Utah stopped skid but can it stop rival BYU?
Jordan Wynn knows firsthand that it only takes one play to introduce a young player to the Utah-BYU rivalry.
After getting drilled on Utah's first play last year, he heard boos raining down on him as he lay on the rock-hard ground in Provo.
''I thought that was kind of messed up, to boo a guy laying on the ground,'' Wynn said this week as the two teams prepared to meet for the final time Saturday as members of the Mountain West Conference. ''But that's just how the rivalry is. It's very passionate.''
Wynn was the freshman quarterback going into a rival stadium last year. Now it's Jake Heaps' turn when BYU (6-5, 5-2 Mountain West) ventures up I-15 to face the 23rd-ranked Utes (9-2, 6-1).
This will be the 47th consecutive year the two teams, separated by a mere 50 miles, have met in November, something that will change next season when Utah jumps to what's now the Pac-10 and BYU becomes independent. They will continue to play each other, but next year's game is set for Sept. 17 in Provo and the following year Sept. 15 in Salt Lake City.
Until then, both want to close out Mountain West play on a high note.
The Utes already saw their BCS dreams implode in a 47-7 loss at home to TCU, followed by a 28-3 loss at Notre Dame, humbling defeats that dropped them from No. 6 in the nation to No. 23.
''To go into this game on a three-game losing streak would have been a big downer,'' said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who played linebacker and coached at BYU before taking over the Utes program in 2005.
The Utes avoided that with an improbable comeback at San Diego State, a game that included a blocked punt, a Hail Mary touchdown and career game from Wynn.
His counterpart at BYU has endured a big learning curve. But Heaps has shown steady improvement.
''He's much more confident,'' Whittingham said. ''Physically he's got a lot of ability. He's got good size, a quick release, but what you watch on tape is the pocket presence.''
It helps that the Cougars have run the ball so effectively (48 percent of their yards come on the ground) even after losing their all-time leading rusher.
Stepping up have been JJ Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and freshman Joshua Quezada. BYU has rushed for at least 200 yards in each of its last four games, but will face its toughest test in the 10th-ranked Utah rushing defense.
While Utah is favored by nine, BYU is the team with momentum, having won five of its last six after a 1-4 start.
''I'm every bit as gratified, probably more so, at what we've been able to get done to this point than any team I've coached in the past five years here,'' Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall said. ''Not a step of it's been easy, but I think that's why it's so rewarding.''
Mendenhall fired his defensive coordinator and took over those duties going into Week 6. It's paid off in a big way as the Cougars have become a much tougher defense, allowing 10 points or less the last three games and drastically reducing rushing yards allowed.
The extra duties admittedly have left Mendenhall pretty exhausted.
''I'm pretty tired but in a good way,'' he said during a conference call Tuesday. ''I'm talking to you and I don't even know where my shoes are. Everything is kind of a blur. But that's OK.''
Preparing for rivalries, especially one that has become more heated the last dozen years, can have that effect.
A year ago, after then-quarterback Max Hall tossed the game-winning TD pass in overtime, he stirred up emotions even more by saying he ''hated'' the ''classless'' Utes and everything about them.
Though he'd later apologize and say his comments were directed only at fans who harassed his family the previous year, Utah players haven't forgotten.
''A lot of young guys are so new, they don't even know what he said,'' Utah senior defensive end Christian Cox said. ''But I know. I know what he said.
''Last year still bothers me - just the way we lost to them, heartbreaking. There's a lot behind this game.''