Rivalry will force Utes to bounce back

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
7:00
PM ET
Losses hurt. Overtime losses hurt more. But there’s a special, sinister place in the psyche reserved for overtime losses at home when you score 48 points. Losses like that can suck the life out of a team.

That is, of course, unless you’re playing your biggest rival one week later.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsTravis Wilson and the Utes will visit rival BYU on Saturday night.
“You certainly have no problem getting your players up for this game,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose Utes take on BYU Saturday. “It’s an in-state rivalry and the emotion and the passion and all of that take care of itself in this one. It’s good timing to get refocused and ready to play again.”

The Utes are coming off of a 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State, a game in which they trailed by as many as 17 points in the third quarter before clawing back to take the lead with 4:25 to play and then tying it up with :21 seconds left before falling in extra frames. BYU is coming off a bye.

The added intrigue to this season’s edition of the rivalry is that the game will go on a two-year break. That means two extra years for the winners to puff up their chests. Two extra years for the losers to marinate. Two extra years for fans to trump any debate with: “Who won the last one?”

Certainly, that has to make this game more significant than any of the previous ones, right?

“Not at all,” Whittingham said. “In my opinion, it doesn’t put any more emphasis on the game. There happens to be a two-year break in between, but I don’t think it’s any more important to them than last year or the year before or the year before.”

The last one ended in chaos. The one before that was a Utah blowout and the one before that came down to a blocked field goal. The Utes have won three straight in the series and four of the past five.

Given how two of the past three matchups have gone, Whittingham said be prepared for anything.

“It seems like last year might have been more bizarre than it's been in a few years, but it seems like almost every year it comes down to the last play or the last series of plays, and I guess that's one of the reasons that it's made it a good rivalry,” Whittingham said. “I don't have an explanation for it other than it's very competitive, and both teams seem to play well in the game and it comes right down to the bitter end.”

So while the Utes have little time to lick their wounds from the Oregon State loss, BYU took some time off to fully soak in their 40-21 win over then-No. 15 Texas. But just as Utah isn't lingering much on its overtime loss, BYU isn't resting on the laurels of its Texas victory.

“We’ve shifted, and it’s done,” said BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. “Texas was a great win, and we have a lot of good things to build off but we have a lot of things that we need to fix. Everyone on the team has shifted their focus to Utah; there’s nothing to hang our hat on. We had a good game and we’re going to build off that, but our focus is now Utah.”

With last week’s loss, the Utes are now 7-12 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference. Far below the standards Whittingham expects. But he believes the team is making progress. And given the nine-game conference schedule Utah plays, winning non-league games takes on greater importance for a team hoping to return to the postseason.

“We feel like we’re a much better football team right now than we have been the last couple of years,” he said. “The league itself is a lot better than it was a couple of years ago so I guess it’s a relevant statement.”

Part of Utah’s adjustment to the league has been trying to increase its depth. Winning against BYU not only carries universal pride, it also helps with the in-state recruiting -- though Whittingham admits there isn’t as much crossover recruiting as there used to be when both schools were in the Mountain West.

One of the biggest weapons to emerge for Utah are the legs of quarterback Travis Wilson. His 142 rushing yards last week were the second most by a quarterback in Utah history, and he accounted for 78 percent of Utah's total offensive output. A big game for him could mean a big game for the Utes.

"They certainly have to account for Travis running the ball," Whittingham said. "We actually missed a couple of reads -- if he reads a couple of other ones correctly, he's over 200 yards rushing. Even though we had a big night, it could have been even more prolific as far as his carrying the football. But that definitely poses problems for opposing defenses and coordinators. Travis, through three games, has proven that he's a very viable runner. So that's one more thing that they have to account for when they are scheming us. That is a big positive."

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