Looking Ahead to Utah vs. BYU Rivalry Matchup

As a general rule, it's not a good idea to look too far ahead – especially to the Utah vs. BYU annual grudge match. That's a good way to lose focus on San Diego State next weekend, who gave Utah a lot more than they expected Saturday night. However, after yesterday's Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Michigan-Michigan State rivalry must-see-TV clashes, I feel momentarily compelled to address the season-ending BYU vs. Utah matchup.

After Utah handled SDSU's strong defense (in MWC terms), it looks like BYU's chance of an upset against Utah will require them to bring their "A" game for two halves and somehow force Utah into its "B" or "C" game.

Ute quarterback Alex Smith, with his 15 touchdowns and two interceptions, is their most dangerous factor. He's already an excellent decision-maker, smart, accurate and extremely athletic. Moreover, Smith is one of the MWC in touchdowns via the run. He reminds me of Colorado State's "Sunshine" as a field general who can break your back, run or pass – except that "Sunshine" was a more physical runner while Smith is a more accurate passer.

Smith plays perfectly within Urban Meyer's system like a coach on the field. His former league counterpart, "Sunshine", sometimes had CSU coach Sonny Lubick tearing his hair out.

I think the team that has given Utah the most trouble so far is Air Force. The Falcons lost 49-35 to the Utes, a margin of 14. The Cougars beat Air Force by 17, a win dimmed somewhat by the Falcons loss yesterday to Wyoming.

Here's how the Falcons kept it that close against Utah:

• Running the ball (AFA = 302 yards; Utah = 245 yards; 57 yard advantage to AFA)
* Clock (AFA = 34:33; Utah = 25:27; about 9-minute advantage to AFA)
* Passing (AFA = 169; Utah =260; about 100-yard advantage to Utah)
* First downs (AFA = 21; Utah = 25; advantage of four first downs to Utah)
* Turnovers (AFA = 3; Utah =2; advantage of 1 to Utah)

BYU vs. Air Force game yielded similar results:

* Running the ball (AFA = 213 yards; BYU = 173 yards; 40-yard advantage to AFA)
* Clock (AFA = 29:27; BYU = 30:31; about 1 minute advantage to BYU)
* Passing (AFA = 150; BYU =350; about 200-yard advantage to BYU)
* First downs (AFA = 20; BYU = 23; advantage of three first downs to BYU)
* Turnovers (AFA = 0; BYU =2; advantage of two to AFA)

It doesn't necessarily mean much, but the Cougars passing game did far more damage to Air Force than Utah – offsetting BYU's turnover deficit.

If you look at how Utah wins, it's obvious their offense is extremely efficient. They get way more touchdowns per 100 yards of offense than most teams.

If you look at the MWC stats through four games, you'll see several Utah guys at the top in scoring touchdowns, featuring their wide receivers, quarterback and running back.

The Cougars' top touchdown makers are further down the list. That explains why Utah averages 42 points per game while BYU averages 22 points per game in MWC play.

My guess is BYU game plan will be to run the clock by running the ball a lot. Utah's run defense is so-so; it reminds me of Ken Schmidt's "bend, but don't break" defensive scheme. If the Cougars can keep Smith off the field, sustain long scoring drives, convert in the red zone, that's their best chance for an upset.

If Cougar quarterback John Beck can hit his long throws with greater consistency with great running by Curtis Brown, Naufahi Tahi and blocking by Moa Peaua, BYU will be vying for the win late in the game. If Smith continues his all-around passing game, the cornerbacks of both teams will get worked.

Todd Watkins and Austin Collie are high priority threats anywhere on the field and Utah probably will not put a lot of guys in the box to defend the run, other than on the goal line. Furthermore, other BYU receivers – Jason Kukahiko, Antwaun Harris, Dennis Pitta and Daniel Coats have proven they can catch intermediate routes, which means the Utah secondary must respect BYU's much-improved passing game.

If the Cougars cannot run on the Utes when they are spread out protecting against the pass, they won't deserve to win.

Utah is good, but they haven't yet faced an opponent who can run and pass really well. Whether BYU is that team depends on which of its multifaceted personalities – Jekyll or Hyde – shows up.

It is easier to defend a team who is one or the other, but not both in the same game like BYU was at Air Force. If the Cougars can string two good halves together, with both their run and pass game working efficiently, they can tire out the Utah defense while Smith and his super-efficient offense watches from the sideline. That may the Cougars' only chance to ambush Utah.

To Meyer and Smith's credit, the Ute offense is so efficient they rarely kick a field goal. Though the Cougars average 40 more yards of offense per game, Utah scores 20 more points per game which goes straight to the bottom line – where it counts the most.

Their sparse use of the field goal kicker could backfire on them in a close game he does not have ice water in his veins, or the deep range BYU kicker Matt Payne possesses.

From watching Utah play this season, it's doubtful the Cougars will slow their offense too much. No one else has done it.

Although we may see a lot of double tight end sets early or Peaua plus one tight end, BYU coach Gary Crowton may test to see if they can run the ball effectively with one or no tight ends, forcing Utah to spread out its defense and allow their cornerbacks to get their first taste of Watkins' breeze as he blows past them. I call it the "Uh oh" factor, since no Utah defender has ever seen that kind of speed in BYU blue.

Air Force did not have the horses to deal with Utah, but they had the right idea by keeping the ball away from Smith. BYU needs to do it better, and score when they keep the ball after time-consuming drives. By keeping the ball nine minutes longer than Utah, Air Force gave Smith fewer series' to score on them.

Put another way, Utah's defense is their "worst" unit – even though they have been most effective and efficient most of the season. The Cougars want to keep their "worst" unit on the field as long as possible unless, of course, they score repeatedly on long bombs.

Clearly, BYU's bread-and-butter against Utah needs to be Brown and Tahi, with a lot more Peaua added to the mix – in the same way Luke Staley and Brandon Doman distracted attention from the Cougars' weak defense in 2001. The last two games of that year without Staley showed how weak BYU's defense was. When they burn the clock against Utah, they will eventually tire out the Ute defense.

If the game turns into a high-scoring shootout, Utah will probably win.

Bottom line: I have no doubt that Alex Smith will bring his "A" game. The question is whether the Ute defense will bring a "B" or "C" game. Matt Payne may be the difference maker, with his field goals and excellent directional punting.

Meanwhile, it's time to focus on San Diego State and New Mexico, two critical must-win home games for the Cougars to move back into post-season bowl play. More importantly, those wins will likely secure Crowton's job for at least one more year.

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