Breaking Down the Holy War–With the Help of a Ute
We are officially in the thick of rivalry week! One of the most anticipated bowl games of the season. I wanted to really dive in and break down the Sin City Holy War as thoroughly as possible as a follow up to my last post. To help me, I asked a football-knowledgeable Utah fan friend of mine, Alan Malae, to give me his honest opinion/analysis and I promised to add it to mine in this post to be fair to both fanbases. Hope you enjoyed the pic of us in our team gear at my house. Anyway, here’s our analysis, starting with mine:
The first thing I wanted to see was total team stats for the season. Is there a weakness one team can really exploit on the other? Favorable match-ups, etc. Below you’ll see a chart I put together that shows BYU holds a slight advantage statistically–don’t worry, we’ll dive deeper than just these stats, but stats are facts and I like facts.
Interesting to note here that Utah is weaker against the pass than they are against the run. Well, guess what BYU’s strength is offensively? The passing game, of course. Tanner Mangum has filled in well for Taysom Hill, has plenty of big game experience this season and the dude can throw the ball well. BYU’s receivers are big and tall and talented. They’ll cause problems for the Utah secondary. On the flip side, BYU is weaker against the run than they are against the pass and Utah offensively boasts a stronger run game. The only problem is they’ll be without their biggest weapon–Devontae Booker. Joe Williams had great games against UCLA and Colorado filling in for Booker, but those teams rank 88th and 99th respectively against the run this year, so I’m not buying Joe Williams just yet. Statistically: Advantage BYU.
It’s not just about stats though. So here are the intangibles:
- Health: Advantage BYU. Several players are out on both sides, that’s football, but the Utes are more recently without guys like WR Kenneth Scott, WR Britain Covey (he may play, but won’t be 100%) and RB Devontae Booker. Booker accounted for 126.1 rushing ypg rushing and 31.8 rec. ypg–nearly half of the Utes total offense. Not only that, but with key WRs out for the Utes and Travis Wilson being, well, Travis Wilson, Cougar coaches should put full focus on stopping the run, cuz the Utah passing game is nothing to fear. It was sorry to begin with & now it’s been decimated by injury. Game-plan to stop the run & I don’t see Travis Wilson being able to do anything through the air to beat BYU.
- Coaching: Advantage Utah. Bronco Mendenhall (Head Coach), Robert Anae (Offensive Coordinator) and 3 other BYU assistants have already inked deals to bounce to higher-paying jobs at Virginia the second this bowl is over. How focused on the game plan do you think they’ve really been?
- Season Prep: Advantage Utah. Utah’s strength of schedule ranks 23rd in the country, BYU’s ranks 55th (both out of 128 possible). This plays a role in the above stats and definitely makes the Utes more prepared as a whole.
- Intensity/Motivation: Even. Normally, I’d say Utah, but this time it’s different because BYU is going after win no. 100 for Bronco in his final game and they want to prove the Utes haven’t surpassed big brother BYU like they think they have. Why would I normally say Utah has the advantage? I don’t know why, but BYU never seems to be as amped to beat their archrival as Utah does. Maybe it’s the Church and representing the Church well thing. And don’t get me wrong, I graduated from BYU, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) and I fully support that BYU places more emphasis on faith and doing good than they do on winning games (and no, I’m not saying BYU players or students are better people than anyone else, so just stop before you even start with that). It just makes me wonder if that “set a good example” mindset affects the rivalry a bit, because you know how much Utah is energized with extra motivation and rage to beat BYU every year. It may be because of Bronco and his overly stoic attitude, but I’m not at the practices and film sessions, so I don’t really know that either. I just know that BYU hasn’t seemed to match Utah’s intensity for years. Case in point on this: 2008, Rice-Eccles Stadium, no. 14 BYU (10-1) at no. 7 Utah (11-0). The makings of a phenomenal game, very much up for grabs to whoever wants it more. BYU steps out just a few yards from their sideline to perform the famous Haka dance minutes before kickoff, which they had done literally every single game that season. It pumped the team up as well as BYU fans. Great tradition. Well, what happened when they tried to do it on Utah’s turf? Ute linebacker Stevenson Sylvester was havin’ none of it. Without hesitating he marched right up to the Haka-dancing Cougars and made sure they knew whose house they were at and that their dance was not welcome here. The rest of the Utes followed right behind and a pre-kickoff fight nearly broke out. What prevented the fight was BYU immediately stopping a season-long tradition under the intimidation led by one opposing player. I was sitting in the stands right behind the BYU bench, very close to the action. I turned to my buddy after watching my Cougars cower back to the sideline without finishing the dance and said, “we just lost the game and it hasn’t even started yet.” Utah won 48-24. The difference with this game is that the Cougars have nothing to lose and everything to gain–that’s why I’m putting this intangible at even.
Taking into account all the stats and all the intangibles, this game is as easy to predict as the opening coin toss will be. I’m sticking with my pick of BYU though. I think the health advantage and my hunch that the Cougars will finally match the Utes’ intensity gives BYU the edge to win a close one.
Final Prediction: BYU 24 – Utah 20
Now for your Utah fan analysis by my good friend, Alan Malae who makes an in-depth argument for and against his Utes. (Alan’s own words. I barely even proofread, just copied and pasted really. So opinions, stats and typos alike are all his.)
ARGUMENT FOR THE UTES: Why the Utes will yet again be victorious in the Vegas Bowl
REASON #1: DISTRACTIONS
Bronco is leaving to Virginia. Anae is leaving to Virginia. Who’s next? Cosmo? It seems half of BYU’s staff is headed back east… And while it may be motivating for the players to get that final win for Bronco, it’s also a huge distraction, especially for the coaches. Bronco and company can preach all they want about the Las Vegas Bowl being their sole focus, but let’s be realistic. Everyone of those coaches are in the middle of making decisions that will affect their career, their families, and their future. Was Bronco thinking about Utah when he was recruiting Anae to Virginia? Was Anae thinking about the Utah defense when he was deciding if he should stay or not? These coaches are in the middle of negotiating contracts, they are recruiting other coaches to go with them, they are moving their family across the country, and every other coach not going to Virginia is worried they are out of the job. It would be naïve to think every facet of game planning has not been affected to some extent. Not quite the two-feet-in approach you’d like from your coaching staff if you’re a cougar fan.
REASON #2: ATHLETES
FIVE years into the PAC-12 play, one thing has become extremely obvious to all those without a biased eye… There is a different kind of athlete playing on the hill than in the shadow of Y-Mountain. And different, at least in this case, has been very good for the Utes. Said a local sports announcer I spoke with (who shall remain nameless) who played collegiate football here in the state, “It used to be that if you were a walk-on at Utah you were good enough to start at Utah State. Now if you are a walk-on at Utah, there’s a good chance you could start for BYU.” Quite the statement. And quite the pill to swallow if you bleed Cougar Blue. Nevertheless, the facts are facts. Since 2010, Utah has had 17 players taken in the NFL draft. Contrast that with BYU, who has had only 4 players drafted since 2010, one of which was Harvey Unga in the supplemental draft. During that same timeframe, BYU failed to have any of their players drafted in the 2011, 2012 and 2015 NFL Drafts. The moral of the story? Being in a power 5 conference has it’s perks, recruiting being one of the most prominent. Bottom line, the Utes are faster, stronger, more physical and more athletic at almost every position than BYU.
REASON #3: DEPTH
SINCE 2011, Utah has had some of their best recruiting classes, all in a row. With that type of talent coming in on an annual basis comes another benefit that Utah clearly has over BYU. Depth. For example: The Utes may be without Booker, but his backup Joe Williams, is doing a fine job of taking over the load. In the last two games of the season, Williams saw his first significant workload of the year. He rushed for 121 and 187 yards, averaging 4.7 and 5.5 yards per carry. Don’t expect that to change very much against BYU. Especially with the offensive lineman Utah has up front. Which brings us to the next reason Utah will win on Saturday…
REASON #4: PHYSICALITY AND THE WAR IN THE TRENCHES
The aforementioned depth for Utah has been especially evident in the trenches, a battle ground that Utah has consistently won for the majority of the Whittingham/Bronco era. Almost half of the 17 draft picks Utah has sent to the NFL since 2010 were offensive and defensive lineman. When Utah beat 5th ranked Stanford in 2013, David Shaw commented in the postgame, saying they were surprised by Utah’s size and physicality up front. Upon entering the PAC 12, Coach Whittingham made it very clear that of all the positions on the field, offensive and defensive lines were where Utah could come in and compete immediately. A team’s o-line and d-line define the physicality of the football team and strong line play has always been a calling card of the Utes. Case in point: Fumbles lost is a key indicator on how much more physical a team is than another team. Now consider that in the last 4 meetings between BYU and Utah, (in which Utah has gone undefeated), BYU has LOST 10 fumbles. To clarify, that’s not counting how many fumbles Utah has caused vs BYU, that’s just the number of fumbles the Cougars have lost. Conclusion, Utah is physically dominant in the trenches against everyone the play, the Cougars will be no different. Expect the Utes to run the ball very well, and to stop the run like they have done all season.
REASON #5: THE UTAH DEFENSE
Here’s where Utah ranks in the Pac 12 – Yikes.
- TOTAL DEFENSE – 1st
- SCORING DEFENSE – 2ND
- RUSHING DEFENSE – 2ND
- PASS DEFENSE EFFICIENCY – 2ND
- INTERCEPTIONS – 1ST
- SACKS – 2ND
- OPPONENT 1ST DOWNS – 2ND
- OPPONENT 3RD DOWN CONV. – 3RD
- TAKEAWAYS – 2ND
- RED ZONE DEFENSE – 1ST
Utah’s defense is one of the best defenses in the country. It’s not debatable. Their front 7 is elite, at least 3 of which are destined to play on Sundays. You just don’t move the ball consistently against this unit. Defense has been a staple of the Utes’ program long before the PAC-12 came knocking, and it hasn’t changed. The Utes are 6th in the country against the run. As for Tanner Mangum and the BYU passing game? Let’s be clear. Utah has shut down better quarterbacks than Tanner Mangum. Just ask Jared Goff. We’ve seen what happens when Tanner Mangum and the BYU offense faces Power 5 defenses… (See: Wolverines, Michigan.) In that game, Mangum was 12 for 28 with 55 yards passing and a completion percentage 42.9%. BYU couldn’t run the ball. Their receivers couldn’t get open. BYU has struggled all year against elite power 5 defenses that are bigger, faster and more physical… And the Utes are all of those things.
REASON #6: TURNOVERS
Look again at those defensive stats for Utah. The Utes are 2nd in takeaways and FIRST in interceptions. Again, in the last 4 meetings, BYU has lost 10 fumbles to the Utes. In the Whittingham and Bronco era, Utah leads the turnover battle 23-8! Now read that last sentence again. There is no reason to believe this trend won’t continue against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
REASON #7: THE BYU DEFENSE
BYU’S defense relies heavily on pressure and a pass rush to be successful. Bronco is a great defensive coordinator. He’s not an exotic blitzer as much as he is an aggressive one. If BYU doesn’t get to Travis Wilson, it’s going to be a long day for the Cougs. And there within lies the problem. We’ve talked about the play in the trenches already… BYU isn’t going to consistently pressure Travis Wilson enough to make a difference and they definitely aren’t going to stop Utah from running the ball. And Cougar fans, before you shout about how bad a QB Travis Wilson is, don’t forget… Versus non-power 5 secondaries, Wilson has been absolutely stellar. Stop right there, I know what you’re thinking Cougar fans, but it’s not true. BYU does not have a power 5-level secondary. Besides Kai Nacua, BYU’s secondary has been average at best all season, and Nacua wouldn’t even start for the Utes.
REASON #8: MENTAL EDGE
Utah feels like they are the better team. I would go as far as to say they know they are the better team. And you know what? With 4 straight losses, and a Utes move to the PAC-12, BYU might secretly believe it as well. Heck, there are only 2 players on the current BYU roster that even know what it’s like to beat Utah. For years Utah was the little brother in the Holy War. The Utes have used that chip on their shoulder and the anger it gives them every time they step onto the field against BYU. Make now mistake, Utah is now the big brother and has been for over a decade…However, the Utes still feel like they have something to prove. Expect that same edge in Vegas. And expect a 5th straight Utah win.
REASON #9: SPECIAL TEAMS
2-time Ray Guy award winner anybody? Tom Hackett flipping the field combined with Utah’s defense? ‘Nuff said.
ARGUMENT AGIANST THE UTES: Why BYU will finally end their losing streak
REASON #1: INJURIES
Let’s just go through the list shall we?
- RB – Devontae Booker
- WR – Kenneth Scott
- WR – Tim Patrick
- WR – Britain Covey
- TE – Siale Fakailoatonga
- TE – Evan Moeai
And that’s just the KEY injuries … ON OFFENSE! Everyone on this list is out for Saturday’s game except for Britain Covey, who is listed as doubtful. That’s SIX starters on the Utah offense alone who are no longer playing, all skill positions. That’s a big deal. Travis Wilson has nobody to throw to. I get it BYU fans, this is the part where you say, “SO! We lost Taysom and Jamal Williams too!” Listen… Williams didn’t suit up all year, and you lost Taysom in the first half of the first game of the season. You’ve had more than enough time to adjust. Every single one of Utah’s injuries happened during the season – the most key injuries happening in the last few weeks. Utah is still adjusting.
REASON #2: UTAH’S PASSING GAME
Except for Covey, Utah’s wide receivers have struggled this season to win one on one matchups on the outside. Enter the Utes second string group. Travis Wilson’s inefficiencies in the passing game have been well-documented. Even more so the last few weeks sans Booker and his top 3 receivers. Yes Travis has been great against non-power 5 defenses. But that was with his starting receivers, and all-world talent Devontae Booker. The scenario has changed… And not in the Utes favor. Expect a non-existent passing game vs BYU on Saturday.
REASON #3: THE UTAH RUNNING GAME AND THE RED ZONE
So what do the Utes have going in Utah’s favor offensively? Joe Williams. You read his stats above since he took over for Booker. We explained earlier, Utah will have no problem running the ball. The issue is… the red zone. Booker is invaluable running the ball inside the 20-yard line. Kenneth Scott was lethal in the red zone with his size and physicality. This season, Utah converted 90.7% of their red zone trips into points. In their last 3 games, sans Booker and Scott, Utah’s red zone conversion rate dropped to 75 percent. You’re not going to win games kicking field goals. We all remember the Utah game vs UCLA a few weeks ago. Sorry Ute fans, second to injuries, this is the biggest reason the Utes could lose.
REASON #4: AARON RODERICK
Aaron Roderick is still coaching the offense. That’s all.
REASON #5: UTAH’S DISAPPOINTMENT
How do you make thousands of Utah fans cry? Put them in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl after their best ever finish since joining the PAC 12. Then put them against BYU. Believe me, I would know. From a player and fan perspective, they felt like their team deserved better for finishing tied atop the Pac-12 South standings. And they’re not wrong.
College football bowl season is littered with better teams who have lost because they weren’t excited to be there. The major trial any head coach faces in the post season is making sure their team is up for the game. Whittingham is phenomenal in bowls, but somehow this feels different. Gionni Paul’s face in the picture below says it all.
This is BYU’s super bowl. This is Utah’s disappointment. Hence, our next reason.
REASON #6: EXTRA MOTIVATION
The matchup is scintillating from a storyline perspective. The Holy War in Sin City … Bronco Mendenhall’s last game, going for his 100th win … the rivalry renewing months before it was expected to next September, etc., etc. BYU is hungry. Their fan base is hungry. They are both tired of being the butt-end of rivalry jokes. 75% of the tickets sold are BYU blue. DO NOT underestimate BYU’s motivation to send Bronco out with a win. I’ve never seen Cougar nation this motivated or this excited to play
Utah. It’s different this time. I’m a Ute fan and I can feel it. If Utah doesn’t meet BYU’s intensity… I don’t even want to finish the sentence.
I’ll make this short and sweet. I think Utah will control the trenches. I think Utah will be dominant on defense. I think Utah runs all over BYU. But while Utah may have better athletes all across the board, the great equalizer in football is the quarterback position. And Tanner Mangum > Travis Wilson. I think BYU gets in a few big plays, and even against the vaunted Utah defense, plays inspired football and goes on to score half of their season average with 17 points… while Utah, unable to to overcome the injuries or Wilson’s passing woes, scores only 13.
BYU 17 – Utah 13
Now excuse me while I light myself on fire. Forgive me, Swoop.
– Alan Malae
(Sean again here) Now that we have at least one diehard Utah fan on record saying his gut tells him this is BYU’s year and seeing that the poll question from my last post showed BYU as the favorite in most eyes, I’m curious…
Fun side note, check out this CollegeFootballRivalries Instagram account featuring the Holy War.