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Can BYU avoid post-rivalry game letdown against ASU?

LaVell Edwards Stadium will see its first matchup of ranked teams since BYU and Utah faced off in 2009

BYU running back Tyler Allgeier takes handoff from quarterback Jaren Hall as BYU and Utah play at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU running back Tyler Allgeier takes a handoff from Jaren Hall during game against Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. No. 23 BYU will face No. 19 Arizona State Saturday night in Provo.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A lot of people are telling the No. 23-ranked BYU Cougars how good they are right now after wins over Pac-12 teams Arizona and Utah.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick doesn’t want to hear it.

A college football historian who coached at Utah before sliding over to BYU and helping Kalani Sitake as a consultant for a year before joining the staff full time in 2018, Roderick has seen this movie before.

“We gotta manage (all the hype) and be ready to play again,” he said Wednesday.

That was the theme of the week for the 2-0 Cougars. After winning the rivalry game and watching their fans storm the field and literally cover it in less than a minute, they must guard against a massive letdown Saturday when No. 19 Arizona State, also 2-0, rides into LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN).

The Cougars have done and said all the right things this week, but how they respond from that emotionally draining affair with the Utes won’t entirely be known until they line up against a Sun Devils team that Roderick says is “similar to Utah athletically” but more experienced on both sides of the ball.

“Their linebackers are good and super athletic, but their secondary is just as good,” Roderick said. “I mean, they have got so much skill. The defensive line is big and physical. The secondary across the board is very skilled. This is a big challenge for us. They are very good.”

Arizona State, which routed Southern Utah and UNLV the first two weeks, hasn’t been tested as much as the Cougars, and will be facing a hostile crowd for the first time in nearly two years, having played their first two games at home in Tempe, Arizona, and all of last year’s games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season in empty stadiums.

Whether that matters remains to be seen.

The Sun Devils have the type of quarterback, dual-threat star Jayden Daniels, who has given BYU’s defense fits in past years. Daniels needs just 49 passing yards to reach 4,000 in his career.

Arizona State dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels is a lethal weapon for coach Herm Edwards. While having passed for just shy of 4,000 yards during his ASU career, his legs are perhaps even more dangerous to opposing defenses.
Ralph Freso, Associated Press

But it is his running ability that has the Cougars concerned. Daniels is averaging 8.68 yards per carry.

Look for BYU to put a “spy” on the junior from San Bernardino, California, just as it did a couple of years ago against Arizona when Corbin Kaufusi stayed in the middle of the field to hawk Arizona’s Kahlil Tate.

“There is a lot of balance between vertical play and horizontal play by their offense,” said BYU safeties coach Ed Lamb. “They attack you both ways. And then from a personnel standpoint, they have a lot of speed, a lot of dynamic ability. It all starts with the backfield, their quarterback and running backs (Rachaad White and DeaMonte Trayanum). They have good players at every position. It is a major challenge for us.”

When they do go to the air, the Sun Devils have about a half-dozen outstanding receivers, including a 6-foot-7 guy, redshirt freshman Johnny Wilson.

“They have it all — they have size, speed and guys with large catch radius,” said BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. “They have a few possession receivers who can run great routes and have great hands.”

Gilford expects the Sun Devils to unveil some formations and plays they didn’t have to use against overmatched opponents.

“They do some trickery and double passes and reverse screens, stuff like that,” he said. “So we will have our hands full. They definitely have a great group as far as the wideouts.”

Arizona State is a field goal favorite, and many are calling the first matchup between the former WAC rivals since 1998 one of the best games of the weekend in college football.

ASU leads the series 20-7, but BYU won the last two meetings, a 26-6 win in Provo in 1998 and a 13-10 win in Tempe in 1997. Coincidentally, ASU carried a No. 14 ranking into both contests.

Also of note, Sitake and Roderick played in both those games for the Cougars.

“I remember the (1998) game,” Sitake said, recalling a 25-yard reception he made from his fullback position and getting “tripped up from behind” just short of the end zone.

“We got tons of respect for them and are looking forward to the game,” Sitake said. “But yeah, my stat line wasn’t that great back then, but I had a lot of fun. Getting the win was the most important part.”

A win this time around would be huge for BYU, which has won 11 straight home games. The Cougars have won four of their last five games against Power Five opponents; they haven’t won five of six from P5s since 2006-08.

“They are ranked for a reason,” Sitake said. “We are looking forward to them being in our home. They have a really dynamic quarterback that causes a lot of problems. Jayden Daniels is a really, really good player. He has a lot of poise.”

It will be the first matchup of ranked teams at LES since No. 18 BYU defeated No. 22 Utah 26-23 in overtime in 2009. BYU will honor members of the 1996 Cougars team that went 14-1 and won the Cotton Bowl during the game on the 25th anniversary of that season.

BYU running back Lopini Katoa said ASU’s ranking and status as a P5 program provides the Cougars with motivation. But the team is also driven by other factors.

“Even though we are 2-0, we haven’t played our best football yet,” Katoa said. “So that is really our goal, just competing against ourselves to get better and improve.”