No. 7 Utah (11-0, 7-0 MWC) will play host to No. 14 BYU (10-1, 6-1) Saturday in the 90th meeting between the rival schools, and it is fair to say that there has never been more at stake in the Holy War.
Never in the history of this series have the two been ranked so high, the closest coming back in 1994 when the 21st ranked Utes upset 20th ranked Cougars 34-31. National rankings and local bragging rights take a back seat this year, as there is much more on the line for the two schools. Utah can clinch the Mountain West Conference title outright and a guaranteed spot in a big money BCS bowl game with a victory, while the Cougars are fighting for a share of the MWC title and a chance at earning a spot in the BCS. Granted, BYU will need to upset the undefeated Utes and get some help along the way while the Utes control their own destiny, but even a spark of hope can be fanned into a flame to help motivate and inspire.
Discounting history and simply looking at the game on paper, the Utes would appear to have the clear edge. They are better on defense and special teams, playing in front of the home crowd, and the offenses are virtually equal. However, only a fool would ignore the past, and looking back one would find that regardless of who is favored the game is close. In fact, since Ron McBride took over the Utah program back in 1990, BYU and Utah have split with each team winning nine times. Stranger still is the surprising fact that the road team has won 12 of those 18 meetings. As to how close the games are, 8 of the 18 games have been won by less than a touchdown, and 13 of the 18 by less than 10 points. The average score? BYU 26 Utah 25.
Protecting the quarterback and turnovers will be the main focus for both teams going into the game. Neither team is markedly better than the other at getting to the quarterback, and while it looks like BYU has the edge in protecting the passer Utah has only given up six sacks in the last five games ? the Cougars have allowed 16 sacks over their last five games. The Cougars do such a good job of converting on third down regardless of the distance that outside of the loss to TCU the sacks have not hurt offensive production.
BYU does an especially good job of forcing fumbles as the second player in on the tackle is always trying to strip the ball away. The Cougars are second in the nation with 18 fumbles recovered. The Utes have not been especially good at forcing turnovers, but seem to get a defensive stop or force a turnover at critical times in close games. As for the offenses, BYU is especially turnover prone inside the redzone, as they have turned the ball over seven times inside the opponent's 20 yard line. Utah was very generous with the football early in the season, as 13 of their 17 turnovers came in the first six games. The last thing the Utes need is to give the Cougar offense a short field off a turnover.
Players to watch
Austin Collie ? Nation's leader in receiving yards per game, Collie is less than 40 yards away from setting the BYU record for receiving yards in a career. Collie had 126 yards on 5 receptions a year ago, including a key 49 yard catch on 4th and 18 that led to the game-winning touchdown.
Brian Johnson ? Clutch quarterback who seems to make the big play at big times, Johnson is ready to record his first win against the Cougars. Johnson is an accurate passer and has the ability to make plays with his feet, something the Cougars have had problems with in the past.
Dennis Pitta ? One of the top tight ends in the country, Pitta is essentially a big wide receiver. Excellent at getting open against slower linebackers or overpowering smaller safeties, Pitta is a matchup nightmare. Pitta did suffer an MCL sprain against Air Forcem and his availability for the game is a question, as will his effectiveness if he does play. Utah did a great job limiting Pitta in the last meeting.
Freddie Brown ? Big receiver (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) has become Utah's go-to-guy over the last half of the season. With an active steak of two games over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown, Brown has become a big-play receiver as well.
Harvey Unga ? Big, physical running back has found yards more difficult to come by this season, but is still a threat as a runner and a receiver, racking up over 1200 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns. Unga was the player of the game last year, rushing for 141 yards and the game-winning score.
Zane Taylor ? Utah's youngest starter on the offensive line is also the most important, as the sophomore center is responsible for adjusting the protection before the snap. After a rough start, Taylor has grown comfortable in his role and drawn praise from the other offensive linemen. With BYU's 3-4 scheme, Taylor's ability to see where the pass rush will come from and adjust the blocking schemes accordingly will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of Utah's offense.
David Nixon ? BYU's best defender, Nixon is utilized in every role from his outside linebacker position. The senior has 77 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 4 pass breakups, 2 fumbles forced, and a blocked kick on the year.
Paul Kruger ? Utah's best defensive player and one of the top ends in the country, Kruger is excellent against both the run and the pass. Along with his 15 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, Kruger also has a team leading 5 pass breakups. The former high school quarterback is very instinctive and uses his knowledge of the passing game to put himself in the right place at the right time, especially when it comes to screen passes.
Coleby Clawson ? Perhaps BYU's most disruptive player, Clawson spends a great deal of time in the backfield. The linebacker has just 46 tackles, but that includes 10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and a team leading 3 forced fumbles.
Sean Smith ? Big (6-foot-3, 214 pounds), athletic corner did an excellent job a year ago of taking Pitta out of BYU's offense (3 catches, 35 yards). With Pitta's injury, Utah could move Smith to covering Collie or leave him at his traditional right corner spot and let him lock down whoever lines up across from him. Smith leads Utah with 4 interceptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. Smith had a huge pick against TCU before halftime that led to a Utah field goal.