The story here is Harvey Unga's health. How well he can perform will largely determine how well the Cougars fare in not just the running game, but in offensive production overall. Unga is key to any BYU success, and while he did play last week he continues to be somewhat hampered with his ankle sprain.
"We need him and we're confident that he'll play," stated quarterback Max Hall. "It's a huge game and Harvey is huge for us and we need him to be at our best, that's for sure."
On defense Utah has shown to be very effective in defending the run this season. Against like opponents, the Utes have fared largely the same as BYU's rush defense in limiting most opponents below their season averages.
The Utes operate out of a very aggressive man-heavy 4-3 defensive package that can cause an offense fits when it's clicking. They feature a lot of experience at linebacker with some young but promising players filling up the middle of their defensive line.
"They're tough like they always are from what we've seen on film," said tight end Dennis Pitta. "They're aggressive, fast and physical and they'll be a big challenge for us."
Their primary playmakers along their front seven are linebackers Stevenson Sylvester (6-2, 230 Sr.) and Mike Wright (6-2, 235 Sr.), along with defensive end Koa Misi (6-3, 263 Sr.). Up the middle they'll go with two inexperienced yet promising defensive tackles in Sealver Siliga (6-3, 300 So.) and true freshman David Kruger (6-5, 272). Lei Talamaivao (6-3, 280 So.) will rotate in, spelling both Siliga and Kruger alternatively.
If Harvey Unga is healthy or at least close to it, and if offensive coordinator Robert Anae can stick to the run and be patient with it, then the Cougars should prove to be effective against the Utes' front four. The M.O. for teams such as TCU and Utah in recent matchups against BYU has been to first protect against the pass while not stacking the box, thereby testing the resolve of the pass-happy BYU offensive system to keep it on the ground.
Look for offensive coordinator Robert Anae to gameplan effectively for what the assumed Ute attack will be while running the ball often come Saturday. If Unga is even close to 100 percent healthy, he and the Cougar offensive front should fare well against Utah's inexperienced middle of the defensive line. Look for BYU to gain more than 150 yards and even approach 200 yards should Unga be close to his normal self.
BYU passing offense vs. Utah
The Cougar passing attack was back to form last week against Air Force, as Dennis Pitta and Andrew George had field days against a very tough Falcon passing defense. It was one of the only games this season where Pitta was not faced with multiple double-teams throughout the game, and he exploited that big time.
As is the norm for most Utah football teams, they're very good in defending the pass. They're led by safety Robert Johnson (6-2, 200 Sr.), who is widely regarded as one of the best safeties in all the country – if not the best. Johnson will be joined by some good talent at cornerback in R.J. Stanford (5-11, 184 Sr.) and Brandon Burton (6-0, 183 So.).
"They're good," noted Hall about the Utes' secondary. "They're very quick to the ball and you have to be sharp in all your reads or they'll beat you."
The key in defending BYU's offense has proven to be effectively taking away Dennis Pitta with consistent double-coverages while forcing the wideouts to make plays and Robert Anae to be patient with the running game. The onus is high on the Cougar wideouts to fare much better than they did against TCU, as they're very likely to face man-coverage once again in this matchup.
The good news is that while Utah's cornerbacks are good, they're not as good as what BYU saw against TCU. Throw in the fact that McKay Jacobson – who has been the wideout best able to beat man-coverage – will be able to play unlike in the TCU game, and Max Hall and company should fare much better relative to what they did against TCU or even against Utah last season.
The thing Utah changed up with their pass defense in the second half of last year's game was to drop seven or eight defenders into coverage consistently, causing Hall to get impatient on his way to the worst half of football in his life. This is where the running game comes into play, as the Cougars must force Utah to play the run in order to open up things down the field.
BYU run defense vs. Utah
The Cougar run defense was very good against Air Force last week, as it has been against most teams this season. The strength of the Cougar run defense is up the middle, but the defense has shown much better with gap- and wide-contain during the last stretch of this season.
The Utes have had to make due with a rash of injuries in the offensive backfield, which has left Eddie Wide (5-10, 195 Jr.) as the player handling the bulk of the running back responsibilities. Wide has responded very well, proving to be an effective combo back that can beat teams in a variety of ways.
The Utes operate out of a single-back set almost exclusively. They'll attack a defense in a variety of ways, and while Wide will handle the bulk of the rushes, they'll also feature some end-arounds and reverses to the wideouts that the Cougars will have to be ready for.
"They're kind of similar to TCU in that way," observed linebacker Matt Bauman. "They'll come at you with multiple sets and run a lot of guys at you. You just have to maintain your assignments and be ready for anything at any time against them."
Look for the Cougars to fare well against the Utes on the ground. While it was a good move for Utah to replace Terrance Cain with Jordan Wynn at quarterback, it cut down on how many different ways they can attack a defense with their running game. Wynn is very much a pocket passer who doesn't present the challenges that Cain did in regards to quarterback-keepers, making plays outside of the pocket and all the other things that have traditionally given the Cougar defense headaches.
BYU pass defense vs. Utah
While the Cougar defense hasn't been tested by a prolific passing attack in a long while, it has proven to be very effective in recent weeks. Brian Logan particularly has come through big while defending very well from his field cornerback position.
Whatever the Utes may have lost in their overall running attack when Jordan Wynn replaced Terrance Cain, they gained all that more in their passing attack. Wynn has proven to be effective as a true freshman.
"The kid looks like he's a competitor," observed defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen about Wynn. "For him to come out as a true freshman and play like he has and lead that team like he has shows a lot about his heart and his competitiveness."
Wynn's primary target in the passing game will be David Reed (6-0, 190 Sr.), who has come on very strong during the last part of the season.
"He's a great player from what I've seen," said safety Scott Johnson about Reed. "On film he's a playmaker and it doesn't matter if he's open; he can make plays in traffic. He's definitely one of the best receivers we'll face all season."
Look for the Utes to test BYU deep more so than most teams have this season. While Logan has proven very apt in most coverages, he hasn't grown any from his 5-foot-6-inch stature. So, fans can expect Utah to try and exploit some one-on-one matchups with him down the field and go with max-protection a lot while having only three available receivers running routes.
Utah should be able to exploit the Cougar secondary better than most teams this season. The key with Wynn will be to try and rattle him with a pass rush. BYU's pass rush has been inconsistent this season as far as effectiveness goes. The Utes present a very experienced and solid offensive front that should fare well against whatever blitz packages the Cougars throw at them.
Expect Utah to pass more often in this game than they have leading up to it, while perhaps giving BYU different looks on both sides of the football. They're a senior-laden football team, although they do lack some good experience at some key positions.
BYU meanwhile is very experienced at almost every position. While most fans have come to expect Utah to play its best game of the year against BYU every season, they can look for much of the same thing from BYU and its senior-laden team this time around. Look for BYU to be more prepped and ready to play the Utes than they have ever been.
Score Prediction: BYU 31, Utah 17