The first BYU-Utah football game in two years, and most likely the last for three years, will be played Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Provo.
With more and more media outlets, including the Deseret News, moving away from calling it that moniker with religious overtones, the rivalry game could probably use a new nickname.
How about the Kyle Whittingham Classic?
That’s said tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there has been one common denominator in No. 21 Utah’s nine-game winning streak over the Cougars — Whittingham, the former Cougar who has been Utah’s coach since 2004.
The longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12, who is looking to hang 10 straight losses on unranked BYU, is 11-3 against the Cougars since replacing Urban Meyer on the Hill.
No fewer than five members of BYU’s coaching staff, including head coach Kalani Sitake, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, have coached alongside Whittingham at the U.
What’s his secret?
“He is a great coach. It starts there,” said Roderick, who was part of Whittingham’s staff for six of those wins in the streak. “This game is a huge deal to him and that makes it a huge deal to the whole program, and we have to match that. He’s leading that ship.”
Tight ends coach Steve Clark and new linebackers coach Kevin Clune have also coached with Whittingham. At BYU’s football media day in June, Clark said his experience coaching on Utah’s staff in 2004 taught him all he needed to know about the emphasis Whittingham and his staff put on the game.
“It does mean a lot to them,” he said, not discounting the fact that Whittingham has owned his former school. “I don’t know how you consider it a rivalry until we win. You get beat nine, 10 years in a row, I mean, it is not really a rivalry. You gotta win to make it a rivalry again.”
Recent history not only favors the Utes, but so do the oddsmakers. Utah is a solid touchdown favorite.
BYU officials announced Thursday that the game is sold out, so 63,700-seat LES should be rocking in what could be the 61-year-old Whittingham’s last game in Provo.
Talking about the rivalry in June, Roderick said Whittingham knows “all the right buttons to push” to have his players emotionally ready for the game.
“Especially in a rivalry game, you have got to be on that razor’s edge where you are charged up and you are intense and you have prepared for the game, and are ready to go,” Roderick said. “But at the same time you don’t lose your mind and do a lot of wild stuff. You have to execute, especially as an offensive player.
“You have to do your assignment and do it with the technique you have been coached to do it with. That takes poise. There is a balance there that you gotta find as a player.”
Sitake is 0-4 as BYU’s head coach in the rivalry game, after almost pulling off a big upset in 2016 at Rice-Eccles. The Cougars outplayed the Utes that year, but lost 20-19 when Taysom Hill’s two-point conversion try was stopped cold. In 2018, BYU had a 27-7 lead over No. 18 Utah late in the third quarter, but surrendered 28 unanswered points.
Two years ago, Utah used a pair of pick-sixes to wallop the Cougars 30-12, but the biggest takeaway from that game for the Cougars was how the Utes held on to the ball for more than nine minutes after an hour-plus weather delay in the fourth quarter.
“We seem to know each other well,” Sitake said. “It comes down to the players making plays and making sure we as coaches learn from things we have gone through, especially after the first game, and try to make sure we get that improvement.”
The Cougars played turnover-free last week, a good omen considering that the other common denominator in most of their recent losses to the Utes have been turnovers, like in 2019 when they also “gifted another TD” to the Utes, according to Roderick, with a fumble in their own territory.
“There are things that you can carry over in games that allow you to be in position to have more success in the game. We are going to try to do all that,” Sitake said. “You can’t sit there and hype things for the players. They obviously know there is a streak going on and things like that. So you address it and you give them the challenge to go on out there and find a way to break it.”
If they do that, they can call the game whatever they want.