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Two guys who were at the center of it all the last 2 times BYU defeated Utah

James Empey and R.J. Willing went about their business largely unnoticed in those two victories, but that’s only because they were doing their job well

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) and BYU center James Empey (66) greet each other after the Cougars’ 26-17 victory over Utah.
Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) and BYU center James Empey (66) greet each other after the Cougars’ 26-17 victory over Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

James Empey and R.J. Willing will always share one thing in common — they both engineered victories over rival Utah, while remaining just outside the center of attention.

Empey’s Cougars are marching on from Saturday’s 26-17 victory against the No. 21 Utes, which snapped a losing streak that began just after Willing’s Cougars beat Utah 26-23 in 2009.

Sandwiched between those two wins are the well-documented nine straight defeats.

BYU fans bought all the tickets and stormed the field on both nights, celebrating their heroes, while both Empey and Willing left without much fanfare.

That’s life at the center position.

“Once a lineman, always a lineman,” Willing said. “Your name is not supposed to be known if you are doing your job.”

Both centers did their jobs in those games very well.

Empey, a 6-foot-4, 303-pound junior from American Fork, powered an offensive line on Saturday that escorted the BYU runners to 219 rushing yards — the most against the Utes since 1996, while not allowing any sacks.

“It’s a tribute to the guys playing their butts off, the coaches preparing us and Jaren getting out of trouble with his feet a little bit,”said Empey. “We were able to get it done when it mattered most.”

His night ended in the victory formation after leading Utah from start to finish.

Willing’s last play remains one for the ages.

The 6-5, 208-pound senior out of Kahuku, Hawaii, snapped the ball to Max Hall, who threw a 25-yard pass to Andrew George for the overtime victory.

Andrew George of BYU celebrates scoring the winning touchdown in overtime against the University of Utah Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009.
Andrew George of BYU celebrates scoring the winning touchdown in overtime against the University of Utah Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009.
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

“On the play before, the Utes were mimicking our snap count and I hiked the ball before the offensive line was set and I cost us a five-yard penalty,” Willing said. “Max had a few choice words for me in the huddle. So that was in my head. I just had to listen to Max’s voice and get the snap back there.”

The sold-out LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd of 64,301 stood in anticipation.

“I looked around at the defense and thought they were playing a man or combo coverage,” said Hall, whose 32 wins are the most in BYU history. “I remember R.J. making a call and I waited for him to get everything set on the line. Then he put his butt down and lifted his head up to indicate he’s ready to snap the ball and off we went.”

The hike was perfect. George ran three yards down field and turned toward the middle. Hall spotted a small window in the pass coverage.

With BYU quarterback Max Hall coming up to BYU center R.J. Willing, Willing points out the defence line up to fellow linemen during BYU football practice at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Tuesday August 26, 2009.
BYU quarterback Max Hall lines up behind center R.J. Willing, as Willing points out the defensive lineup to fellow linemen during practice at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Tuesday August 26, 2009.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

“Somehow, I got the ball in there and the two defenders hit into each other, and then I saw Andrew running toward a sea of blue in the end zone,” said Hall.

Willing did his part by clearing out the middle, which left him with an unobstructed view.

“I had front-row seats to see Andrew catch the pass. The ball went right past my head,” he said. “Max snuck it in there and Andrew took off. I did my best to catch him!”

Willing bolted to the end zone to celebrate and his momentum knocked the 6-5 tight end to the ground. The rest of the team followed.

“We were on the bottom of the pile for a while,” Willing said. “I remember looking at Andrew with our eyes wide open and saying, ‘I can’t breathe!’ ”

“I’m lying on the ground thinking, ‘How many people are piling on top of me and how long is thing going to go?” George said. “I’m trying to yell for people to get off me but can’t get the air to get the words out. The thought crosses my mind, am I going to die right here? Is this going to go from triumph to tragedy?”

Somehow Hall managed to join George and Willing at the bottom of the pile.

“I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move and the place was just going nuts,” Hall said. “It was chaos, but it sure was fun.”

BYU quarterback Max Hall is lifted by fans as they celebrate the victory over Utah 26-23 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009.
BYU quarterback Max Hall is lifted by fans as they celebrate the victory over Utah 26-23 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Eventually the scene dispersed, and George and Hall caught their breath before the fans literally carried them off the field as conquering heroes.

No one carried Willing.

At 308 pounds, it’s easy to understand why.

“I went and hugged Bronco (Mendenhall) and left to find my family,” he said.

Empey’s big night Saturday didn’t conclude in a dog pile, but there was some crowd surfing by head coach Kalani Sitake.

“I apologize if I hurt anybody,” the coach joked afterward.

Empey is studying finance and nonprofit management, while planning for a future in the NFL.

Willing is the director of community education at Utah Valley University in Orem and is charged with helping thousands of residents improve their lives through education and skill development without being enrolled in school.

“I’ve been a beneficiary of lifelong learning and I’m a believer in it,” he said. “Whether it’s a child or an 80-year-old, learning to do something for the first time is magical and rewarding.”

Willing credits those pressure-packed Saturdays on the football field as a precursor to his employment.

“They call me a ‘cool cat’ at work,” he said. “Not cool in popularity, but cool under pressure. When there is high pressure situations or emergencies, my experience with football, working with Max and the boys on the offensive line, making calls and adjustments, is something that has come natural to me.”

Willing was also on the field when BYU upset No. 3 Oklahoma 14-13 to begin the 2009 season.

“Just before the throw to McKay (Jacobson), I remember saying in the huddle, ‘This is it guys. If we score we are gonna be watching this game 20 years from now as part of BYU’s greatest highlights,’” Willing said. “I’m glad I didn’t jinx us.”

For Empey, his big moments continue Saturday night against No. 19 Arizona State, and while his quarterback will attract most of the attention, how he performs could very well determine the outcome — just as it was with his predecessor of more than a decade ago.

“The play starts every time with the center. To have that shotgun snap perfect every time you must have ice water running through your veins,” George said of Willing. “R.J. called the protections and diagnosed where the blitzes were coming from. He was as much the quarterback on the field as Max was, in his own right.”

As was the case in 2009 and again Saturday night, having two quarterbacks on the field proved to be a good thing, even if one of them (the center) was left outside of all the attention.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.