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BYU Cougars vs. Utah Utes Preview and Prediction

Jamaal Williams

Jamaal Williams

One dominant quarter is all Utah needed to retain the upper hand against BYU in the Holy War last December. The Utes extended their winning streak to five games, beating the Cougars 35-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl after forcing five first quarter turnovers and jumping out to a 35-0 lead.

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Now, with new head coach Kalani Sitake, BYU looks to finally even the score when it travels to Salt Lake City on Saturday to face Utah in the regular season for the first time since 2013. It is the second of three straight games the Cougars will play against Pac-12 South teams to open the season. BYU has posted a 4-7 record overall against Pac-12 teams since leaving the Mountain West Conference, but is 2-2 on the road.

The Holy War is such an intense rivalry that the two schools can't even agree on how many games they have officially played. Utah claims a 58-34-4 series lead over BYU. The Cougars, on the other hand, claim the Utes lead it 55-31-4 because they don't recognize six games played against Utah from 1896-98 when BYU was still called Brigham Young Academy.

Related: Interesting Facts About the BYU vs. Utah College Football Rivalry

BYU at Utah

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET


Spread: Utah - 3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can BYU take better care of the ball?
Turnovers have been BYU's undoing against Utah during its five-game losing streak in the series. The Utes have enjoyed a plus-13 turnover margin against the Cougars in those five games. It certainly proved to be BYU's undoing in Las Vegas.

The Cougars took a step forward in that department against Arizona. BYU had zero turnovers while intercepting two passes in the 18-16 victory over the Wildcats. Taking care of the ball helped the Cougars roll up 415 yards of total offense, gain 24 first downs and possess the football for nearly 38 minutes.

Sustaining long methodical drives against Utah's defense will be anything except easy. The Utes were the only Power Five team to shutout their opponent in week one. Utah beat Southern Utah 24-0 after allowing just 158 total yards and seven first downs. SUU punted on 10 of 13 drives and the Utes forced turnovers on two others. The Thunderbirds crossed midfield twice the whole game.

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2. Will Utah's running game emerge?
The usual script flipped a bit for Utah against SUU. Making plays through the air wasn't a problem. Troy Williams passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns in his debut with the Utes. Tim Patrick totaled a career-high 105 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions.

Gaining yards on the ground ended up being a much different story.

Utah totaled 138 rushing yards and averaged just 3.7 yards per play on the ground. Troy McCormick, the team's top rusher, gained just 55 yards on 12 carries. The offensive line struggled to create holes and running backs didn't run aggressive often enough. It isn't the sort of production the Utes can afford to see if they want to contend for a Pac-12 South title again this season.

“We didn't run with enough reckless abandon,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We got to run like we can't be tackled, not like we're waiting to be tackled.”

3. Can BYU start strong on offense?
Having Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams back at full strength has given BYU hope that it can avoid a repeat of last season's first quarter fiasco against Utah. Hill threw for 202 yards and a touchdown against Arizona while completing 72 percent of his passes. Williams churned out 162 yards on 29 carries in his first football game in 22 months.

The duo is certainly tough for most defenses to scheme against. Hill ranks 13th among active FBS players in total offense (7,057 yards), while Williams has 2,688 career rushing yards and needs just 767 more yards to become BYU’s all-time leader in that category.

Utah had no trouble containing both players when the Utes last faced them in 2013. In a 20-13 Utes victory, Hill threw for 260 yards on 18-of-48 passing and rushed for 99 yards. Williams gained 52 yards before being knocked out of that game in the third quarter with an injury.

It will take a smart offensive game plan to combat Utah's defense and BYU knows it can't afford to let empty plays or mistakes to pile up early.

“They're not a team that you're going to go in there and just wear down,” BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer said. “We're going to have to take our shots and, at the same time, play sound football and take care of it like we did last week. Keep ourselves in the game and give ourselves a chance in the end.”

Final Analysis

One thing usually remains constant whenever BYU and Utah play. The games are intense and are rarely decided until late into the fourth quarter. It will be surprising if this latest edition of the Holy War does not follow the same script. The Cougars have struggled to move the ball against Utah's defense in the past. Given the lack of points BYU generated against a bad Arizona defense, it's unlikely the Cougars can do better against a superior Utes defense.

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Prediction: Utah 20, BYU 17

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.