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More (Holy) War, Please: Predictions for when Cougars and Utes do Battle in Week 3

August 27, 2012 Leave a comment

[Note: This segment is part of a continuing series examining BYU football’s 2012 match-ups from the perspective of the Cougars’ opponents. By looking toward the season through the lens of each opposing school, we see a more accurate picture of our own favorite team’s chances in each contest. Or in other words, this is an attempt to see past our own strangled fandom. It’s an ongoing experiment, subject to varying degrees of success or failure.]

The immensity of all that surrounds the BYU-Utah football rivalry lends itself to cliches beaten-to-death “insights.” But I begin with one nonetheless, because it’s true: I felt like I’d had a blow to the stomach this offseason when it was confirmed that arguably the most anticipated cultural event in Utah is actually taking a two year (or possibly longer) recess beginning in 2014, even if a look at one of these comment boards (or these) is enough to halfway convince some people that it might be a good idea.

BYU vs. Utah is more than a football tradition, it’s how people identify themselves in this state. It’s more than a superficially generated State vs. Tech “when we think about it we don’t know why we’re so passionate about this” rivalry. Despite the inevitable cultural overlap of being less than an hour’s drive from each other, BYU and Utah are ideologically, socially and politically divergent institutions. It’s feasible that this difference played a part in the Pac-12 selecting Utah over BYU. (I also believe Utah’s football program was a part of their appeal; the Utes have put together an excellent product on the field in the past decade.) Both schools receive reasonable criticisms from their detractors, but I also consider each of them to be world class universities, all rivalry aside.

And that’s exactly what it’s going to be … aside. Out of the way of the Utes’ precious Pac-12 schedule, pushed off of the gridiron into the realm of EA Sports simulations, know-it-all media and endless bickering to determine which team is actually better. Call it a ridiculous obsession, call it out of hand, call it unnecessary, but to me the Holy War might as well be a state holiday. It’s like taking Christmas off the calendar. My fellow Cougar fans can say all they want about this rivalry not defining us, but I’m already dreading 2014.

Before I get too carried away, however, there is a game to analyze.

What was Utah able to accomplish during their debut in the Pac-12?

In order to understand the Cougars’ true task against their rival in Week 3, let’s take a serious look at Utah’s journey up to that point.

Besides memorably crushing the Cougars, the rest of Utah’s season was mediocre. The Utes were thrown into the fire in their very first Pac-12 game against USC, and pushed the Trojans to the last play of the game before succumbing in a wild, confusing and crushing final minute. The team registered solid wins against Pitt on the road and Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, but found itself outclassed by Washington, Arizona State and California in multiple touchdown losses — and, lest our very own trolls forget, also suffered a major upset to Colorado at home while playing for a chance to go to the Pac 12 Championship Game. Just under halfway through the year, the team lost quarterback Jordan Wynn to his second major shoulder injury in as many seasons. The team was left with Div II transfer Jon Hays, who struggled mightily to put a full game of mistake-free football together, and that’s putting it nicely. The subject that carried the day was Utah’s lack of foresight in their quarterback recruiting strategy, especially considering Wynn’s fragile health. The one saving grace to Utah’s offense turned out to be workhorse running back John White IIII, who piled on 1,519 rushing yards with the third most carries of any back in the nation and earned all-Pac-12 honors. Without White’s do-it-all performance, the Utes may have been doomed to a .500 season at best; there was no question he was team MVP. All in all, it was a bittersweet debut in the Pac 12. It was one that certainly avoided a transitional disaster, but Jordan Wynn’s health and the school’s inability to recruit other quarterbacks derailed the Utes’ hopes for a Rose Bowl berth.

Anchored by their smothering defense and all-everything running back, the Utes’ 2011 season held together well enough to potentially serve as a stepping stone to a Top 25-ranked season this year, but the quarterback situation remains extremely fragile with an only slightly improved depth chart and question marks still surrounding Wynn’s durability. In the South Division, Utah is expected by almost everyone to take a backseat to USC. The Trojans are ranked No.3 in the Coaches Poll (Utah and BYU are ranked 32nd and 37th, respectively), No.1 in the AP poll (where Utah and BYU are 30th and 32nd) and have national championship aspirations.

In the past two seasons, the Pac-12 has fielded a national championship finalist, a No.1 overall draft pick and a revived USC football program. But while the top tier of the conference has enjoyed it finest heyday since this would-be Oakland Raiders backup was still a star and Reggie Bush and his family were receiving “housing” and transportation, the middle of the pack continues to flounder. Besides their showdown with USC in Salt Lake City, the Utes’ schedule looks surprisingly easy. You could present a case that the Cougars will be their second most difficult match-up this season. If Utah shocks the Trojans, or somebody else does, the Utes can even steal away USC’s seemingly preordained one-game shot at playing in the Rose Bowl. As the media puts a magnifying glass to whether Oregon, Stanford or USC will emerge from the fray in 2012, the Utes can seize the spotlight and launch themselves onto the national stage as a permanent, here-to-stay football program rather than diluting into the paste that is the middle of the Pac-12.  Of course, BYU has a chance to tinge even that kind of euphoric season with regret by beating Utah earlier in the year. Could Utah finish 11-1, with its lone loss coming to the Cougars? It’s not impossible. (Not likely either, but one can dream.)

What can we take from the Utes’ 2012 schedule leading into their game with the Cougars?

The Utes did everything short of scheduling the JV team from Woods Cross High School in Week 1 by putting Northern Colorado on the docket, so their first real test of the season will come against loveable underdog Utah State. Of course, little brother is growing up,  getting a mean streak and isn’t so adorable anymore — just ask any player at BYU who witnessed the 2010 debacle. The Aggies endured a roller coaster season in 2011 (five wins and five losses by a touchdown or less), but late-game drama aside, all signs indicate they are getting over the hump under coach Gary Anderson. But while I look forward to Utah and Utah State playing for the first time since 2009 and remembering to hate each other again (they’re getting a little too cozy in their common dislike for us Zoobs), don’t expect any earth-shattering headlines from this game unless they have to do with Jordan Wynn’s shoulder. Despite Utah State’s progress, the Utes remain ahead of the curve athletically and should easily take the Battle of the Brothers, avoiding a major upset like the one Cougar fans suffered through so recently.

Based on Utah’s favorable early season contests and my prior projections for the Cougars in the previous two segments of this series, I project that both teams enter this game with spotless records. Both schools will have faced one glorified scout team and one legitimate but outmatched underdog up to that point.

In other words, these teams may be extremely difficult to differentiate– just ask the media who comprise the AP poll that, as I mentioned earlier, ranked Utah at 30 and BYU at 32. This isn’t helped by the fact that the game been moved to September, which means the squads will still be relatively unknown commodities compared to later in the year. But what I can easily predict is this: BYU and Utah will leave fans with a good one to remember as they prepare for the rivalry to be temporarily (we hope) frozen in out in 2014. I expect to see the most well-played (on both sides) rivalry game since 2006. Casual fans may not enjoy the “boring” pace of the game, but proponents of a good old fashioned low scoring contest will revel in it.

Game Day: What the Cougars and Utes will do to get an advantage, and whether we can expect it to work:

BYU Defense vs. Utah Offense

When the cleat rubber meets the turf, the Cougars will need a dominant performance from their defense, first and foremost, and I anticipate one for the ages from that side of the ball. Besides taking motivation after looking up at the scoreboard seeing 54 points on the scoreboard in 2011, this year’s defense matches up well positionally with Utah’s weapons.

A few examples:

1) In John White IIII, Utah brings to the table a top tier running back, a break out star from 2011 who is perhaps in the top ten nationwide. The Cougars counter by boasting a front seven that are as dominant, deep and experienced as any in school history. BYU’s tackling is sound enough that even John White IIII can’t beat the Cougars all by himself, particularly if BYU can grab an early lead and force the pass.

2) Utah sports the youngest offensive coordinator in the country– Brian Johnson is supposed to be a phenom genius at the position— but BYU will answer such play calling with its own proven genius, Bronco Mendenhall himself, who is perhaps on his own the greatest strength of this team.

3) While the Utes’ inexperienced offensive line is still learning not to step on each other’s toes, the entire Cougar defensive line are seniors.

4) The Utes are led by a good (not great, certainly not Ty Detmer-great) passer at quarterback, but he also happens to be an injury prone, true pocket passer. In countering Wynn, look for several blitzes from the only player in the country to record a defensive stat in all ten categories last year: Kyle Van Noy.

Look for BYU’s defensive line to get significant push on nearly every drive. Mendenhall and his players will smell blood with Wynn, knowing they could be one punishing sack away from completely altering the complexion of the game. The Cougars will send Van Noy and Uona Kavenga pass-rushing when momentum is on their side and the Utah offense is struggling. The Utes will respond by throwing quick slants and screen passes, trying to exploit a possibly over-hungry, over-aggressive defense. When the Utes are moving, whether it be on the ground or through the air, Mendenhall will call for the defensive line apply pressure on its own and drop seven in coverage, trusting his “most athletic” secondary ever to limit disastrously large gains through the air. For nearly all of the night, his trust will be rewarded, but I don’t doubt the team will give up one or two demoralizing long balls. The timing of these big passing plays during the game may be crucial.

I also expect Wynn to throw the ball away several times under pressure, rather than get sacked. I predict he will even be flagged once or twice for intentional grounding in an effort to avoid physical punishment. Despite all of this effort to keep him away from blue jerseys, I still project Wynn will be sacked two or three times, silencing Rice Eccles momentarily. But considering that the entire offensive game plan will, of necessity, be designed to keep Wynn in the game (and in the season), I don’t see him going down with injury. Running back John White IIII will have a solid but unspectacular night, finishing with just under 100 yards on just over twenty carries. The Utes will find that they can move the ball against the Cougars, just not for the whole length of the field.

If — and this is the “if” that could derail the whole thing– the secondary can simply put a full game together, limiting deep plays and keeping everything in front of them, the Utes’ offense is in for a long night. Even if they can’t contain completely shut Utah down for the entire game, I seriously like the defense’s chances at holding down the fort enough to make it the offense’s game to lose.

BYU Offense vs. Utah Defense

On the Cougars’ offensive side, there are a lot more unknowns. While there is certainly game-time experience among the offensive line, injuries and the mixing and matching of specific positions may lead to inconsistency against teams like Utah that have future NFLers on the other side of the line of scrimmage. People like to endlessly gripe about Nelson’s lack of performance against a small sample size of athletic defenses (like TCU and Tulsa) in 2011, but I will never forget watching the Horned Frogs absolutely work BYU’s offensive line for four quarters. I thought Nelson performed reasonably well in that game considering how often he was scrambling for his life literally two seconds after the ball was snapped. The Cougars’ big men were guilty of that on several occasions in 2011, but against the Utes, the entire unit needs to be firing on all cylinders. Wide receivers Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo will likely get their catches no matter which way the game turns, but if the line can protect Nelson from the wear and tear apart from what he already puts himself through, and force the defense to respect the running game, the Cougars are in good shape against a great defense. And if each of these groups is putting Ute defenders on their heels, the Cougars’ almost forgotten collection of tight ends and slot receivers should be able to take advantage of some pretty soft coverage. But if the Cougars’ offensive line can’t at least hold their own against Utah, they can expect several half-completed drives and for the entire offensive scheme to literally collapse in on itself. It’s also noteworthy that whether the Cougars succeed or fail, you shouldn’t expect a single lineman’s name on the next day’s front page. Love it or hate it, it’s how the game of football has been covered for a long time. (I stand guilty as charged, along with the rest of us.)

Expect offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to call a mostly conservative game plan in the first half, to target tight ends for 7 to 10 yard gains and screen passes for even less. Expect BYU’s running game to be serviceable but no more, besides the occasional “do a lot for a little” scramble from Nelson. This is partly because running backs will be paying extra attention to ball security in this year’s game and focusing less on squeezing out every yard. Expect Hoffman and Apo to open up the field as the game drags on, finding two or three momentum-swinging 20-25 yard gains. The Cougars will finally find a way to score, and it will come in bunches as they pile up more than half of their points in the final twenty or so minutes of the contest.

Special Teams and Other Factors

Expect both teams to squeeze every minute they can from their possessions, confident that the other offense isn’t nearly so threatening with only 23-25 minutes to work with instead of the opposite.The kicking and punting games will loom large in a contest with no easy yards, but neither team will create momentum with long returns. I foresee a particularly stingy first half, and a game in which the two teams will muster just over 500 yards of offense combined.

The winner of the 2012 Holy War will be…

My heart says BYU, and my sinister side says BYU 55-10, but I have to throw both of those out. My mind leans Utes, but my gut reaffirms Cougars. I can’t ignore either of those. The Utes have an excellent program with excellent athletes — there, I said it; we as Cougar fans are usually too stubborn to admit it, choosing to focus instead on their most obnoxious fans. But lest we play humble pie and lose sight of what BYU Football is truly becoming, coach Mendenhall has built a program that is here to stay, even if he himself doesn’t coach for 29 years like LaVell Edwards did. Although it hasn’t happened yet, he has effectively convinced players, staff and fans like that they should expect a top-10 program that regularly busts the BCS (although not by joining it, as the school up North has), to really believe it can happen. As for myself, I honestly think we’ll get there, and soon. The team has been knocking on the door for most of the last several years, even if I wouldn’t say 2011 was one of them.

I promised I wouldn’t betray my actual prediction in favor of homer-ism or optimism or other sporting prognostication heresy. If you respect my opinion enough to read this far (we’re now in chapter 38), you’ll believe I’m straight-shooting with you when I say that my gut has never been wrong. Even in my darkest days as a sports fan, I secretly, ashamedly even, knew those moments were coming just before they happened. But in the best times too, of which I have had a few, I have been infused with a sometimes inexplicable feeling of confidence just before game day. Maybe I’m melodramatically over-hyping my own intuition, putting some unintentional humor into your day. That’s a definite possibility. But whether or not I’m ridiculous for caring so much is beside the point; because strangely enough, I’m as confident as ever that on this one, I’m right. It probably makes me more happy than it should, but I’m taking the Cougars.

BYU: 24 Utah: 16
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The Utes’ best case scenario in 2012:

The Utes play return to their BCS-busting form of 2004 and 2008, only this time no busting is required. The team takes advantage of multiple coaching changes in the Pac-12 South with surprisingly easy wins, defy my fail-proof predictions (the nerve!) by outlasting the Cougars in Salt Lake City, and even top all of that off with an upset the USC Trojans at home on October 4. With a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, Utah beats down Washington in the Pac-12 championship game after the Huskies had shocked Oregon in the Pac-12 North to advance. If the pieces fall into place around the country, Utah becomes a serious part of the National Championship Game discussion — one of only about fifteen teams that actually have that kind of ceiling this season, no matter what the talking heads (the ones that aren’t me, I mean) tell you.

The Utes’ worst case scenario in 2012:

Sadly for Ute fans, this requires little imagination: Jordan Wynn’s shoulder is shredded on a late hit in Week 1, and the Utes deflate, eventually regressing slightly in their second year in the league. The offense stumbles while trying to regain their confidence, haunted by the horrors of 2011. Running back John White IIII remains solid but is no longer Superman, doomed by defensive coordinators who have the luxury of preparing a one dimensional game plan using a year’s worth of his running footage at Utah. Under the weight of carrying the team, again, the defense fails to repeat its stingy track record that had kept the Utes in so many games only a year before. The Utes find themselves on the nasty end of one or two upsets and fail to distinguish themselves from a host of other Pac-12 sidekicks.

Likely wins: Northern Colorado, Utah State, Arizona State, Oregon State, Colorado
Likely losses: USC
Swing games: BYU, UCLA, California, Washington State, Washington, Arizona
Predicted 2012 record: 8-4
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Ben Lockhart | ben.lockhart89@gmail.com | 801 462 6711 | @benlockhart89

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