Utah may have endured a disappointing end to an otherwise promising season, but on Saturday the Utes will have the opportunity to send their seniors off with a victory over the team’s biggest rival. The Utes will meet BYU in Las Vegas for the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl to finish off the season.
While many fans were disappointed with being left out of the higher-tier bowls, this matchup provides for a game with so many storylines that it almost feels like a blockbuster movie.
Tuning In • The game will kick off at 12:30 p.m. PT (1:30 p.m. MT) and will be aired on ABC. Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer will handle the commentating duties, while Maria Taylor will cover the action from the sideline. This is Musburger’s sixth time overall coming from his SEC commentating duties to the Las Vegas Purple bowl, while Palmer will be coming back for his third year in a row. For those without access to a TV, the game will be broadcast over the radio on Sports USA’s network and the American Forces Radio Network. Mike Morgan and Gary Barnett will provide the commentary for the radio broadcasts.
The Battlefield • Sam Boyd Stadium will host the Vegas Bowl again this year. The stadium has a 38,500 capacity for the bowl game, but it is normally 35,500 for UNLV games. The game sold out this year by Dec. 7. The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl owns seven of the stadium’s nine largest crowds for college football games. The Utes will be happy to hear that the forecast calls for a high near 60 degrees Fahrenheit with a 10-mile-per-hour wind. This will be a nice change of scenery as Utah’s campus has experienced more than 10 inches of snow over the last week. Fans and players alike will be able to enjoy the warm weather for the game, and it shouldn’t affect head coach Kyle Whittingham’s gameplan or Utah’s play style.
Holy War in Sin City • This will be the first time BYU and Utah will meet in a bowl game in a rivalry that goes back to 1896. There is no shortage of bad blood between these two teams that have met 95 times. The battle between the Cougars and the Utes is always a heated affair, with 14 of their last 17 games being decided by a touchdown or less. This game will undoubtedly rekindle the fire that has been lost the last two years while the two teams decided to put their annual regular season rivalry game on hold. It will be exciting to see these two teams get at it again before they renew their regular season rivalry game next season.
Connections • As far as Vegas connections go, there are three players who will be returning home when the team travels to Las Vegas. Redshirt freshman defensive back Casey Hughes, senior slot receiver Bubba Poole and junior running back Marcus Sanders-Williams all went to high school in in Vegas. The BYU connections run a little deeper, especially in Utah’s coaching staff. Head coach Kyle Wittingham played linebacker for BYU from 1978 to 1981, co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick played receiver for the Cougars, and linebackers coach Justin Ena was a three-time all conference linebacker for BYU. On the other sideline, Steve Kaufusi, BYU’s defensive line coach, was on the Utes’ coaching staff from 1994-2001.
Aiming for 100 • This will be Bronco Mendenhall’s last game coaching for the Cougars, as the head coach will leave for Virginia after having coached BYU for 10 seasons. Mendenhall will be looking to reach a milestone in his last game with the Cougars — his 100th win. Mendenhall will have a tough task ahead of him as he will be facing the No. 22-ranked team in the nation, a Ute team that would love to prevent Mendenhall from reaching this mark. Utah has grown accustomed to facing Mendenhall, and a victory would only be sweeter in this rivalry game if the players knew they were preventing their opponent from ending his Cougar career on a high note.
A Tale of Two Quarterbacks • These two teams have had vastly different quarterback situations this season. BYU is led by freshman sensation Tanner Mangum, who stepped in for Taysom Hill after the senior went down with an injury in the first game of the season. Mangum madness enveloped the nation for a brief moment as he threw a game-winning Hail Mary touchdown in relief of Hill against Nebraska, and then a go-ahead touchdown late against Boise State the next week. Eventually, the hype calmed down and Mangum quietly had a solid season for BYU. He threw for 3,062 yards and 21 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Utah, on the other hand, had an experienced senior on their side in Travis Wilson. The senior quarterback was never known for his spectacular plays or highlight-reel finishes, but he captained an offense that usually leaned on running back Devontae Booker. Wilson threw for 2,024 yards, 13 touchdowns with 10 interceptions on the season. Wilson also added six rushing touchdowns to his final season as a Ute.
Mangum may have had the flashier plays and bigger stats, but Wilson has the experience under his belt and ice in his veins that is required to lead a team in an intense bowl game.
Special Teams is Key • In a rivalry game as big as this one, it can come down to a single possession, and often, these games are decided by a field goal. In close games, it is a boost to have the kind of special teams Utah has. Utah punter Tom Hackett was just voted a unanimous All-American, only the second in Utah’s history. Hackett won the Ray Guy Award for the second straight year and was third in the nation with a 47.8 punt average. Utah led the nation in net punting at 43.67 yards. In a game where every yard matters, having a punter who can pin your opponent behind the 10- or even the 5-yard line is crucial. Forcing Mangum to take the Cougars down the entire field will maximize Utah’s opportunities to force an error by the freshman quarterback.
Along with Hackett is Andy Phillips, the junior kicker out of Draper, Utah. Phillips was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award and was a key piece to Utah’s stellar special teams. Phillips made 23 of his 27 field goals and didn’t miss a single PAT over the course of the season. In a game that could come down to single field goal, the Utes will be glad to have Phillips in their ranks.
Stats to Watch • BYU averages 428 yards of offense per game, while Utah only amasses 377 yards per game. However, Utah’s defense has been able to hold its opponents to an average of just 365 yards per game, significantly lower than the Cougar average. If the Utes’ defense can continue its usual level of play and keep BYU’s offense in check, then Travils Wilson and Co. won’t have a problem. If it comes to a shootout, Utah will have a problem because its offense hasn’t shown the ability to consistently move up and down the field, especially without Booker.
Another stat to be on the lookout for in this game is the difference in the red zone touchdown percentage between these two teams. BYU finds the end zone on 71 percent of its red zone trips, while Utah has only converted 58 percent of its red zone ventures into touchdowns. This discrepancy will have to be closed if Utah wants to avoid the shootout that BYU is accustomed to playing in. The Utes’ defense will have to step up their game and stop the Cougar attack.
Player to Watch • Joe Williams will be starting again in place of injured running back Booker. Williams had 308 rushing yards in the last two games of the season and looked very capable as the feature back in an offense that consistently leans on the run. Utah should try and keep the ball away from BYU’s offense for as long as they can, and Williams will play an important role in whether or not that can happen. If he can find gaps in the Cougars’ defense and hit the holes that open up for him, Utah can play to their strengths. If he fails in his starring role, it will force Wilson to lead the team down the field, opening up the chance for BYU to get the ball back quick.
You can look at stats and depth charts all you want, but in the end this game is going to come down to one thing — whoever wants it more. This is the last game of the season. This is the Las Vegas Bowl. This is the biggest rivalry game in the state of Utah.
One thing is certain — these teams will fight their hearts out. They know how much is on the line and, come game time, they will fight with an intensity that is expected of the BYU-Utah rivalry. This game will be decided on the field, and Utah will fight to show the nation why its team should not be judged based on their lackluster performance to end the season.