Saturday, Sep 17, 2011, 7:15 PM MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: ESPN 700
It doesn't feel right writing a Utah-BYU preview in September - yet that's exactly what I'm doing.
For the first time since 1967, the Utes and Cougars will not be playing their annual rivalry game in the month of November. The only time the game has ever been this early in the season was all the way back in 1958, a 14-7 BYU victory.
But we better get used to it. Outside the two joining the same conference (that's not going to happen), as long as the rivalry continues, it will most likely be played sometime in September. It will be an odd adjustment, especially when so many of these contests took place in the dead of winter, but ultimately, football is football and it really doesn't matter what month these two teams line up against one another.
Well that's not quite true. There is a big difference between playing a team the third week of the season and the final week of the season. Teams grow and improve as the season progresses and there is no better example of that than last year's BYU Cougars.
They started 2010 losing five of their first seven games and needed a four-game winning streak to climb from the cellar of the Mountain West and contend for a bowl game. They entered last year's rivalry game playing overall better football than the Utes, as Utah had lost two of their last three heading into that game and those two losses were far from competitive.
BYU was a better team on November 27th than they were on September 18th, when they lost to Florida State 34-10 on the road.
Had these two teams met in the third week of the season last year, I'm guessing victory isn't attained solely because of a blocked field goal. This was a team, after all, that would lose to the Utah St. Aggies on October 1st and only managed their third win toward the end of that month when they beat a struggling Wyoming Cowboys by five in Provo. The last BYU team to pick up their third win that late in the season was LaVell Edwards' 1973 squad - during his second season as the Cougars' coach.
Of course, this isn't necessarily about last year. This BYU team is not the '10 Cougars who needed a dramatic late season rally just to get to bowl eligibility. But they're also not the same BYU team that entered last year's Holy War on a tear, averaging 42 points per game during their four consecutive wins.
Like Utah, no one is quite sure what to make of these Cougars. Their offense, which is being led by sophomore Jake Heaps, has not been all that impressive in their first two games. Like the Utes, the Cougars have changed offensive coordinators, replacing Robert Anae, who had been with the program since Bronco Mendenhall's first season, with former BYU quarterback Brandon Doman.
So both programs are kind of in offensive limbo at the moment as they adjust to their new staffs.
But I think it's clear the Cougars are going through a bit more growing pains than the Utes at the moment. In their 17-16 loss to the Texas Longhorns, neither Heaps or the offense could find much offensive flow, especially in the second half. After opening a 13-0 lead on Texas in the second quarter, BYU was outscored 17-3 the remainder of the way.
The performance in the second half has to be an overall concern, especially when you couple it with their dismal offensive performance a week earlier against Ole Miss - a team that gave up 30.5 points per game last season.
Though the Cougars finished with 235 yards overall, much of that was in the first half and Heaps struggled, especially late in the game, at moving the ball - BYU had zero first downs in the fourth quarter, when they needed them the most.
Because of that, they could never threaten Texas again once the Longhorns took a one-point lead and even though a field goal would have won them the game, the closest they ever got to scoring position was their own 31 yard line.
As I flipped between their game and Utah's against the Trojans, you got an overall sense that even though BYU was technically in this one, their one-point deficit certainly felt far larger.
Texas would eventually put an end to any chance of a BYU comeback when Heaps was intercepted on their final drive.
It was his second of the game and third of the season.
Heaps is an interesting study. Heading into this season, the local media built him into this phenom that was ready to go out and just absolutely tear it up in his sophomore season. Bronco Mendenhall even didn't use the overall allocated practice time during fall camp because his team was supposedly well ahead of schedule.
After two weeks, a ho-hum win over the Rebels and a dispirited loss to Texas, you've got to wonder if that added practice time might've helped.
Fortunately for the Cougars, they do appear to have a very good defense. It's really their only saving grace at this point and the reason they're not 0-2 - as their winning score against Ole Miss came on a forced defensive fumble.
That is what they'll have to lean on against the Utes. Even so, the defense did show some troubling tendencies in their loss to Texas last week.
Even though Garrett Gilbert looked just awful for the Longhorns in the first half, and they didn't really rely on the passing game, Case McCoy, who came in after the coaching staff realized Helen Keller would have been a better quarterback than Gilbert, was steady enough in his throws, specifically on third down, to completely change the dynamics of the game. McCoy finished 7 of 8 for 57 yards - though averaged 7 yards a pass.
Where BYU's defense really buckled, though, was in their run defense. Texas rolled up 166 yards on the ground, and as the game progressed, you could see that run attack was just absolutely wearing down the Cougars' defensive line.
Like I said, this was a one-point game for much of the fourth quarter and yet, it never really felt like BYU was in it. Maybe that's because I'm wearing my red-tinted goggles here, but as I pointed out earlier, they could not get close to Texas territory in that fourth quarter and actually only crossed it once in the second half, where they managed a field goal with about five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
That brings up potentially the most damning thing about BYU this season thus far. They are awful in the red zone. The Cougars have been there six times this season and only have two touchdowns to show for it. But hey, they do have three field goals!
To compare, the Utes have been to the red zone, like the Cougars, six times this season and have five touchdowns - three through the air and two on the ground.
BYU lost Saturday because they made it to Texas' red zone three times and only scored one touchdown.
They almost lost against Ole Miss because of the same reason.
Will it cost them again Saturday?
Then there is Utah. The Utes, like BYU, went on the road and played a storied program very close. But the feel of the Utes' game was far different than that of the Cougars'. Maybe, again, I'm viewing this from a biased view and it's clouding my judgment just a bit - but I thought, on their final drive, Utah was going to win Saturday. I never got that feeling in the second half about BYU. I felt they could win when they were up 13-0, but the second things started shifting for Texas, it just didn't look good for the Cougars.
Not so for the Utes, though. That final drive reminded me of the special game-winning drives we saw against Oregon State and TCU in '08. Everything seemed to be going their way. Jordan Wynn did not throw an interception, like Heaps, he wasn't making bad throws (though they weren't pretty), like Heaps, and he stepped it up on third down every single time - well, except for once, but even then, he was able to connect on fourth down.
We didn't win the game, obviously, but to come back like they did, taking every Trojan hit, to be in the position they were in, speaks volumes for this team's composure and its drive.
I'm not going to suggest BYU gave up Saturday, because I don't think they really did, but that fourth quarter was dominated by the Longhorns. The Cougars could not get a stop defensively when they needed, Utah did, and they couldn't make the big plays on offense to put themselves in position to win the game, Utah did.
It's my belief Utah left So. Cal feeling far more confident in their ability than BYU when they departed Austin. Do I have any evidence to back this up? Of course not. Could I be proven wrong Saturday? Most definitely.
But, as of right now, I think the Utes are the better team and have more confidence in what they are doing than BYU.
That's going to be the difference this weekend. The Cougars enter with a lot of questions, specifically surrounding their offense, I think Utah answered a lot of their questions against the Trojans.
Hopefully that confidence carries over into this weekend because, as much as I think BYU is struggling at the moment, the Cougars still have talent and are playing their home opener. They're going to be fired up. History has also taught us that this game is generally very, very close. Last year, it came down to one play. The year before that, it came down to one play. It very well could come down to one play again Saturday.
Utah wins if...The offense continues to improve. Jordan Wynn was not flawless and it's obvious his throwing is nowhere near where it needs to be. However, he also didn't throw an interception, made some big third down conversions (a bigger fourth down one on the final drive) and played with a lot of heart. He also looked much better than in the opening game against Montana State and I'm hopeful he'll look even better against BYU.
BYU wins if...Jake Heaps finally gets his act together and lives up to his potential. The Cougar offense has woefully underperformed this season and because of that, the Cougars are not a very good team. With that said, if this offense does figure it out, they'll become good fast.
What should happen...A lot of people are predicting a very low scoring game after the offensive performances from both the Utes and Cougars last week. While I don't think both teams will light up the scoreboard, I'm not so sure it'll be a soccer match, either. This game is going to be close, but I think the Utes pull away late and win 24-10.