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Records aside, U. vs. Y. is always big

With their bowl hopes nearly gone and their quarterback and top wide receiver out for the season, things didn't look terribly bright for the Utes after Saturday's loss to New Mexico.

Even Utah defensive back Eric Weddle readily conceded that.

"It's gonna be tough," he said.

On the other hand, with BYU coming up next week, it's not as though someone has to tell the Utes to get ready. Non-news flash of the year: "UTES THINK GAME AGAINST BYU IS BIG DEAL!"

That's been news since when, the Bronze Age?

It's going to take more than a simple punch in the gut like a 31-27 loss to New Mexico, and injuries to QB Brian Johnson and receiver John Madsen, to completely derail next Saturday's game.

"We still have a chance for a bowl game, but it all revolves around beating BYU down there," said Weddle.

Doesn't something always revolve around the game with BYU?

There have been a lot of years when playing BYU was the Utes' bowl game.

All the Utes need to do in 2005 is get backup quarterback Brett Ratliff up to speed on how miserable it is around here in the off-season if you lose. Anyone remember Ryan Kaneshiro? Of course you do.

He's the guy who missed the last-minute chip-shot field goal that would have given Utah a win over BYU in 1998. He's just one who could speak volumes on whether the annual rivalry game is important.

In the grand scheme, next Saturday's Utah-BYU game is small stuff. Insignificant, really. No national rankings, BCS bowls or conference titles on the line. But in the small picture, why not be interested? BYU is 6-4 and officially bowl-eligible. Utah is 5-5 and hoping to catch a break and sneak into someone's bowl.

A simple — OK, make that surprising — win this week would make the Utes technically eligible as well. Much depends on which bowls want Mountain West teams and what happens to New Mexico and Colorado State.

But being bowl-eligible and a bowl attraction are different things. If, for instance, Utah beat the Cougars, and New Mexico won next week against Air Force, bowl bids could go to TCU (the conference champion), New Mexico and either Utah or BYU.

Just what the rivalry needs — a dispute over which team deserves to keep playing.

Even in a slightly muddled year, the annual game between Utah and BYU is significant. Not national-security, world-hunger, ozone-layer important. But our-little-corner-of-the-world important.

"That game is always important, no matter what the situation," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, who actually played in four of them back when he was a linebacker for BYU. "We have a lot of things to play for. We're 5-5 and have the chance for a winning record, the chance to back into a bowl game — if that's how it shakes out. And just the in-state rivalry.

It's an important game and it always will be."

Truth is, there just aren't many (any?) years when at least something isn't on the line in the Ute-Cougar game. For two decades, Utah played mostly to thwart BYU's dreams. In 1984, when BYU won the national championship, the Utes hung close before losing 24-14. It took a penalty on the Utes late in the game to end the threat.

Conversely, last year a BYU win would have been wonderful for many Cougar fans, simply because it would have ruined Utah's hopes of a BCS bowl. A win would also have made BYU bowl-eligible.

In this rivalry, if winning for your own sake isn't enough, wrecking the other team's plan does nicely.

The Utes admit their chances — especially without two of their star players — aren't good. But as Weddle pointed out, "I mean, that's all we can shoot for right now. In our minds, if we didn't think we can get to a bowl game, there isn't much to be playing for."

But after two interceptions and three lost fumbles against New Mexico, you have to ask: Even if they won next Saturday, who's to say they'd deserve one?


E-mail: rock@desnews.com