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What the BYU Cougars must do — and not do — to end the Utah Utes’ winning streak

If BYU is to defeat No. 14 Utah, the Cougars will need to avoid the biggest issue they’ve had in the Utes’ eight-game win streak: Stop turning it over.

PROVO — If Kalani Sitake wants BYU to end Utah’s win streak Thursday night it’s simple: Don’t turn over the ball or give up cheap touchdowns to the Utes. If you do either of those things, it’s like sipping Drano.

The biggest factor during Utah’s eight-year win streak over BYU is the turnover factor. From there, it has been huge plays on special teams, be it kick and punt returns, punts that create short fields, and quick-strike scores due to field-position gains.

This is a credit to coaching by Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has not only recruited athletes with quick reaction time and speed but has also placed tremendous emphasis on special teams. It has paid off.

Former BYU quarterback Riley Nelson makes his debut as KSL radio color analyst on BYU football games this week and guarantees a BYU win if the Cougars do not give up the ball for cheap Utah scores.

Nelson has been in the fog of battles all his football life. He’s felt the intensity and knows the difference between what it feels like to have momentum, face the other’s momentum and then lose it.

“As people have asked me about this game, I have guaranteed a win for BYU given that they don’t allow a special teams or defensive touchdown,” said Nelson.

“A defensive or special teams touchdown absolutely ignites a home crowd and completely deflates a visiting crowd. That element cannot be understated.

“Then there is the element of swing. For example, in 2012 we were in the red zone, had a miscommunication on the snap that goes over my head and it is scooped and scored for a touchdown. Now there is no guarantee on how the drive would end, but essentially we went from scoring and going up 14-10, to being down 17-7. That’s a 14-point swing there,” Nelson declared.

“Lastly,” said Nelson, “it takes the pressure off of the offense of the team that scored a non-offensive TD and puts all the more pressure on the offense and defense that gave it up. In a rivalry game where there is immense value pressure on every possession because the game has a high likelihood of being decided by one score or less, you compound that pressure by giving up a score outside of making the offense put a drive together and put the ball in the end zone.”

Utah has scored seven defensive touchdowns on BYU in the eight-game streak. The Cougars have zero.

This was never more apparent than the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, the last game coached by Bronco Mendenhall before leaving for the University of Virginia. BYU had five turnovers on its first five possessions. Utah scored two touchdowns on interception returns of 28 and 46 yards. Three other BYU turnovers set up easy scores and Utah led 35-0 in the first quarter.

It was one of the most lopsided starts to a rivalry game in a century.

It was a BYU disaster.

Last year in Rice-Eccles Stadium, BYU led 20-0 when Julian Blackmon’s 27-yard pick-six of Zach Wilson right after halftime turned the momentum of the game, a key to Utah’s comeback 35-27 win.

During Utah’s eight-game win streak, BYU has had 26 turnovers to Utah’s 13. BYU is averaging just over three turnovers (3.2) in those games with the most (7) coming in 2011. Utah averaged about 1.6 per game, with its highest (6) in 2016.

BYU quarterbacks have thrown 13 interceptions during Utah’s run. Utah QBs have thrown seven. BYU has thrown at least one interception in each of the eight games. Utah has five games with zero interceptions. When it comes to fumbles, the difference is almost identical to interceptions, with BYU losing 13 and Utah 6, or about half as many.

Although the score difference in these games has averaged about four points, BYU has generally given Utah twice as many opportunities for unexpected chances to possess the football.

If you slice this factor down to yards and points in a microcosm of plain old points produced in yards when tagged with turnovers and short fields, it becomes even clearer.

As stated by CougarStats’ Twitter, a site compiled by stat gurus, “Have you heard of a team scoring 139 points on just 283 yds of total offense? Well, that’s what Utah has done against BYU since 2005 in the following ways: TD return on a fumble recovery; a TD return on interception; TDs and field goals on possessions that started inside the BYU 40 after turnovers/downs.”

That is pretty amazing and explains a ton about that 8-0 streak the Utes hope to stretch to a series-tying nine.

This week’s picks:

UCLA 28, Cincinnati 10

Arizona State 34, Kent State 7

Colorado 37, Colorado State 21

Oklahoma State 35, Oregon State 14

Washington 38, Eastern Washington 7

Stanford 24, Northwestern 17

California 31, UC Davis 3

Oregon 31, Auburn 28

Washington State 41, New Mexico State 14

Southern California 24, Fresno State 21

Utah State 24, Wake Forest 21

Florida State 38, Boise State 21

Missouri 21, Wyoming 14

San Diego State 28, Weber State 17

UNLV 24, Southern Utah 10

Utah 28, BYU 24