It’s officially rivalry week... in September, but rivalry week in Utah nonetheless. Fans may be split on what this game truly “means” in the PAC-12 era; at best, it’s one of the greatest rivalries in all of college football, steeped in tradition, brimming with passion (or, if we’re honest, pure, unfiltered hatred), and hardly ever not thrilling. On the contrary, it’s hard to justify keeping this series alive. Outside of the storied tradition and giving fans something to ballyhoo about until the next meeting, this particular game hardly benefits Utah. Rarely are the Cougars good enough to bloat Utah’s strength of schedule, a win doesn’t help the Utes’ standing in the PAC-12, and a loss would only besmirch their standing nationally, making a top-tier bowl appearance all the more unlikely. Love it or hate it, the inevitable has arrived. The 101st Holy War is upon us.
As if the usual banter wasn’t enough to drive an endless stream of headlines, quotes, and message board fodder, there happens to be some history on the line in the 2021 edition of this holiest of skirmishes. On Saturday, a Utah victory would be an unprecedented 10th straight win, a high mark for either program. From 1979 to 1987, the Cougars rattled off nine consecutive wins against the Utes, a feat that has now been matched by Kyle Whittingham, as his teams have gone unbeaten in the series since 2010. Though Utah already claims the record for longest unbeaten streak with 21 games from 1898-1941, that streak includes three ties, and let’s be honest; no one wants to hang their hat on a handful of ties. The question now is, does BYU have the defense necessary to start a new chapter in the record book?
Utah fans should know better than to think head coach Kalani Sitake will show up with a lackluster defense. Afterall, Sitake was there before Utah made their ascent into the PAC-12, joining the coaching staff as a linebackers coach in 2005 before taking over as defensive coordinator in 2009, a position he held until 2015 when he joined Oregon State’s coaching staff in the same role, before accepting the head coaching position in Provo just one season later. During his time at the U, Sitake fielded some of the toughest defensive units in the nation, frequently fielding a top 25 defense nationally, even after the Utes joined the PAC-12, and his 2021 BYU squad looks no different, particularly at linebacker.
Sophomores Keenan Pili (6’3”, 233 lbs), Max Tooley (6’2”, 215 lbs), and Payton Wilgar (6’3”, 235 lbs) all return to the fold after contributing to the Cougars 10th ranked defense last season; a defense that allowed just 15.3 points and 317.4 yards per game in 2020. Pili looked particularly dynamic in BYU’s week one matchup against Arizona, amassing a team-high 17 total tackles, along with one of the Cougar’s four sacks and a tackle for loss. The Provo native looks to be one of the more disruptive defenders the Cougars will field come Saturday.
Upfront, freshman defensive end Tyler Baty (6’5”, 265 lbs) looked promising, accounting for four total tackles, more than any other lineman, along with a sack and TFL in week one, while senior Uriah Leiataua (6’4”, 255 lbs) played the part of a proven commodity, coming up with a critical third-down sack to go along with his three total tackles.
Downfield, sophomore free safety Hayden Livingston (6’1”, 200 lbs) had the defensive play of the game against the Wildcats, grabbing a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter, all while recording four solo tackles and generally outplaying starting junior Malik Moore (6’1”, 190 lbs). Moore is still set to start over Livingston against the Utes but expect to see a heavy dose of the up-and-coming sophomore.
Where BYU will need to improve, if they hope to end their nine-game losing streak against the Utes, is limiting yards after catch on short passing plays. Arizona’s top receiver, Stanley Berryhill III, gained 102 receiving yards on a career-high 12 catches against the Cougars, but 83 of those yards were earned after the catch, with all passes coming in less than 10 yards downfield. With a trio of NFL-caliber tight ends and a dynamic playmaker in Britain Covey, Utah’s offensive is easily capable of carving up the Cougar defense with chunk yardage.
Unfortunately, if history is any indication, the level of talent on the field is mostly irrelevant. No matter how much bigger, faster and stronger one team is over the other, the hatred between these two rivals ultimately makes this game closer than it often should be.