The Cougar ground game continues to be productive, although the Cougars have yet to face a rush defense as good as Utah's since the TCU game. Both J.J. Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya have remained consistent while being helped out a lot by the improving play of true freshman Joshua Quezada.
The genesis of BYU's success on the ground has come by way of some very good play by the offensive line. Against Utah, the offensive linemen will again be looked at to lead the way with their collective experience and talent.
Utah is flat out good against the run. The Utes give up a mere 107 yards per game while operating out of their 4-3 base defense, which features an impressive rotation of defensive tackles.
"They have some real good players up front that will be a challenge for us," noted offensive lineman Braden Brown. "From what we've seen on film, they'll be a tough challenge and one of the toughest we've faced all year. It's going to be a good battle."
Utah's defensive front presents a bunch of familiar names that were close to playing for BYU: Latu Heimuli, David Kruger, Star Lotulelei, and most notably Sealver Siliga. Siliga is generally regarded as Utah's best run-stuffer and the Cougars will have to keep him in check should they hope to be productive on the ground.
"They're big, but they're also really athletic and quick off the snap," explained Brown. "I'll be going up against their ends, probably against Derrick Shelby, who is probably their most athletic end. He's strong, he's fast and he'll be a challenge. On the other side it's Christian Cox who is their senior leader and he's a good effort guy. They're very good on the edges for sure."
At linebacker the Utes will feature middle linebacker Chaz Walker (5-11, 218 Jr.), who leads the team in total tackles, as well as Chad Manis (6-5, 235 Sr.) and Matt Martinez (6-0, 223 Jr.).
"They have very good linebackers that are quick the ball and athletic," noted Brown.
Even though the Utes have been exploited in some areas during recent weeks, their run defense has remained relatively solid. They won't present as stiff of a challenge as TCU, but they'll be a stiff challenge nevertheless.
The Cougar ground game will be a key matchup if the Cougars hope to come out of Rice Eccles Stadium with a win. The offensive line has grown accustomed to pushing around the opposition, and that needs to continue to some degree on Saturday.
"We're taking the attitude that it's all on us," said Brown. "That's the attitude we've had since the Utah State loss, and if we take care of business and open up some good runs, then that will open up things for Jake [Heaps] and the passing game."
The Cougar offensive front should provide some good holes, but nothing like they've been able to do against recent opponents. Should the Cougars run for over 100 yards, then they'll have a good chance to win this game.
BYU passing attack vs. Utah
Heaps and company are coming in confident with several key receivers finding their game late in the season. Both Luke Ashworth and Cody Hoffman have emerged as the primary targets, while Devin Mahina and the tight ends finally showed well as receiving options last week.
The Utes meanwhile have been struggling mightily in defending the pass in recent weeks. They haven't been able to mount much of a pass rush here of late, which limits any defense's ability to stopping the pass.
San Diego State was able to riddle their coverages last week with a lot of deep posts in an effort to exploit the inside safety coverages. The safety position is the position that has seen most of the drop-off for the Utes this season, as they've struggled to find an adequate replacement for Robert Johnson.
They'll go with Justin Taplin-Ross (6-3, 214 Sr.) at free safety and Brian Blechen (6-2, 208 Fr.). Blechen has shown to be a big hitter that is very good in run support, but somewhat lacking in coverage, which is somewhat normal for any freshman defensive back.
On the outside, Brandon Burton (6-0, 185 Jr.) is their best cover guy and is someone who will likely be playing in the NFL some day. Lamar Chapman (5-8, 176 Sr.) has been solid, but overall, this looks to be one of the weaker Ute secondaries the Cougars have gone against in recent years.
Due to a lack of confidence in their safeties, the Utes have been forced back to more zone coverages than is the norm for them. They'll still man up frequently, but with their free safety unable to cover as much space, the Utes have played a much softer coverage scheme against recent teams.
Utah's strategy has always been to be as physical as possible with BYU's receivers in disrupting offensive coordinator Robert Anae's rhythm offense. It's very likely that they'll revert back to more man-coverage this time around, but it's something that Heaps and company should be able to exploit.
It will be very important for McKay Jacobson to have a productive game. It was very promising to see both Hoffman and Ashworth burn defenses deep in recent weeks, but it's Jacobson who still provides the best deep threat if he's fully healthy. Hopefully his hamstring can allow him the production most were expecting from him this year.
Utah has a knack for being able to jump BYU's routes, which obviously lead to turnovers. Limiting turnovers will be huge in this game, so it will be important for receivers to finish every route and for Heaps to not get too casual with his pre-snap reads and delivery.
BYU rush defense vs. Utah
The Cougars have obviously done extremely well in defending the run since the Utah State game. Andrew Rich has been a key in all of this, as he's been playing closer to the line and allowing both Brandon Ogletree and Shane Hunter to play more downhill, which is a strength for them.
New Mexico's rushing attack isn't exactly a stern test for how the rush defense will fare against the run with only one experienced nose tackle available. Defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi often makes mention of his desire to have three viable rotating options at the nose position, and now that he's stuck with only one proven option, it could get interesting given this week's opponent.
Utah has been productive in running the football, but not overwhelmingly so with their average of 162.9 yards per game. They'll feature a rotation of Matt Asiata (5-11, 230 Sr.) and Eddie Wide (5-10, 195 Sr.). Asiata is a sort of bulldozer type who seems to always fall forward for extra yardage, while Wide is more of a finesse back.
"They're a good combo," noted cornerback Brian Logan about Utah's two backs. "Utah always runs the ball well and they certainly do this year with those two guys. Run support will be key for us to win this game."
It's a ground game that was limited significantly in their two losses against TCU and Notre Dame, but they rebounded to put forth some good production last week against SDSU.
With Jordan Wynn's and the passing game's recent struggles, look for the Utes to concentrate more on establishing a productive running attack. With BYU being thin at nose tackle, the Ute offensive brain trust will almost certainly look to test the middle of the Cougar rush defense with a heavy dose of Matt Asiata.
BYU will want to force Utah to throw the football, as the Cougars have been relatively efficient this year in defending the pass. Should Utah be able to run for their average, things could get difficult overall.
BYU pass defense vs. Utah
As mentioned, BYU's pass defense has fared very well throughout the year. They feature a load of good experience at three of the four positions, and with Travis Uale settling in a bit more with each game, they've proven very effective in limiting what opposing offenses can do through the air.
"We've been good, but we had some mistakes, especially me last week against New Mexico," said Logan. "We'll need to be focused because Utah has some guys that are scary. They have guys that can break it on any play, so you have to be on top of your game every second."
Utah's main receivers are senior Jereme Brooks (5-7, 170) and sophomore DeVonte Christopher (6-1, 205).
"Brooks is just an athlete," noted Logan. "If he gets in space, he'll break your ankles, so we'll definitely have to account for him. Christopher is definitely good and is someone who catches my eye whenever we watch film. I'm definitely excited about the matchup with both of them because of how good they are, along with the other guys they have."
Utah also throws to its running backs quite often, with Asiata and Wide accounting for 30 and 29 catches on the season respectively.
"They have the mentality that if they get any of their guys in the open field, that they can beat a defense and that's largely true with the athletes they have," said Logan. "We'll have to be quick to the ball and make sure we wrap up, because if they break that first tackle, they'll make for a big play almost every time."
Look for Utah to try and test BYU deep, where the Cougars haven't been severely tested much of the year. They've shown some cracks there on occasion, and with a productive rushing attack and with how close Rich has been playing to the line, Utah should get some opportunities deep.
Look for Utah to also create a lot of man-on-man matchups with their receivers against BYU's linebackers. This is where they're most effective, as their underneath patterns allow players like Brooks to simply make plays with their feet.
Another player that will certainly have to be accounted for is Shakey Smithson (5-11, 202 Sr.). Smithson is their primary returner and presents a rare and very effective combination of shear strength and quick lateral movement that has proven to be extremely effective throughout the year.
BYU's kick coverage has been somewhat lacking, and they'll certainly have to shore that up, as Smithson is someone that is used to providing big gainers with his returns.
Overall, it's very much an unknown how BYU's relatively young team will respond to the raucous venue of Rice Eccles Stadium. The area of biggest worry will be BYU's skill position players, who are still working on their overall consistency and confidence.
BYU certainly has the tools to keep this one relatively close, but it would be much easier to like their chances if the game were at home. Look for BYU to give Utah a good game, but big plays by Utah's skill position players and some turnovers will prove to be the difference.
Final Score Prediction: Utah 31, BYU 23