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The nature of the Utah-BYU rivalry has changed, but some things about it never will

The series isn’t like what it used to be. But the game still matters, and players on both sides of the ball know it.

Utah defensive end Nate Orchard (8) and Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly (9) tackle BYU quarterback Taysom Hill.
Utah defensive end Nate Orchard (8) and Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly (9) tackle BYU quarterback Taysom Hill Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Provo. Since the Utes joined the Pac-12 and BYU went independent, the rivalry is not quite the same as it once was, but clearly it still matters.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Kyle Whittingham has been around the Utah-BYU rivalry for a long time, as both a player and as a coach.

The leader of the Utah program discussed this week how the series between the Utes and Cougars has changed over the past decade for a multitude of reasons.

“First of all, we’re not in the same conference anymore, that’s been 11 years now. We don’t play it every year. We’re taking two years off after this year,” Whittingham said. “We didn’t play it last year although that was extenuating circumstances. The timing of the game, early in the season. Typically, a rivalry game is the last game of the season. There are a lot of reasons why it has a different feel than it used to. We’re playing this year, so we have to be ready to go.”

Utah and BYU renew their rivalry Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Other reasons why the rivalry has changed?

More than ever, the Utes’ roster features plenty of players that didn’t grow up in Utah and haven’t been exposed to it from a young age.

Oh, and it’s become overwhelmingly lopsided in favor of the Utes, who have won nine consecutive games in the series.

But the Utes are still passionate about this game. That hasn’t changed.

With so many players on Utah’s roster that haven’t played in a Utah-BYU game, what do the veterans tell them about it?

“There’s a lot more at stake here than a game. I think you’re fooling yourself if you say that it’s just another game. It’s not. It doesn’t mean that it’s the Super Bowl, but it’s a big game,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “We respect BYU, they respect us. We know they’re going to play their best game and we know we’re going to play our best game. People that don’t know about the ‘Holy War,’ especially people from the East, they don’t really understand that it’s one of the biggest rivalries in the country. You tell them about that.”

Utah is looking to capture its first-ever Pac-12 championship this season. What does this game mean in the context of what the Utes are trying to accomplish?

“It fits into everything. We know our ultimate goal but our goal is to win one week at a time and win every single week,” said center Nick Ford. “Now, it’s another obstacle in the road that we have to come to terms with. We go out and go 1-0 for the week and then continue on to whoever is next.”

Ford hasn’t forgotten his first experience with the rivalry game. He redshirted in 2017 and was part of the 2018 and 2019 games. That’s when he learned what the rivalry is all about.

“I got it on the sideline and on the field. You feel it here. It’s really loud. When you’re a freshman, and you’ve never seen something like that, it kind of shakes you,” Ford said. “When you’re on the field, it’s a different feel. Personally, I zone out and block out all the noise and focus on my assignment.”

What does Ford tell his teammates that haven’t experienced the rivalry game?

“Words don’t describe it. Everyone on our side understands that it is a rivalry. It’s a feel when you hear everybody talking about it,” he said. “Talking about how we don’t like those guys. How coach Whitt says, ‘We don’t lose to those guys.’ From seeing the history, it’s a feel for sure. Everyone is more tense, more aggressive. They can see that it’s a very passionate game.”

Covey said the vibe around Utah’s football facility is different during rivalry week.

“In a lot of language, it’s business as usual,” he said. “Coach Whitt is always very competitive throughout the week and respectful of our opponent. In language and vocabulary, it’s very similar. But in vibe and feel, it’s a heightened sense of urgency.”

Quarterback Charlie Brewer will be participating in his first Utah-BYU game this weekend, and he’s looking forward to it.

“The significance of the game is talked about but our main focus is to be as prepared as possible for the game,” Brewer said. “There are a lot of things that go into it, with film, practice. Being as prepared as possible will give us the best chance to do that. More of our focus is on being prepared and playing as well as we can.”

Off the field, Covey, who grew up as a diehard BYU fan, has noticed a change in the rivalry in recent years.

“It’s funny how the attitude toward it has changed over the last few years,” he said. “I see a lot of my family members totally at war with themselves, not knowing what to do. It’s been fun. I live literally 30 seconds away from the stadium. My whole family still has season tickets to BYU. They also have season tickets to Utah now. It’s close to home.”

Yes, the rivalry isn’t the same as it used to be. But it’s still fun. It’s still intense. And it still matters.