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Having attained bowl-eligibility, BYU is focused on regular-season finale at No. 18 Utah

New Mexico State Aggies running back Royce Caldwell (7) is gang-tackled by BYU defenders in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
New Mexico State Aggies running back Royce Caldwell (7) is gang tackled by the Brigham Young Cougars in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Now that BYU has earned its sixth victory of the season and achieved its goal of becoming bowl-eligible after defeating New Mexico State, 45-10, last Saturday night, the Cougars have a new challenge, playing in the rivalry game.

On Saturday (8 p.m., MST, FSI) BYU visits No. 18 Utah, which wrapped up its first Pac-12 South Division title last Saturday with a dominating 30-7 win at Colorado. The Utes will be playing in the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30.

"Congratulations to (coach) Kyle (Whittingham) and the team (for winning the Pac-12 South)," coach Kalani Sitake said Saturday night. "It’s going to be a fun game. I’m just looking forward to it."

The Cougars (6-5) have lost seven consecutive games against Utah (8-3) and haven’t won at Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2006. The last time BYU beat Utah was in 2009 in Provo, a 26-23 overtime win.

“We have to prepare. It’s another game, so we’re not scared about it. We’re looking forward to the competition,” Sitake said. “A lot of respect, and I want to win just like I know they do. We’re going to approach it like it’s the last game of the season, and we’re going to empty our tank and give it everything we got. I know that we’re going get the same from them. Really, that’s all that matters right now is prepping for that game, getting our rest (Saturday night) and making sure we’re ready to go next week.”

BYU enters the game knowing they don’t have to win to get bowl-eligible, which could take some pressure off.

“It feels great. I’m super-excited that we were able to accomplish (being bowl-eligible),” said running back Lopini Katoa, who rushed for 155 yards and four touchdowns against New Mexico State. “It will help us focus more on beating Utah and focusing on the next game and not having to worry about what to come because we know we’re eligible. Obviously, it’s a huge game next week. We’re excited to start preparing for that, for sure.”

The chance to return to a bowl game is gratifying for BYU, especially considering that they posted an abysmal 4-9 record last year and didn’t go bowling. But the Cougars can't help but think about other games they could have won this season. BYU lost to Cal, Northern Illinois and Boise State by a combined nine points.

“That’s one of our goals, to be bowl-eligible. We feel like we shouldn’t be in the position that we’re in and we’re kind of upset that we let some games slip away,” said senior linebacker Butch Pau’u. “But the opportunity to play again and be one of the last few teams to win a game is exciting. We’re excited for Utah, and we’re excited for that bowl opportunity. … It’s good to know that (the Utes) winning as well. The opportunity to come out and play at their place and play at a high level is exciting for us and we’re excited for the challenge.”

Against the New Mexico State Aggies, the Cougars started slow and fell behind 7-0 midway through the first quarter before they scored 38 unanswered points.

BYU ran for 317 yards and rolled up a season-high 510 yards of total offense. The Cougars had a large lead in the fourth quarter, allowing reserves, like senior quarterback Tanner Mangum, to enter the game.

Defensively, the Cougars held New Mexico State to 312 yards, recorded two interceptions and had five sacks on Senior Night.

“It meant a lot to us to be able to play like that. That was a big goal of ours this week, to do it for the seniors,” said sophomore Isaiah Kaufusi, who had one interception.

A year ago on Senior Night, BYU lost 16-10 against UMass.

“Last year it was kind of a bust. Senior night and UMass and it wasn’t the outcome we wanted for the seniors,” Kaufusi said. “We wanted to get them to a bowl game. It was fun. It was fun to see Tanner out there slinging it. We’ve worked hard with those guys and they’ve taught us a lot. To give them a win was huge.”

Saturday marks the first time that BYU and Utah will play at their traditional time — on the final weekend of the regular season in late November — since the Utes joined the Pac-12 and the Cougars became independent in 2011.

Since 2011, the two teams have been playing early in the season — in the month of September. The exception to that came in 2015, when the rivals took a series hiatus but ended up matching up in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was the first time they had played in the month of December. The rivals didn’t play at all in 2014 due to the series break.

Next year, for the first time, BYU and Utah will play in the month of August, on Aug. 29 in the season-opener for both teams at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“I think it’s a great game,” Sitake said. “I don’t care when it comes.”

The Cougars would love to snap their losing streak against the Utes.

"The BYU versus Utah game is always a fight,” Katoa said, “and we know we are ready to fight."