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Preparing for his 25th game vs. BYU as a Utah football staff member, having been immersed in the rivalry for three-fourths of his life as a coach’s son, player and coach on one side or the other, Kyle Whittingham was asked this week if he enjoys it.
Whittingham responded with an unconvincing smile and his own question: “Enjoy it?”
And then he said, “It’s competitive. It’s intense. … It’s still every bit as gratifying, I guess you could say, as always.”
Whittingham keeps winning in this decade, although rarely without a lot of agonizing on the sideline. With a ninth straight victory, he would match the series-record runs of two legendary coaches: Utah’s Ike Armstrong (1929-37) and BYU’s LaVell Edwards (1979-87).
In their Pac-12 era, the Utes have a growing advantage in personnel over BYU, as judged by their 23 picks in the last seven NFL drafts to BYU’s six selections. Yet the scoreboard hardly ever reflects that imbalance. So is this the year when the Cougars break through? Are the Utes due to dominate their rivals? Or will Thursday night’s game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo be just another case of the Utes winning, while making it more difficult than necessary?
[Read more: What to watch for when Utah, BYU meet Thursday night]
Seven of Utah’s eight wins over BYU in this decade have comes by eight points or fewer. This rivalry installment comes in a new scheduling slot that makes it mysterious, with the teams lacking any evidence of what they’ll actually look like in 2019.
And the loser will face major emotional challenges, because of what’s ahead, in completely different ways. Utah would have three weeks to live with the defeat before being able to do anything meaningful in response, considering the Utes’ next two opponents are Northern Illinois and Idaho State. BYU would have to regroup quickly, with a trip to Tennessee next week.
Mix in Utah’s No. 14 ranking, the program’s highest-ever distinction in August, and the risk/reward nature of this game is intensified – probably more than in most years when the teams played in late November as conference rivals.
The game’s season-opening place on the calendar “has done its purpose,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, “giving a sense of urgency to our players.”
So has the Cougars’ volume of losses to Utah. Whittingham keeps track of this stuff; he flashed seven fingers as he walked toward the visitors’ locker room after a 2017 victory. Yet something about eight wins has exponentially increased the discussion of the streak this year, especially from BYU’s end.
You know a rivalry is heated when the two rivals cannot even agree on how many times they have played one another. According to Utah, Thursday’s showdown with BYU will be the 100th edition of the Holy War game.
The Cougars, on the other hand, do not count the six games played between the two schools prior to achieving university status in 1903. Thus, the home side will consider the duel between longtime intrastate rivals as the 94th edition.
Utah brings an experienced roster to Provo hoping to score the first victory en route to a Pac-12 championship and a possible College Football Playoff berth. BYU will be hoping to make waves and thwart the ambitions of their nemesis as they look for the school’s first major bowl appearance since the 1996 Cotton Bowl.
Kyle Whittingham’s crew came out on top last year 35-27 at home. Over the past six showdowns, a single score has decided the winner. With BYU at home, they will hope to get the upper hand as an underdog. Can Kalani Sitake’s side emerge on top in what is sure to be a thriller between these two sides?
HOT: Are Utes a 2019 College Football Playoff sleeper?
Date: Thursday, Aug. 29
Time: 10:15 p.m. ET
Location: Provo, Utah
Venue: LaVell Edwards Stadium
Live Stream: ESPN | FuboTV
Keys to Victory
After going 20-of-29 for 204 yards and two touchdowns last year, Zach Wilson has to be more dynamic with the football if the Cougars are going to keep pace with Utah. BYU needs their young defense to step up in a big way right away to give Wilson and the offense as many opportunities as possible.
Utah, meanwhile, needs to grind out the clock and keep BYU’s offense off the field as much as possible. A strong ground game will have plenty of chances to churn out tough yards to keep the chains moving and the clock running. Whittingham’s defense needs to make life difficult for Wilson and force a few turnovers.
Odds courtesy of Bovada
Point Spread: Utah -5.5
This season, Utah has too much at stake to fall apart in this contest even on the road. While the crowd will be incredibly partisan in Provo, Tyler Huntley has the experience to manage the offense with aplomb. Returning from the injury that knocked him out of the final five games of 2018, Huntley is going to have a field day against the Cougars.