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Lots still at stake as Utes visit Cougs

PROVO — There is no title on the line. Neither team is ranked nationally and neither needs a victory to keep poll rankings intact.

There is no BCS game at stake, but when BYU hosts Utah today in LaVell Edwards Stadium, sparks will assuredly fly.

"It is a big rivalry, a big game," said former Cougar running back Reno Mahe, now of the Philadelphia Eagles. "It's a matter of hanging your head down or holding it up when you cross the Point of the Mountain during the rest of the year."

The Cougars (6-4, 5-2) host the Utes (5-5, 3-4) today at 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on KJZZ, Ch. 14.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on Monday explained that this meeting between the Cougars and Utes is a contest between a pair of "mediocre teams."

But Utah can still etch out a winning season with a win today for the first-year coach and possibly earn a bowl berth.

For the Cougars, a victory would propel BYU to six wins in their last seven and give Bronco Mendenhall's team some momentum heading toward an expected bowl invitation with a 7-4 record.

Mendenhall said his team isn't satisfied with a winning record in the regular season.

"I'm not worried about that at all," he said. "If there is any indication of that, (the players) haven't been paying attention in meetings at all. This is just the beginning. As I've said before, it's viewed as the end of the season, but this is just the beginning of this football program returning to the level it once was.

"Certainly we can improve in every area, and our football team is being challenged in that regard. There is not an area that we can't improve on. I'm glad that they're confident, I'm glad that they are enjoying playing the game, but if they are satisfied, they are out of alignment with what they are hearing on a daily basis."

A year ago, this game enabled Utah to cement a perfect season. Undefeated and ranked in the top 10, the Utes broke through the BCS and defeated Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a dramatic time for the Utes, who lost head coach Urban Meyer to Florida and elevated Whittingham as his replacement.

In Provo, it was also dramatic, and within days came the forced resignation of four-year coach Gary Crowton, a brief courting of Whittingham as Crowton's replacement and subsequent hiring of Mendenhall following the third consecutive losing season in Cougartown.

A year ago, Utah's 52-21 blowout season finale ended with Ute defensive tackle Steve Fifita switching to offense and blowing in for a touchdown run on Cougar defenders.

"We're not even thinking about that right now," BYU junior quarterback John Beck said. "We know what happened last year, but last year is over with — it's a brand new year. We're a different football team, and we're focused on coming out and doing the best we can on every single play."

The regular season finale comes with both teams missing key players with injuries.

For the Utes, quarterback Brian Johnson and receiver John Madsen are out. For the Cougars, starters Quinn Gooch and KC Bills in the secondary were declared out for the game. Earlier, starting defensive lineman Daniel Marquardt and cornerback Nate Soelberg had season-ending injuries, although Soelberg (broken arm) may be back for a bowl game.

Beck said he respects Utah's defense that utilizes schemes the Cougars have not seen this year. Although TCU and Wyoming played a lot of man coverage, the Utes like to man-defend receivers and blitz.

"They are a good defense," Beck said. "They like to man up a lot. We have to come out and operate at a high level in order to be successful.

"This is a great rivalry, it's statewide and the biggest. From a competitive standpoint, it's fun to play. This game is made for competitive people. This is our bowl game right now, and all our focus is on this one."

Rivalry on the air

Utah (5-5, 3-4) at BYU (6-4, 5-2)

Today, 1 p.m.

LaVell Edwards Stadium

TV: Ch. 14

Radio: 700AM, 1160AM, 102.7FM


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com