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Utah fans fuel the fire behind heated rivalry

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The drum beat has begun.

Rivalry week, BYU at Utah.

It's where the misnomer "Holy War" is overused and strung out. Players are hassled, coaches quizzed, fans go fanatical. Hatred, in full bloom, gets fertilized by anonymous statesmen waxing poetic on radio call-in shows and Internet boards, toxic pools of banter disguised as meaningful partisan poetry.

A Holy War is what radical jihadists cry out for against Western civilization — and people die.

A football rivalry is just a game.

Or is it?

Not when it comes to this annual affair. Just check out the print and broadcast products this week. Rivalry coverage will likely dwarf news on the economy, our new president-elect and the war on terror.

There's nothing like this in college football. While it does carry religious overtones and has for decades, still it's a game and it is no ordinary week.

I will say, after covering this for some time, players and coaches are to be praised for how they handle it. Fans are a completely different animal. And that's all to be expected.

It could be argued that from the player/coach aspect, the Ute side gets up for this game more than the Cougar side. Some would say it's not so.

I think it is probably exactly that way.

Generally speaking, I think the Utah side carries more passion into this week. It's a mission. I think it's talked up more among the Ute culture and I'd even wager Ute coaches take some time all year long in and out of season working on the BYU game. Utah's philosophy on defense and offense is designed to take advantage of BYU weaknesses.

The Cougars usually approach the hype part with more of a piqued interest, kind of an added burden to deal and manage. Then, at game time, BYU players scramble to matching the pent-up Ute emotion they face on the field.

"I don't know if I've felt so much hatred and animosity than I did that day I walked into that stadium (Rice-Eccles) two years ago (as a freshman)," said BYU junior defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen, who said there will always be animosity with the Cougars, but he senses there is more coming from the Utah side.


"I don't know, you'll have to ask them about that," he said.

Jorgensen speculates it has to do with BYU's winning run in the LaVell Edwards era. He doesn't even know if his brother J.D. (a former Ute player) can put a finger on it.

"Maybe it was because, for so long, they were always at the bottom looking up at BYU and they were always trying to catch us and they've caught us the last few years if you look at the rivalry the last few years," Jan Jorgensen said.

"But when you're at the bottom looking up for a few years, it's easy to get upset and gain that hatred, and I think it's carried over from then on. Maybe one of their players could explain it better than I can."

Jorgensen said BYU gives this undefeated Ute team respect. "They've earned it."

While both teams certainly feel the burden of this big-game atmosphere with a conference title and BSC considerations in the air, the Utes have got a lot of traction over two bitter last-second losses in 2006 and 2007, games that should have been theirs.

While I cringe over the term Holy War and hate the label, there's no ignoring that church and state fits in.

For many non-LDS Utah fans, it's easy to hate the perceived churchy BYU program. And LDS Ute fans get sick of BYU playing the church card.

And there is a hype disconnect. Utah feeds off it; BYU manages it.

BYU decided to "handle" distractions of increased media interviews by shutting down access after Monday. Utah has locked up practices, but will feed media requests most of the week.

In Provo, Bronco Mendenhall and some players say they have no problem with the football part of such a week of pressure, but it's the casual chatter that becomes a distraction.

"I'm not sure reason becomes part of this week in trying to deal with my own neighbors and ward members," Mendenhall said. "There are points where people just won't listen.

"I've really stopped talking and I just worry about our team. The best thing I can do is care for our program and our team. I'll go from the office to my house and there's not much else I'll do this week other than go behind closed doors and try to avoid them."

Jorgensen said his least favorite part of Utah week is talking to everybody about the game.

"It's talking to the media, talking to people I've never talked to who only want to talk to me because it's Utah week and talking to family members for that exact same reason," he said. "That's what I hate the most about Utah week.

Concludes Jorgensen: "The thing I enjoy the most is playing the game because when you go out in a rivalry game, with everything on the line, it is why you play sports. If you don't like that, you shouldn't be out there."

Five more days.

Time can't go fast enough.

E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com