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November 19, 2008No. 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.
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