By Creighton McEwen
The BYU football team finds itself in an unfamiliar role Saturday, Nov. 22, that of spoiler, as the University of Utah Utes come to Provo for the Cougars” final game of the year.
The Cougars” conference-contending hopes and dreams of bowl invitations went out the window last week as BYU suffered another loss, the Cougars” seventh of the season, a 33-14 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame.
BYU (4-7) has won just two of its last eight games, including an eight-point victory over San Diego State and a slim overtime win over UNLV. Utah (8-2), on the other hand, is enjoying one of its best seasons ever, having won seven of its last eight games.
With a win Saturday, Utah will win the Mountain West Conference championship outright for the first time since 1957. A Utah loss combined with a New Mexico win will prevent that from happening. Because New Mexico previously beat Utah this season, the Cougars could also contribute to Utah not attending the Liberty Bowl as the MWC champion.
“I think our team attitude is excellent right now,” said BYU head coach Gary Crowton after one practice this week.
Because of parity in the league this year, the Cougars could finish as high as a tie for second with a win or as low as a tie for last with a loss.
2002 and 2003, replacing the late 60s and early 70s as some of the worst years in Cougar history, are not memorable seasons for BYU.
Not since 1972 and 1973, LaVell Edwards”s first two seasons, have the Cougars not played in a bowl in two consecutive seasons.
Not since 1970 and 1971 have the Cougars had two consecutive losing seasons.
Not since 1970 has a BYU team lost eight games in a season.
A loss would give the Cougars five home losses, all in a row, with only one win. The lone win came against Georgia Tech, BYU”s first opponent of the year. BYU”s 1968 team, the last Cougar team to lose five home games in a season, went 0-5 at home and finished the season 2-8.
There”s a reason those years are referred to as “the basketball years.”
With the Cougars winning or not, the BYU-Utah rivalry is always fierce. Over the past six meetings, the victor has won by seven points or fewer. The game is first-year Utah head coach Urban Meyer”s first game against BYU. Meyer has already begun to fuel the fire by referring to BYU only as “the team to the south.”
Statues located on BYU”s campus are not the only things guarded from vandalism this week. Crowton said he”s got security at his house this week because something”s happened the previous two years.
Despite all the setbacks and losses, BYU”s defense still ranks 18th in the country in total yards allowed, yielding just 315 yards per game. Utah”s offense ranks 38th nationally, averaging 405 yards per game. The Cougar defense has allowed opposing offenses to gain their average number of yards just two times this season, against San Diego State and Notre Dame.
BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall said his defense is executing at about 55 percent. He said he is surprised by the statistics and rankings because of how badly the defense has played at times.
Utah is the conference”s highest scoring team, averaging more than 32 points per game. BYU ranks last, scoring fewer than 18 points per game.
BYU has turned the ball over 36 times. Only Army, a team that hasn”t won a game yet this season, has more. Utah has turned the ball over just 15 times this season, good enough for 14th in the country.
“Our turnovers continue to be a sore spot,” Crowton said. “We”re working on that. We”re evaluating as many different ways as possible to correct those things.”
Utah takes advantage of excellent field position during every game, leading the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 28 yards per return.
There are many reasons why BYU should lose this game, but when Utah comes to Provo, the Cougars always bring their best, good team or not. The question is how good this year”s Cougars can be.
Ironically, BYU”s last game of the year marks the first time this season the Cougars will face a team that has already played New Mexico. This is important because the Lobos play the same defense as the Cougars so defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall used game tape from that game in preparation for Utah”s offense.
Utah sophomore quarterback and MWC Player of the Year candidate Alex Smith is first in the MWC and seventh in the nation in pass efficiency. Smith replaced Brett Elliott after Elliot broke his wrist on the final play of Utah”s second game of the season against Texas A&M and hasn”t looked back since. Smith has completed 67.5 percent of his pass attempts for more than 2000 yards and 15 touchdowns with only one interception. He has also rushed for 513 yards, not including yards lost on sacks, and five touchdowns.
“Conceptually, [Utah”s] offense is exceptional because it”s complementary in nature,” Mendenhall said. “[Smith] is growing in poise and confidence weekly. His command of the system is one that is manifested in the results he has.”
Ute senior running back Brandon Warfield is listed as questionable for Saturday”s game after suffering a knee injury four weeks ago. Warfield rushed for a career-high 194 yards last year in Utah”s 13-6 victory over the Cougars. In eight games this season, he has rushed for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Saturday”s game will be broadcast regionally by ESPN+Plus on KJZZ, Ch. 14, beginning at 1 p.m.