Rivalry between No. 25 BYU, Utah still heated
The infusion of cash from joining the Pac-12 Conference has led to a construction zone around Utah's football offices.
One might say the team itself is undergoing as major a renovation as well after just two games.
The Utes (1-1) already have lost to a northern instate rival in overtime, lost quarterback Jordan Wynn to a career-ending injury and now have to regroup in time to face ''the team down south'' - aka No. 25 Brigham Young - on Saturday night.
And this was supposed to be the easier part of the Utes schedule, what with road trips coming next to seemingly vastly improved conference foes Arizona State and UCLA surrounding what initially was billed as a showdown for the Pac-12 South crown at home against No. 2 USC.
Good thing Utah coach Kyle Whittingham won't have to worry about getting his team up for BYU.
''It's an emotional game for both sides,'' Whittingham said of the rivalry that dates to the 1890s. ''There never ever is a need to worry about the team's mental state during rivalry week.''
That's the good news, along with the fact that Utah has won two straight and seven of the last 10 against the Cougars (2-0), including four of the last five games in Salt Lake City.
A lot has changed in a year, with the Utes in their second season as a member of the Pac-12 and BYU enjoying its road to independence.
While BYU found a leader in senior quarterback Riley Nelson and improved its defense, the Utes are having flashbacks as they move forward again without Wynn, who abruptly retired following a fourth shoulder injury. Whittingham won't identify a starter until game time, but the prevailing sentiment is senior Jon Hays will start, with spot action from freshman Travis Wilson.
''We're certainly going to miss Jordan, but the other two quarterbacks are pretty adept at escaping the rush and that might work a little bit in our favor,'' Whittingham said.
Going into rivalry week last year, the Utes were coming off a tough road loss to Southern California in their first-ever Pac-12 Conference game. This time they are reeling from last week's 27-20 OT loss to Utah State, a Western Athletic Conference program on the rise but one Utah had previously beaten 12 straight times.
''It's a different feeling,'' Whittingham acknowledged. ''We went down there to SC and played well. (Last week) was a complete shambles. ... There's not one redeeming value that came out of that game. Not one position group played the way we expected, not one coached the way we expected. It was a complete downer across the board.''
What made matters worse were the other scores in Pac-12 games that followed. Teams that Utah figured to be favored against pulled off big wins, with Arizona ripping then-No. 18 Oklahoma State 59-38, UCLA upsetting No. 16 Nebraska 36-30 and Oregon State knocking off No. 13 Wisconsin 10-7.
As BYU found out last year at home, anything is possible. The Cougars turned the ball over seven times in a 54-10 loss to the Utes.
''The worst part is it was so uncharacteristic,'' BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree said. ''If we had played them real hard and they were just the better team that day, I think it would have been easier to live with. But I don't think we showed who we were.''
While Utah has the benefit of its Paint it Red home crowd this time, the Utes could be without two starters in the secondary. Strong safety Brian Blechen is serving the third game of his three-game suspension for breaking team rules, and free safety Eric Rowe has a strained hamstring.
There also are questions about the health of star running back John White, who gashed BYU for 174 yards and three TDs last year. Jarrell Oliver and Kelvin York are capable backups but Utah's line has been reshuffled because of ineffective play.
Utah's front seven is as formidable as any, and could be game-changing with a mobile QB like Nelson, who was recruited by Utah out of high school in 2005 but was limited to mop-up duty in BYU's loss last year.
He knows Saturday's game will be the culmination of seven years of grit and determination.
Physically, he said the key is getting the ball out on time, and on target.
''We can't make (the game) bigger than it is where you become tight,'' Nelson said.
Whittingham, much as he did after a loss last year at Cal dropped Utah to 3-4 on the season, is counting on similar senior leadership
''You can't panic,'' he said. ''You've got to stick to what you believe in, not make wholesale changes. It's a matter of staying the course, getting senior leadership to rise up.''
Whittingham also insists Utah's goal of winning the Pac-12 South hasn't changed.
''The silver lining, if there is one, is (the Utah State loss) had no impact upon conference play,'' he said. ''You know conference play can be pretty rigorous. ... It's going to be a challenging year just like last year, just like what we expected when we joined this league. The bar has been raised.''
The rivalry, which will go on hiatus for the 2014 and 2015 seasons because of scheduling issues, remains the same.
''I don't believe having gone two separate paths has affected the emotional aspects,'' Whittingham said. ''It's one of the most heated rivalries in the country and I don't see that changing.''