The many twists and turns of the BYU-Utah rivalry — from the iconic to the stupefying
The BYU-Utah rivalry pits brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and alum against alma mater. It even has a North vs. South and church vs. state flavor
Welcome to Utah — and in this case, we mean the state, not necessarily the school.
If you’re new to the Beehive State, you might have noticed a general heightened state of anxiety and frenzy in Utahns this week, with everything delineated between red and blue lines.
But we’re not talking about politics here.
We’re talking about something more fun, and more intense — the Utah-BYU rivalry.
Just 45 miles separate the two campuses of the University of Utah (Salt Lake City) and Brigham Young University (Provo). And while there are plenty of differences between the two schools, like those warnings engraved in passenger side mirrors, objects are closer than they appear.
The Utah-BYU rivalry pits brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and alum against alma mater. It even has a North vs. South and church vs. state flavor. It’s Red vs. Blue; Mighty Utah Student Section (MUSS) vs. Roar Of Cougars (ROC); Block U. vs. Stretch Y.; Drum and Feather vs. Sailor Cougar; “Utah Man” vs. “Rise and Shout”; Swoop vs. Cosmo. Coming soon, Pac-12 vs. Big 12.
And it is one of the biggest, and best, rivalries in college football. It’s known in some circles as “The Holy War.”
Momentous events in one program affect, and often intersect, with the other. Often, one program’s success is at the expense of the other.
It’s fascinating how a little more than 10 years ago, rivals Texas and Oklahoma deciding to stay in the Big 12 instead of accepting an offer to join the Pac-10 opened the door for Utah to join the Pac-12. Utah’s decision to leave the Mountain West Conference played a big factor in BYU going independent.
Now, Texas and Oklahoma deciding to leave for the Southeastern Conference has opened the door for BYU to join the Big 12 and match Utah’s Power Five status — during Rivalry Week, no less.
The first, and only, time BYU reached No. 1 in the national polls came after a win over Utah in 1984, en route to the national championship. On the other hand, Utah busted the BCS twice — earning berths to the 2004 Fiesta Bowl and the 2008 Sugar Bowl — by defeating … BYU.
Days after the 2004 game, BYU tried to hire one of its former star linebackers, Kyle Whittingham, a longtime Utah defensive coordinator, as its head coach. But Whittingham opted to stay at the U. Not long after that, BYU promoted its defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall, to be its head coach.
Going into the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl between Utah and BYU, it was Mendenhall’s final game as the Cougars’ coach (he was headed to Virginia) and news broke just before kickoff that he would be replaced by a former Cougar, and former Utah assistant, Kalani Sitake.
Legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ final game after 29 seasons at the helm resulted in a dramatic win over Utah in 2000. Ute coach Ron McBride’s final game after 13 seasons with the Utes resulted in a victory over BYU in 2002. Fans tore down the goalposts and cheered McBride. Two days later, he was fired.
In 2015, Utah signed wide receiver and kick return extraordinaire Britain Covey, a diehard BYU fan, and he’s gone on to an all-conference career. In 2018, BYU signed Zach Wilson, a diehard Utah fan, who went on to become the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
At one point, during the 2000s, Cecil O. Samuelson, a U. grad, and a Crimson Club founding member, was BYU’s president; and at the same time, Utah’s president was Michael K. Young, a descendant of Brigham Young and a BYU grad.
That’s the way this rivalry rolls.
It’s produced countless memorable moments, epic games, iconic plays and unforgettable quotes.
It’s Utah coach Urban Meyer coining the phrase “Team Down South,” and Whittingham referring to the rivalry as “the in-state game.” It’s Ute fans rubbing it in BYU fans’ faces with Pac-12 stickers. It’s BYU defensive lineman Lenny Gomes saying after a 1993 loss to Utah, “All those (Utes) think that’s all there is to life. But when I’m making $50,000-$60,000 a year, they’ll be pumping my gas.”
Due to the pandemic, the game wasn’t played last season. And due to scheduling, the showdown Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at Edwards Stadium, is the last one scheduled until 2024 as the two programs take a two-year hiatus.
For all that has transpired between the two schools, history could be made Saturday. Utah is riding a nine-game winning streak against BYU. If the Utes win, the 10th straight win would mark the longest winning streak by either school in the rivalry (BYU enjoyed a nine-game winning streak against Utah in from 1979-1987).
The word “unique” is thrown around too much these days, but BYU-Utah is truly a unique rivalry.
For those that are familiar with it, it’s time for rivalry revelry. For those that don’t know much about it, here’s a brief history, and explanation, of the rivalry.
On Oct. 16, 1875, Brigham Young, then president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, deeded property in Provo to trustees to create Brigham Young Academy, which eventually became Brigham Young University.
After pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Young organized a university on Feb. 28, 1850, known as the University of Deseret, which later became the University of Utah.
How it began …
The first recorded sporting event between Utah and BYU took place in 1895. That’s when Brigham Young Academy and Utah played in baseball. It ended in a scoreless tie and a bench-clearing brawl.
Dispute on when rivalry started
Utah and BYU first met April 6, 1896, in a game vaguely similar to what we now know as football. The Utes beat BYU 12-4 in Salt Lake City. The two teams played five more times between 1896 and 1898. Each school won three games.
That’s according to the Book of Utah.
BYU doesn’t acknowledge those pre-1900 games, counting only the ones played since 1922, when the school officially launched its football program.
So, if you’re keeping track at home, BYU says Utah leads the series 31-59-4 and that Saturday marks the 95th all-time meeting. Utah says it leads the series 62-34-4 and that Saturday marks the 101st meeting.
Utah dominates early on
In 1922, Utah crushed BYU, 49-13 — which set the tone for the next four decades. From 1923 to 1938, the Utes outscored the Cougars 416-39 and shut out the Cougars 10 times in 15 games. Twice the two teams tied during that stretch.
BYU’s first win over Utah didn’t come until 1942, when the Cougars blocked a punt at the Utah 10-yard line and on fourth down, Herman Longhurst scored on a four-yard run to lift BYU to a 12-7 victory. Cougar fans ripped down the goalposts and sawed them up for souvenirs.
But over the next 19 meetings, Utah posted a 17-1-1 record, through 1964. BYU won three straight from 1965-67. But the Utes owned the rivalry. Kind of like they do now.
Turning point No. 1: LaVell
When LaVell Edwards was promoted from defensive coordinator to BYU’s head coach in 1972, Utah held a 38-5-4 advantage in the series.
Under Edwards, the Cougars won 18 of the next 20 games. BYU reached national relevance with consistent conference championships, national rankings, bowl appearances and a national championship in 1984. They churned out a string of All-American quarterbacks like Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer. To the Cougars, Utah was an afterthought on their road to national prominence.
The Utes won at home in 1978 and 1988 but those were largely viewed as stunning anomalies.
Turning point No. 2: McBride and the Whittinghams
In 1990, Utah hired Ron McBride, who made the rivalry competitive again. In 1993, the Utes upset BYU, marking their first win in Provo since 1971.
For a long stretch after that, nobody knew from year to year which team would come out on top.
From 1990 to 2003, the two programs met 14 times and each team won seven games. In fact, nine of 11 of those contests weren’t decided until the fourth quarter — and most came down to the closing minutes or seconds. In the decade of the 1990s, the two schools split the series, 5-5.
From 1997-2003, the average margin of victory was 4.4 points, with the widest margin of victory in those seven contests being seven points.
Can games in a college football rivalry get any closer than that?
Besides McBride’s impact on the rivalry, he hired Fred Whittingham, a former BYU defensive coordinator, to his staff. While Whittingham was at Utah, his son, Kyle, was hired as an assistant coach.
How much has the rivalry flipped?
In the 1980s, some Ute fans would say they would be willing to lose every game but one, if that win was against BYU. These days, some BYU fans say the same thing about Utah.
Turning Point No. 3: Utes join the Pac-12
In 2010, Utah received an invitation to join the Pac-12, which increased the program’s revenue and improved recruiting opportunities. For the first time, Utah and BYU would no longer be members of the same conference.
Since the announcement that the Utes would be jumping to the Pac-12, they are 9-0 against BYU, which announced it would be going independent in 2010.
Not long after BYU’s most recent win in the rivalry game, a 26-23 overtime victory in Provo in 2009, quarterback Max Hall didn’t hold back about how he felt about the University of Utah. He expressed how much he hates the rival. Hall didn’t appreciate the way the Utes treated his family the previous year at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Cougars haven’t won since, and some attribute that to the start of a curse on BYU.
But it wasn’t the first time that happened.
In 1977, the Cougars led the Utes 38-8 late in the game when Edwards put quarterback Marc Wilson back in to set an NCAA passing record. Afterward, Utah coach Wayne Howard was livid.
“The hatred between BYU and Utah is nothing compared to what it will be,” he said. “It will be a crusade to beat BYU from now on.”
The following year, the Utes upset the Cougars, snapping a six-game losing streak to BYU.
After that, the Cougars won nine in a row against the Utes. Now, Utah has won nine straight against BYU.
On Saturday, BYU’s starting quarterback will be Jaren Hall. Can a guy named Hall end the curse, um, streak?
Epic, iconic moments
We don’t have room here to chronicle all the incredible, dramatic, emotional games and plays of the Rivalry. But here are several in modern history, listed like TV show episodes on Netflix.
How many rivalries have consistently delivered entertaining, dramatic games like this one?
- “Streak Over”: Utah’s Chris Yergensen boots a 55-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining, marking the Utes’ first win, 34-31, in Provo since 1971. Ute players and fans attempt in vain to tear down BYU’s goal posts.
- “Runaway”: Twenty-five years ago, BYU snaps a three-game losing streak to Utah by running the ball 63 times for 366 yards to defeat Utah 37-17.
- “34-31 — Get Used To It”: Utes win back-to-back games by the identical score in 1993 and 1994.
- “The Doink Heard ‘Round the State”: Utah kicker Ryan Kaneshiro drills the ball into the right upright on a 39-yard field goal with five seconds remaining in 1998. BYU wins, 26-24.
- “LaVell’s Last Stand”: BYU quarterback Brandon Doman engineers a late, game-winning drive in Edwards’ final game in 2000.
- “Doman-To-Staley”: With 1:16 remaining, BYU scores the game-winning touchdown on an option play, with Doman pitching to Luke Staley for a 30-yard score. It preserves the Cougars’ perfect season, but despite the win, they were denied a berth into the Fiesta Bowl.
- “The Shutout”: BYU, riding an NCAA-record streak of 361 games of not being shut out, watches that streak end on a freezing, snowy, windy day in Provo in 2003.
- “Answered Prayer”: BYU quarterback John Beck throws a game-winning pass to Jonny Harline, who was on his knees in the end zone, on the final play of the game in 2006.
- “Magic Happens”: BYU quarterback Max Hall completes a pass to Austin Collie on fourth-and-18 late in the game, deep in Cougar territory, sparking a game-winning drive in 2007.
- “By George, BYU Beats Utah in Overtime”: The Cougars beat the Utes in OT as tight end Andrew George catches a pass between two Utah defenders and races into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. It’s BYU’s most recent win over Utah, some 4,300 days ago.
- “The Block”: Utah’s Brandon Burton blocks Mitch Payne’s 42-yard field goal attempt as time expires in a 17-16 Ute win in 2010.
- “September Massacre”: In the new normal due to Utah and BYU no longer being members of the same conference, the Utes throttle the Cougars 54-10 in a then-rare September game in 2011. BYU coughs up seven turnovers, including six fumbles. The 44-point margin of victory marks the Utes’ most lopsided win over the Cougars.
- “3 Endings”: In 2012, the BYU-Utah game seemingly ends three different times with one second left on the clock. During that one second of game time, Ute fans storm the field three times and the Cougars miss two field goals. It ends when Justin Sorensen’s potential game-tying field goal is blocked and the Utes win 24-21. Fans rush the field for the final time that zany night.
- “Viva Las Vegas”: Since BYU and Utah don’t play in the regular season, the two teams meet in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl. The Utes take a shocking 35-0 lead with 4:38 left in the first quarter thanks to five turnovers in the Cougars’ first five possessions. BYU’s furious rally falls short and it loses 35-28. It’s the only time the two teams have played outside the state of Utah.
- “Nine In A Row”: Midway through the fourth quarter in Provo, lightning and a torrential rainstorm suspended the game for 54 minutes, resuming at 12:05 a.m. BYU’s offense doesn’t touch the ball in the final nine minutes as Utah keeps the ball on the ground and runs out the clock in a 30-12 win.
There are future rivalry stories yet to be told, moments yet to be experienced. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the state of the rivalry. Will there be more turning points that we don’t see coming? It looks like the next meeting will be between two Power 5 programs. Both head coaches, Whittingham and Sitake, recently signed extensions — will they both still be around by the time the two programs meet again in 2024? Will BYU-Utah games be played only occasionally? Every four years, like the Olympics or presidential campaigns?
No matter what happens, nobody can take away the history these programs share. Let’s appreciate it while we can.
This is the Utah-BYU rivalry.