BYU and Utah in the nearly annual rivalry matchup.
Utah Utes running back TJ Green (4) dives forward as BYU and Utah play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — All the protestations to the contrary cannot deny the fact that the rivalry between Utah and BYU is one of the best in college football.
Yet that’s exactly what we have, some on both sides downplaying the importance of the game. Try as they might, the repeated denials offer the very proof needed to show this game matters.
Look no further than this week in Utah’s football facility, where the BYU buzz is obviously apparent in a different manner compared to other games. The message is clear, the Utes are expected to win this game Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Maybe that’s why the Utes are riding a nine-game winning streak against BYU, dating back to 2009.
“That’s what coach Whitt lives on, we don’t lose to those guys. It’s pretty much that simple.” said center Nick Ford, during his weekly paid appearance on The Zone Sports Network. “That’s what he preaches every single year.”
Coach Whitt is Kyle Whittingham, the former star BYU linebacker turned Utah head coach. Nearly three decades into his tenure at Utah, the last 17 years of which as the head coach, Whittingham burns to dominate his alma mater – even if he won’t admit it.
Over the years, it’s to the point where he practically turns visibly uncomfortable each time a media member even mentions BYU. And forget about getting him to talk about his connection to the program.
Exhibit A came during an interview with Fox Sports during the time he was in Hollywood for Pac-12 media day in July. When R.J. Young asked Whittingham to name three nice things about his rival, meaning BYU, he quickly avoided the subject.
Whittingham pretended not to know which team Young was referring to, which is beyond silly since Utah only has one rival. The Utes are no more a rival of USC than every team in the conference outside of crosstown foe UCLA.
“Oh, the in-state game,” Whittingham said. “The dynamic has changed so much because we are no longer in the same conference. We were in the same conference forever, so it’s changed. We started to develop a little bit of a rivalry with USC, Colorado, Arizona State. There are some things that are starting to materialize inside the Pac-12, so that’s why I asked that question.”
Funny thing is, downplaying the rivalry has the reverse effect. It actually increases the game’s level of interest and importance.
Same goes for scheduling. Each time Utah decides to take a break from the series, which will happen the next two years after Saturday’s game, it inadvertently pumps up BYU.
The thinking is, because the Utes have scheduled Florida the next two seasons, it is too difficult to also play BYU in the same season. Hard to imagine USC admitting the same thing, considering it never schedules a Big Sky-caliber team and always plays Notre Dame in addition to the nine-game conference slate.
For in-state players, the rivalry’s attraction began long before they got to college. For players like Ford, who hails from Southern California, the learning curve is quick, even though the game no longer has conference implications.
“We have a video that plays on a constant loop of the football game between us,” Ford said. “That’s throughout the entire football facility the entire week.”
The Holy War, as it is often called, is alive and well. And it figures to grow more intense if widespread reports come to pass that BYU will join the remade Big 12 in the next year or two.
Take it from Samson Nacua, the former Utah receiver who has transferred to BYU for his final season. He will be the rare player to see inside the rivalry from both sides.
“It wasn’t the main focus of Utah, but when the game came around we locked into them, definitely no distractions,” Nacua said during his weekly paid appearance on The Zone Sports Network. “We had the whole football facility over there lit up, every TV screen over there is playing football games of Utah beating the crap out of BYU. It’s pretty intense over there. We don’t mention the name, it’s the team down south.”