Utes look for their ninth straight win in Holy War rivalry with Cougars
The No. 14 Utes are the preseason media pick to win the Pac-12 championship. Fifteen returning starters fuel those elevated expectations. Utah has all four starting defensive linemen back from a rushing defense that led the Pac-12 with 100.3 yards allowed per game. On offense, quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss are back for their senior seasons. If both players can stay healthy, they will give Utah a major boost on that side of the ball.
Plenty of what-if questions plagued BYU over the offseason after squandering a 20-point third-quarter lead in a 35-27 loss to the Utes a year ago. The Cougars' chances of snapping the eight-game skid to their rival rest on the arm of Zach Wilson. BYU's sophomore quarterback showed game-changing potential as his debut season progressed, culminating in 317 yards and four touchdowns on a school-record 18-of-18 passing in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
You know a rivalry is intense when the two teams involved can't even agree on how many games they've actually played. Utah claims a 61-34-4 lead in the all-time series. BYU does not recognize the first six games that took place from 1896 to 1898, when the school was known as Brigham Young Academy, and has the Utes' series lead at 58-31-4.
Utah vs. BYU
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 29, 10:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -6.0
When Utah Has the Ball
Kyle Whittingham confirmed on Monday that top running back Zack Moss and top receiver Britain Covey would be available to play on Thursday. Both Moss and Covey were listed atop the depth chart for the BYU game. Some doubts lingered whether either player could go. Moss suffered a hand injury in fall camp and sported a cast. Covey had limited reps while he healed from a torn ACL.
Having the duo available will give a big boost to the offense. Moss totaled 1,096 yards on 6.1 yards per carry last season. Covey had a team-high 637 receiving yards in 2018 and had five 100-yard all-purpose yardage games a year ago.
BYU's depth in the secondary took a hit when Troy Warner and Chris Wilcox suffered injuries in fall camp. Utah will likely test the Cougars with deep threats like Jaylen Dixon, Solomon Enis and Bryan Thompson. Dixon averaged 18.4 per catch in 2018, ranking in the top 20 among FBS receivers last season. Thompson struggled with injuries a year ago but has shown game-changing potential when he has been healthy.
Utah's biggest question mark is the kicking game. The Utes are counting on Andrew Strauch, a UCLA graduate transfer who appeared in only four games for the Bruins. It could mean that Utah might gamble on fourth down more often than simply settling for a field goal.
When BYU Has the Ball
Can the Cougars establish a consistent running attack against the Utes? The odds don't seem to favor that outcome. It will be necessary to get something going on the ground, though, to take some pressure off Wilson in the pocket.
Ty'Son Williams will get first crack at generating a running attack. The South Carolina graduate transfer totaled 799 yards and five touchdowns on 165 carries over two seasons with the Gamecocks. Williams earned the starting job in fall camp, edging out 2018 leading rusher Lopini Katoa atop the depth chart. He is a versatile running back when at full strength and grew accustomed to facing tough run defenses during his stint in the SEC.
Wilson's best bet will be to attack the Utes in the middle and go at the inexperienced linebackers. Utah must replace its top two linebackers from last season, Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. BYU will have to successfully dial up multiple short passes to tight end Matt Bushman and slot receiver Aleva Hifo to loosen up one of the nation's best defenses. It will be a tall task.
For BYU, offensive success will come down to Wilson not getting rattled and making mistakes in the face of intense pressure from Utah. A third-quarter pick-6 by Julian Blackmon sparked the Utes in their rally from a 20-point deficit a year ago.
Low scores and tight finishes are the norm in the Holy War. There's a good chance the same scenario will hold true in 2019. Still, there's no denying that a talent gap exists between BYU and Utah. The Utes have an edge in speed, athleticism, depth and experience at nearly every position. The Cougars won't go down without a fight in Provo, but breaking an eight-game losing streak to Utah will take an almost flawless performance. If there's one thing that the Utes excel at doing in these games, it is forcing BYU into making costly mistakes.
Prediction: Utah 27, BYU 20
— 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.