PROVO — BYU football players and coaches kept an eye on the news coming out of Salt Lake City earlier this month that Utah running back Zack Moss had possibly injured his hand or fingers 22 days before Thursday night’s rivalry game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
But they never stopped preparing to face the All-Pac 12 star who rushed for 1,096 yards last season but did not play in the Utes’ 35-27 victory over the Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Nov. 24.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday that Moss is “ready to roll” against the Cougars, along with another player who sat out of last year’s contest, quarterback Tyler Huntley.
Moss is “a great running back,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “He is projected to be a high draft pick for a reason, and he has a lot of unique skills that make him a great running back. I think with Andy Ludwig as their offensive coordinator, they are going to lean heavily on his abilities and skills. We have been planning for him this entire time, so I am glad he is able to play. … Same thing with Britain Covey.”
Covey, Utah’s leading returning receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury late last season and was also mildly in question for the opener.
“Those guys are great athletes,” Sitake said. “I like to see them on the field. (Moss) came back to school for a reason, to be with his boys and play. Our job is to try to disrupt him a little bit and see how we match up against one of the best running backs in college football.”
BYU safety Austin Lee, who began his college career at Utah, said Covey, Moss and Huntley all make Utah’s offense “very explosive,” but Moss has especially captured the attention of BYU’s defenders because of his rare combination of speed and power.
“He can break free at any time,” Lee said. “He’s very physical, too.”
Two years ago, Huntley was the difference in Utah’s 19-13 win over BYU in Provo, passing for 300 yards and rushing for 89.
“We felt like our offense should have scored more points,” Huntley said immediately after that game. “We left a lot of points on the field.”
BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said containing Huntley was difficult that night, and attempts to slow down his backup, Jason Shelley, also fell short.
“Huntley is more seasoned and a better passer,” Tuiaki said. “But they are the same guy, guys who can hurt you in the run game, guys that can scramble. … We have to corral him, gang-tackle him. He’s got to feel by his fourth, fifth, sixth carry that a lot of guys are coming after him. We’ve got to wear him down.”
A lot of the responsibility for containing Huntley and Moss will fall on the shoulders of BYU linebackers Zayne Anderson, Isaiah Kaufusi and whoever gets the start in the middle — Payton Wilgar, Jackson Kaufusi, Kavika Fonua or Keenan Pili. Also, don’t be surprised to see the Cougars in a 3-4 defense with an additional linebacker on the field to slow down Utah’s outstanding rushing attack.
“They have a lot of big threats,” said Anderson, who also missed last year’s game with an injury. “They have a really good offense and this new offensive coordinator has some really good schemes. But we are a really good defense and so we are just excited for this opportunity to go against an offense like that.”
One that should be at full strength — just like the Cougars thought it would be.