The Cougars face off the Utes during Saturday's game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. (Sarah Hill)

BYU football looks to end decade-long drought against Utah

The world looked a bit different 4,303 days ago.

“Fireflies” by Owl City was riding high on the music charts while moviegoers flocked to see Twilight: New Moon. Apple had recently released the new iPhone 3GS, and both Instagram and Snapchat had yet to be conceived.

It was also the last time BYU football recorded a win over Utah.

On Nov. 28, 2009, the No. 19 Cougars sunk the Utes in dramatic overtime fashion with a 25-yard touchdown grab by tight end Andrew George, clinching BYU’s third rivalry win in four years.

Life in the “Holy War,” as the rivalry is traditionally dubbed, was good back then. Not only were the two teams geographic rivals, they were also conference foes and perennial Mountain West powerhouses whose performances against each other had direct implications on bowl season. They had two young, hotshot head coaches in Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall who helped bring national buzz to each program and the rivalry as a whole.

The decade since then, however, has been a bit less picturesque. Even the Holy War nickname itself is possibly on its last legs with ESPN electing to forego the term during its broadcast of the game.

If you believe in bad karma, BYU quarterback Max Hall’s outspoken disdain for Utah following George’s game-winner may have cursed the Cougars. The Utes have won nine straight matchups since 2009, tying the longest winning streak in rivalry history.

BYU has another shot at breaking the streak this Saturday in its home opener against the Utes, with oddsmakers pegging the Cougars as seven-point underdogs. Unable to play in 2020 because of COVID-19, the first rivalry showdown in two years comes with plenty of hype and intrigue for the two unbeaten squads.

“It’s intense, it’s exciting, it’s pretty much everything you could want in a football game,” defensive lineman Tyler Batty said.

Utah has made the Cougars look silly on occasion, with a 54-10 pounding in 2010 and the most recent matchup ending 30-12 against Zach Wilson in 2019. The remaining seven games since 2009, interestingly enough, have each been decided by one score or less, often in heartbreaking fashion for the Cougars.

There was the thrice missed field goal pandemonium in 2012, the turnover-fueled Las Vegas Bowl first-quarter smackdown and near comeback in 2015, Taysom Hill finishing a yard short on what would have been the game-winning two point conversion in 2016 and an epic 20-point collapse in 2018.

In addition, Utah ditched the Mountain West in 2011 for the Pac-12’s greener pastures, with four top-25 finishes and just one regular season non-conference loss since then. That same year, the Cougars missed their shot at a Power 5 and took a leap of faith into independence. While the gamble is set to pay off with a ticket to the Big 12 virtually punched, the independence era at BYU has watched Utah pull ahead in recruiting and relevance.

Since 2009, BYU has beaten No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 14 Boise State and No. 15 Texas, but never Utah. With no conference championship hardware to play for, each matchup with the Utes is essentially BYU’s Super Bowl, making the past decade even sadder in Provo.

“Whether or not you had a good season was dependent on whether or not you beat (Utah),” former BYU receiver Cody Hoffman told the Athletic. “Your season really revolved around that game and it dictated how everything else would go.” 

Whittingham, who starred as a Cougar linebacker in the 1980s before taking the reins as Utah’s head coach in 2005, seemingly refuses to lose to his alma mater with an 11-3 career record in what he calls the “in-state game”.

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, however, said that the rivalry game “is a huge deal to (Whittingham),” and “he makes it a huge deal to the whole (Utah) program.”

Roderick, along with Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake, spent a combined 22 years on Whittingham’s coaching staff at Utah prior to coming to Provo, helping to field some of Utah’s strongest teams and slay the Cougars plenty of times. Sitake is 0-4 thus far in revenge attempts against his former Ute boss, but the sixth-year Cougar commander insists that there is still plenty of love among the coaching staffs within the rivalry.

“I think it is really good for the soul to wish good things on people,” Sitake said. “I want to beat Utah, but after the game, I wish them success and I hope they do well.” 

One key to victory for the Cougars will be avoiding turnovers, a margin which Utah has recently dominated. During the current streak, the Utes have just 14 turnovers to BYU’s 29, with the Utes capitalizing on them to score nine defensive touchdowns. BYU quarterback Jaren Hall played a poised, conservative game in the opening win over Arizona this past week without giving up any turnovers, and the Cougars will need a similar showing Saturday to be in the best position to win.

“Winning starts with not beating yourself,” Roderick said. “We talk about it every day. Taking care of the ball is the number one priority for our team.”

Utah’s defensive front has long been a trademark strength of its program, shutting down opposing run games and putting quarterbacks in jeopardy. In 2019, the Utes ranked third nationally by only allowing 81.8 rushing yards per game, then ranking first in the Pac-12 during a shortened 2020 campaign. BYU center James Empey and the rest of the Cougar offensive line unit will have their hands full on Saturday but “love the challenge” to protect Hall and create space for BYU’s rushing attack.

“They have a lot of strong players and a lot of big defensive linemen,” Empey said. “We definitely have our work cut out for us, but we’re ready to hit the ground running, get going in film, get going in practice, and look forward to the game this week.”

Ultimately, when both teams take the field on Saturday, none of the past decade will matter, neither will pregame chatter, conference affiliation or what pundits and experts may say. The only result history suggests is that anything can happen in the wild vacuum of Holy War football.

All the Cougars can do is control whatever lies in their power to snap their rivalry losing skid and keep their season from derailing early, while the Utes seek to earn the first 10-game winning streak in series history in their quest for a first Pac-12 title.

“For us now, it’s just looking forward to this next game. That’s what we can control,” Hall said. “We can’t change the outcome of the past, but we can prepare our best for Saturday and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Cougars face the Utes at 8:15 p.m. MDT on Saturday, Sept. 11 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.

Universe prediction: Do you believe in miracles? BYU 24, Utah 21.

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