fans) to make, and I think there will be energy from both fan bases. Yes, it’s BYU’s stadium, but Utah will have a good portion of fans there to help motivate the team.

Ellis: Expect a raucous atmosphere at LaVell Edwards Stadium this year. BYU fans are craving a win against their in-state rival and the students will be back in full force for their first home game (the semester started after the Portland State game). However, if there’s one team on the Cougars’ schedule that wouldn’t be rattled by the crowd, it’s Utah. They’ve been here before and they’ve won here before.

What do you think it will ultimately come down to in who wins this matchup?

Colindres: Whoever can score. As basic as that sounds, points have got to get on the board. Six of the past seven games (including the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl) have been decided by a touchdown or less. With those games being so close, I think scoring early and often to establish things is what will be needed.

Ellis: For me, it comes down to capitalizing on turnovers. Forcing giveaways from your opponent can swing the momentum and change games, especially rivalry games. In the last two games, BYU lost the ball eight times, leading directly to three Utah touchdowns. Utah lost the ball six times last year alone, but BYU scored just one touchdown and two field goals off of those turnovers. If BYU can avoid turnovers and rattle Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, it could make the ultimate difference in a tight game.

Who does each school need to be prepared to go up against and why?

Dani Jardine
Matt Bushman makes a catch against Portland State on Aug. 26. Bushman finished the game with 56 yards on three completions as BYU defeated the Vikings 20-6. (Dani Jardine)

Colindres: Utah has a handful of weapons and targets, but Oregon transfer and wide receiver Darren Carrington II and running back Zack Moss stand out to me on the offense. Carrington is athletic, enjoys the ball in his hands and will do whatever it takes to get it. When Utah opened its season on Aug. 31 against North Dakota, Carrington had 127 receiving yards and an 18-yard touchdown, while Moss had 128 yards plus a touchdown. I expect them to play a big part in the Utes offense against BYU. On the defensive side, defensive end Kylie Fitts (coming off an injury last season) had 41 tackles in 2015; he also had four forced fumbles to lead the Pac-12.

Ellis: On offense, Matt Bushman. The freshman tight end impressed in fall camp and followed that up with three catches for 56 yards in the season opener. The 6-foot-5, 230 pound Tucson, AZ, native can be challenging for corners and safeties to defend with his size and for linebackers with his speed.

On defense, Fred Warner, and Sione Takitaki. Warner led the Cougars with 86 total tackles last season and added three interceptions. His physicality will help bolster BYU’s run defense while his speed and knowledge of the game makes him a threat in guarding the pass. Takitaki is returning from a redshirt season and has already incorporated himself into defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s system. He had two sacks against Portland State and will look to be a big part in slowing down Utah’s offense.

What do you think your rival is capable of doing that might trouble your team?

Colindres: The BYU defense will be a stronger defense than what Utah faced to open its season. With that being said, that could cause some commotion for the Utah offense. With an offensive line that only has one returning starter (left guard Salesi Uhatafe) and a new quarterback in Huntley, this could rattle Utah. But, I don’t expect Utah to be rattled all game if that happens.

Ellis: I think Utah has the potential to shut down BYU’s run game and disrupt the entire offense. While the Cougars have gone back to a traditional pass-first offense with quarterback Tanner Mangum returning, things could get uneasy in the Cougar backfield if BYU can’t establish any presence on the ground.

Mangum has played against Utah (Las Vegas Bowl ’15), but Huntley hasn’t faced BYU. How do you think the two of them will perform in this atmosphere?

Colindres: Huntley is a confident kid. After seeing his dual-threat skills in action against North Dakota, he is making people believe in his confidence, and I think that’ll help him perform in the rivalry atmosphere.

Ellis: Regardless of playing time, every player on both sides knows about the rivalry and what it means to the players, coaches and fans. Mangum will be hungry to redeem his first quarter performance from the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl and he’ll be motivated after watching last year’s defeat in Salt Lake City from the sideline. If Mangum can string a few passes together and find a deep threat or two, things could really open up for him.

What does Utah need to do to extend its rivalry winning streak to seven games?  

Colindres: Utah has got to come out ready to play from the beginning. It can’t have a slow start in an environment that will be intense because it makes it that much harder to get back into the swing of things. Coming out prepared, focused and ready and willing to execute will be key.

BYU hasn’t won the rivalry game since 2009. What does it need to do in order to beat Utah and put an end to the losing streak?

Ellis: First, don’t throw an interception on the first play of the game. The Cougars spotted Utah two touchdowns in the first eight minutes of the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl and one on the very first play from the line of scrimmage last season. With six of the last seven games being decided by a touchdown or less, mistakes like these are costly.

Second, utilize the tight ends. In BYU’s last win against Utah, Andrew George and Dennis Pitta, both tight ends, led the Cougars in receiving yards and George caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime. If the Cougars’ offense can find the tight ends consistently, Utah will have to decide whether or not to devote extra coverage to the middle of the field, which would open up BYU’s wide receivers and the deep ball threat.

Who do you think will win and why?

Colindres: The defense is Utah’s strength, but with new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, that will be something to keep an eye on. I think ultimately, Utah walks away with the victory 28-17.

Ellis: At the end of the day, a home game with an experienced quarterback and talented defensive core will be enough for BYU to end the six-game losing streak to Utah. 27-17 BYU.