November 28, 2009

Inside the Holy War

No. 21 Utah (9-2, 6-1 MWC) heads a short distance south to take on No. 19 and rival BYU (9-2, 6-1) in a battle for second place in the MWC.

This has been an intense rivalry for the last 20 years, and has been no different under these two head coaches. Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall both took over their programs in 2005 and have become some of the best coaches in the West.

Home field has not been an advantage in this series, as over the last 20 years both teams are 6-4 on the road. The "Holy War" is as intense a rivalry as there is in the country, and each year seemingly brings something new and unexpected to the storied history of the rivalry. Utah leads the series 53-33-4 and has a 17-16-1 record in Provo, as well as winning five of the last seven overall.

Here's a look inside the matchups and players to watch:

Utah Run Offense vs BYU Run Defense
Eddie Wide continues to make a case as the best back in the conference, leading the MWC in both rushing yards (918) and touchdowns (11). After six straight 100-yard rushing games, Wide has been slowed down the last two, running for just 109 yards against TCU and San Diego State. Wide has been good despite not getting great blocking up front. Utah's offensive line has struggled at times but played great at others. The inconsistency up front is a little concerning, especially since the same starting five have played for most of the season. After having blitz pickup issues early in the season, the Utes have gotten better but still struggle with odd-man fronts such as the 3-4 that BYU plays. Utah's offensive line will need to play well against a solid BYU run defense. Sausan Shakerin might not play after an injury last week, making Shaky Smithson Wide's top backup. Smithson and DeVonte Christopher could cause BYU problems from the "Wildcat" formation.

While on paper BYU's run defense appears great, giving up just 113 yards a game, but have been vulnerable and really untested. BYU has not faced many good running teams, and teams that focus on running the ball and attacking with the run have had success. BYU does not over-pursue and plays sound football, and does a great job stopping misdirection plays. BYU likes to stay in their base 3-4 alignment so Utah's WR's will have to block linebackers in the running game. Shawn Doman really attacks the line from his inside linebacker position, while Colby Clawson and Jordan Pendleton are very good at holding the edge.

BYU Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Harvey Unga has turned in yet another solid season running the ball for the Cougars. Unga has run for 900 yards and nine touchdowns, and is very difficult to bring down behind the line, losing just 14 yards in 161 carries. Unga is a big back with good speed and quickness and is also a very good receiver and a solid blocker. Unga had a big game against the Utes a year ago, running for 116 yards on 15 carries as the Utah defense showed more focus on the BYU passing game. Bryan Kariya and J.J. DiLuigi have been capable backups and Manase Tonga is a good lead blocker who can also carry the ball. The Cougars run for 150 yards a game, and reaching that number against the Utes will be a key factor in how the game turns out.

Utah has struggled stopping the run in 2009, giving up 142 yards a game and 3.8 yards per carry. Utah has struggled the most against smaller, quicker teams that can really make the Utah linebackers pay for over-pursuing. Utah has been good against running styles like BYU's, and it will be interesting to see how the Utes fare against the BYU running game. While the Utes virtually ignored the threat of the run a year ago, they will need to focus on keeping the Cougars in check on the ground in 2009. Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright must stay at home and not over-pursue as they have done at times this year.

Utah Pass Offense vs BYU Pass Defense
Jordan Wynn will start for just the fourth time this season against the Cougars. The confident young freshman has played well since taking over for Terrance Cain, and can really stretch the field with his arm and deep accuracy. Wynn has struggled in the short and intermediate passing games and keeping the chains moving. Wynn is a big play waiting to happen but hasn't shown the ability to take the Utah offense on sustained drives down the field. Utah's offense in general has struggled on third downs, converting just 41% of the time on the season. It will be up to Wynn to take what BYU's defense will give him and keep moving the chains. David Reed has been arguably the best receiver in the conference and can do it all. Reed needs to have a big day against the Cougars. Keep an eye out for #81, tight end Kendrick Moeai, who is the type of player that can give BYU's defense fits over the middle should the Utah offense use him in the passing game.

BYU has not been very good against the pass, giving up 221 yards through the air at almost seven yards per pass and 17 passing touchdowns. BYU lacks speed in their secondary and try to cover their lack of athleticism with a soft zone defense that emphasizes a "bend but don't break" approach. The Cougars play the deep ball and come up to tackle the short passes. Utah picked this approach apart a year ago, so look for Utah to try a similar approach in the pass game. Brian Logan is a very good tackler despite his 5-foot-6, 176 pound frame. Safeties Andrew Rich and Scott Johnson love the big hit. Rich leads the Cougars with 74 tackles.

BYU Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
BYU's passing game is one of the better units in the country. The Cougars are ninth nationally at just over 300 yards per game, and are second in pass efficiency. Max Hall had issues early in the season with interceptions, but has played much better as the season has gone on and he has gotten more comfortable with his relatively new crop of receivers. BYU has a fantastic pair of tight ends in Andrew George and Mackey award finalist Dennis Pitta. Pitta in particular is a matchup problem with his size and speed making him difficult to cover one-one-one. BYU like to use both, flexing out Pitta as a receiver much like the Indianapolis Colts use Dallas Clark and keeping George in-line. This way the Cougars can play the pass like a three receiver set while keeping a defense in a base alignment, which opens up lanes in the run game. McKay Jacobson has very good speed at receiver and keeps defenses honest on the outside instead of focusing on Pitta over the middle. Jacobson is averaging 27 yards per catch this season.

Utah likes to play man defense on the corners, and the Utes have the speed to run with the BYU offense. The issue will be Pitta. None of Utah's linebackers have shown much in pass defense, Robert Johnson is too valuable playing center field and Joe Dale might be too small to mark Pitta the entire game. Utah could very well play three safeties and two linebackers, putting the tall, athletic Justin Taplin-Ross on Pitta. "Tap" is a solid cover safety who has the size to match up with Pitta. If the Utes can keep Pitta in check, they have the advantage everywhere else. R.J. Stanford on Jacobson will be another key matchup.

Special Teams
Neither team has been special in this area. BYU has had issues with kickoffs all year, using both Mitch Payne and Riley Stephenson. Both struggled early keeping the ball in-bounds and getting good depth on their kicks. The Cougars settled on the punter, Stephenson, who has 11 touchbacks in his 54 kicks and opponents are starting on average from their 26 yard line. As a punter, Stephenson is solid, netting 39.1 yards per punt. Place-kicking is an adventure. Payne is hitting just 63% of his field goals, and as such BYU does not kick the ball. In the return game, the Cougars are adequate. O'Neill Chambers is a solid kick returner, averaging 26.6 yards per return, but has struggled as a punt returner. Chambers does have a 97-yard kick return on the season but did not score. BYU's coverage units are solid.

Utah has a good unit. Joe Phillips has been very good as a place-kicker, but like the Cougars with Payne, Utah does not feel Phillips has great range. Ben Vroman has a big leg but has been erratic in his field goals and was benched in favor of Phillips early on. Vroman is great on kickoffs, with 28 touchbacks. Kick coverage on the rare return has been good and opponents start on average on their own 22. Sean Sellwood is a solid punter but Utah's coverage has been spotty. The Utes are netting just 37.6 yards per punt. Smithson has stepped up some in the return games, and is averaging 23.4 yards per kick return and 10.8 yards per punt return. Utah gets the edge mainly because of Phillips and Vroman, as the two teams are equally average in the other areas.

While the two coaches are 2-2 against each other, Utah gets the edge here. The Utah staff is starting to come together and have done a good job getting their young players up-to-speed and have a history of getting their team up for big games. Whittingham's decision to pull offensive coordinator Dave Schramm from the box to the field has been a nice boost to the offense. Schramm's fiery attitude has been a spark to a struggling offense and the change in attitude has been noticeable. Defensively the Utes have been pretty basic but solid as Kalani Sitake becomes more and more comfortable bringing his personal touches to Whittingham's defense.

Robert Anae is a solid offensive mind but does appear to fall in love with the pass too much at times. Still, it is hard to find much fault with a unit that puts up the numbers the Cougars do year-in, year-out. Jaime Hill has had a tough season despite decent numbers from the defense. Mendenhall's calm, every-game-the-same approach has been good for the Cougars, but they have lacked fire in big games. In the four rivalry games, it appears Mendenhall and the Cougars have been out-coached, though the Cougars have been favored three of the previous four years, they have just the 2-2 mark, and the Utes kept the games closer than expected in 2006 and 2007.

Smithson is the x-factor for the Utes. With all the ways the Utes utilize Smithson, he has the potential to really change the game in the Utes favor. As a wildcat quarterback, Smithson is a threat to run and he has shown the ability to throw deep if the defense does not stay honest. Smithson is dangerous after the catch as a receiver and could have a big day in the passing game against the soft zone. Smithson has also been close to breaking kicks and punts for big gains, and his ability to flip field position could be big in an intense, emotional game.

For BYU, I like DiLuigi as an x-factor. DiLuigi is the type of back the Utes have struggled against and he has the hands to be a factor out of the backfield in the passing game. The Cougars have also used DiLuigi as a return man with solid results. Still, with what Smithson has shown and how he matches up against the Cougars, the Utes get the edge.

Utah will have a few suprises for the BYU offense that will make it difficult for the Cougars to put the ball in the endzone. Both teams will play a tight first half and the Utes pull away in the second. Turnovers will seal the deal in the second half as Utah will take control of the game in all three phases.

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