Starved for Utah Turkey Bowl

On a nippy but otherwise beautiful daytime Thanksgiving weekend in Utah, local folks everywhere inevitably talk a lot about the things they are most thankful for. Not me.

This is my first so-called "Holy War" encounter as a Utah resident and my thoughts are dominated by a rising anticipation and excitement as I contemplate Saturday's matchup between ferocious intrastate rivals Utah and BYU with extra-large helpings of mean-spirited intensity. I can't wait.

To keep their own emotions in check, coaches and players feel they must publicly pronounce to their listening and viewing audience that "it's just another game." Yeah right.

I will be seated somewhere in the "U" portion of the B-Y-U blue-letter East-side seats overlooking the 40-yard line with my family – thanks to new best-buddy Steve Taylor who, unfortunately, has to dutifully spend Thanksgiving weekend with his family in Arizona watching the game on TV whilst I enjoy his VIP seats and pre-game meal with the corporate elite "Blue Zone" honchos. His loss. My gain – about one or two pounds on the weight scale if Steve's dining menu description is accurate.

With extra-secretive precautions taken by both coaches by closing most practices this week to the media for the first time this season, we can only imagine what will be on come-what-may Saturday.

Naturally, that won't stop the endless speculation by interested parties on the outside looking in. Allow me to add my few logs (or logic) of speculation to the proverbial fire.

For BYU, the game will hinge on the tender throwing shoulder, head and heart of Max Hall, its super-sophomore-sensation quarterback. Hall is the No. 1-rated sophomore gunslinger in the country (NCAA Div. I) with 21 touchdowns for 3,121 yards on 395 attempts, a 61 percent completion rate, 139.86 passing efficiency, and a 312-yard per game average. On the negative side, he also has 10 interceptions. Quite impressive for a first-year Cougar QB in the land of quarterback greats.

Hall has demonstrated his accelerated learning capacity under fire. After giving up game-turning sack-fumbles in early season games, he rebounded impressively in his last two outings against TCU and Wyoming, preventing bloodlust pass-rushers from garnering more than one sack in those two games combined by stepping in, scrambling out and making his offensive aerial reads milliseconds faster.

Me-thinks Hall will be the impetus for yet another heralded Cougar victory tomorrow, but don't be surprised if the biggest game-breakers are freshman phenom Harvey Unga and fellow running back Manase Tonga, a junior, through yards-after-catch (YAC) production combined with first-down scampers at critical moments…and touchdowns, of course.

Ironically, before they eventually found their way to Provo, Tonga signed a letter of intent with the Utes out of high school and Unga verbally committed to play for Utah.

Appropriate during this Turkey season, BYU can thank former Utah coach Urban Meyer for withdrawing Tonga's scholarship offer during his LDS mission and then leaving Utah for the warmer climes of Florida not long after Unga had verballed to him and the Utes. With Meyer gone, and despite Kyle Whittingham's best efforts to keep him, Unga decommitted from the U and signed with the Y.

Unga, in his first full season as a Cougar, has already shattered the MWC record as the top-producing freshman running back ever with 181 carries for 909 net yards (averaging 5.0 yards-per-carry) and nine rushing touchdowns – and climbing with two regular-season games remaining. More significantly, he's currently the third-leading BYU receiver (behind Pitta and Collie) out of the backfield with 37 receptions for 573 yards, a 15.5 yard-per-catch average and three receiving touchdowns.

"Whew!" That's the collective audible gasp from the Cougar nation giddy with anticipation, hoping that Unga stays healthy enough to become BYU's all-time combo running back-receiver over the next three years.

There is little doubt a super-charged and motivated Utah defense will endeavor to stifle BYU's offensive arsenal comprising sophomore QB Hall; sophomore tight ends Dennis Pitta, Andrew George and Vic So'oto; sophomore WR Austin Collie and junior wide-out Michael Reed; not to forget the potent Tongan trio power runners (Unga, Tonga and junior Fui Vakapuna).

Simply put, I don't believe the Utes will succeed in shutting down a Cougar offense close to clicking on all cylinders – even if it is an excellent Utah defensive unit that leads the league in turnover takeaways.

All indications, based on both teams' offensive production in recent weeks, point to the game becoming a high-scoring encounter. Recent history tells us to expect the unexpected.

Expect both head coaches, who have effectively prepared their young charges over the past three years, to bring their "A" game again on Saturday.

Two years ago, backup Utah QB Brett Ratliff led the Utes to an improbable overtime win against BYU in LaVell Edwards Stadium. Last year, BYU QB John Beck countered with a seemingly impossible touchdown finish with no time remaining for a Cougar payback at Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Though unrelated to Saturday's matchup, if you think BYU's offensive is tough this year, wait until next year or the year after – when they have even more weapons added to the mix.

On the defensive front, the Cougars will be mightily challenged by the productive, high-scoring Ute offense led by quarterback Brian Johnson and running back Darrell Mack, both juniors. Mack ignited the rivalry smack talk earlier this week by declaring he had "more moves than [Unga] will ever have." Unga's silence on Mack's jactitation is deafening.

The proof in the pudding right? NOT! Mack enters the game with 1,072 yards on 217 carries for a 4.9 yards-per-carry average, and nine rushing touchdowns. As a receiver out of the backfield, he has 17 receptions for 113 yards, an average of 6.6 yards per catch and three receiving touchdowns.

Johnson, meanwhile, has 144 completions for 1,492 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, with a 132.2 passing efficiency, and has thrown seven interceptions. Hall easily surpasses him on these stats, but Johnson makes up for it with his feet. For the season, he has rushed 60 times for 56 net yards and one touchdown. That's a deceiving statistic because Johnson has actually run for 195 yards in critical chain-moving downs, but has also lost 139 yards as a runner, hence the 56 total net yards.

The bottom line: BYU must account for Johnson as a constant running threat and stop the "Mack- attack" for short yardage to pull out a win at home on Saturday. BYU is the only MWC school that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.

In a bitter fan rivalry where home field advantage is a myth, it all boils down to which offense outplays the opposing defense more when it counts most.

The Cougars of BYU get my nod.


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