The BYU football team will be afforded no time by its rivals to feel sorry for itself after losing by one point to the Texas Longhorns, and that’s probably the way they want it.
In their first home game of the season the Cougars will look to wash the bad taste out of their mouths this Saturday at 7 p.m. against their bitter opponent, University of Utah.
Both teams are sure to come in hungry after losing tightly contested road games.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted he would prefer to play the Utes last rather than in week three, but said the game still means as much as ever to the players and fans.
“There’s no comparable rivals anymore, we haven’t played seven or eight league games to say how it’s going to match up,” Mendenhall said. “So how do you know right now?”
But Mendenhall also believes the game will likely be close and for good reason. Incredibly, 13 of the last 15 matchups between the teams have been decided by a touchdown or less.
“I’m not sure why this one will be any different. They’re always contested, they always played hard,” Mendenhall said.
To this point, the teams look like a near copy of one another.
Like the Cougars, Utah has struggled on offense. The team struggled in the passing game in week one and then in the running game against USC last Saturday. Like BYU, however, this year’s Utes are known for their stingy, hard-hitting defense.
At his weekly press conference, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham praised his defense’s effort in Saturday’s loss.
“We have things to build on. The defense played opportunistic and got key takeaways and key stops that we had to have,” Whittingham said.
Perhaps Utah’s strongest defensive area is the defensive line. The unit has helped the Utes surrender only 27 points through two games, less than what even BYU’s vaunted defense has allowed during that time.
But Cougar running back Bryan Kariya still feels confident BYU’s running game can bounce back against the Utes.
“I don’t go into a game thinking I’m going to get shut down against a certain defense,” Kariya said. “That doesn’t factor into our mindset at all … It isn’t any mystery Utah has a great defense, but it just helps raise our level of play.”
As they prepare mentally and physically for Saturday, Mendenhall restricted interview opportunities to his team captains to limit distractions. Even team captain and offensive lineman Matt Reynolds admitted it is an extra burden trying to focus during the week leading up to playing Utah.
“What’s hard for most [players] is football is an emotional game and people play with really high effort and really high emotions,” Reynolds said. “What’s hard is to keep that emotion in check and in balance. Too much emotion leads to a lack of consistency and a lack of execution.”
Trying to avenge two narrow defeats at once — last week’s against Texas and losing on the last play to the Utes in 2010 — will present a challenge to the Cougars as they strive to keep a level head.
“Playing Utah, it’s a big game,” Kariya said. “There’s a lot of hype and excitement about it and there’s a lot of emotion surrounding the game. It means a lot to a lot of people for us to go out there and play as well as we can.”
One player with a unique connection to Utah is Cougar safety Travis Uale. Uale was a walk-on at Utah before his mission, then walked on again when he returned, this time at BYU.
“I’m glad I made the decision to come here,” Uale said. “I think that’s the biggest positive out of coming here is not just playing football. It’s a great experience playing under coach Mendenhall and his philosophy of not having football first. It’s something that hit home with me. It’s something I really wanted and wanted my family to have too.”
Mendenhall insisted meanwhile the game is more about getting the victory than winning a recruiting battle in the state. He said players who are recruited by both universities are the exception rather than the rule, contrary to most fans’ perceptions.
“The types of players that we recruit against the University of Utah really aren’t that many. There’s a handful each year,” Mendenhall said. “They’re usually two different type of players. They fit different systems and different schools.”