The BYU-Utah rivalry game is once again upon us, and with a new era of BYU football under Kalani Sitake, questions arise over what to expect from this Cougar football team. UteZone caught up with BYU expert Brandon Gurney of the Deseret Morning News to get his take on the game from the Cougars' perspective.
UteZone: Kalani Sitake is well known to Ute fans, but in your estimation what has he brought to the table for the BYU program?
Brandon Gurney: Kalani is almost a complete 180 from Bronco with regards to approachability and how comfortable he is addressing media, boosters and just about everyone else. Bronco had many strengths, and did a great job for the Cougars as coach, but Kalani brings certain openness and comfort that the program hasn't had since LaVell Edwards retired. While Crowton and Bronco were relative isolationists, Kalani has already made great strides in presenting a more open and comfortable atmosphere in and around the football program.
Kalani has a lot of work to prove with regards to wins and losses, recruiting along with just about everything else, but the positive vibes he's sending are off to a good start with an opening game win over Arizona.
UZ: What can Utah fans expect to see out of the BYU offense this week? Do you expect noticeable improvement from what they showed against Arizona?
BG: I expect BYU to show a lot more than it did last week against the Wildcats. If you don't want to believe me, believe Taysom Hill and other BYU players, who have said as much during interviews this week.
BYU's offensive play-calling was fairly basic last week, focused on ball-control and keeping Arizona's high-octane rhythm offense off the field and from hitting its stride. The game-plan worked, although an inability to finish drives needs to improve against Utah. Expect the offense to open up a bit, with receivers running longer routes, while employing more play-action and probably more designed runs for Taysom Hill, who was relatively quiet running the ball against the Wildcats.
The key position group will be the offensive line. Arizona chose to run-blitz frequently, with the Cougar offensive line not always consistent in providing a good push up front. Utah obviously brings a much more stout defensive front than the Wildcats, and it will be interesting what success BYU's offensive front can provide given such a stern challenge.
UZ: How has Taysom Hill evolved as a QB since coming back from the injury and how do you expect him to fare against the Utah defense?
BG: Hill is being much more patient with his reads and less hesitant to leave the pocket. He was largely accurate last week, but also had some misreads and inaccurate throws.
As mentioned, Hill didn't look to run the football much, reminding me a lot of his performance against Virginia in the 2013 opener where he only rushed for 57 yards on 11 attempts. The very next week saw him torch Texas for 259 yards rushing and three touchdowns. No one should mistake Utah's defense for the dumpster fire that was the Texas defense in 2013, however, although Hill did manage 130 yards rushing against Utah that same season in a 20-13 loss. I believe Hill will look to run the ball more against the Utes and attempt to go over-the-top of the Ute defense in the throw game, at least more than he did last week against Arizona.
UZ: How do you expect the BYU defense to attack a more pass heavy Utah offense? Which defensive players are the most important to BYU's success this week?
BG: BYU's defense was impressive last week, although the defensive front wore down somewhat toward the end of the contest. Butch Pau'u has stepped up at middle linebacker, allowing coaches to play Harvey Langi at defensive end, a position his skills are much better utilized. Linebacker Francis Bernard had several standout plays, along with Fred Warner.
Look for BYU's corners to be much more physical with Utah's receivers off the line of scrimmage, hoping to take a page from Utah's traditionally effective man-press base defensive philosophy. A big key will be the pass rush, headed by players like Langi, Corbin Kaufusi and Sae Tautu, among others.
The Cougars' biggest question mark on defense remains the defensive tackles. There's a lot of inexperience with this group, and most of the players were recruited as two-gappers able to anchor Bronco's 3-4 defense. It's obvious most of them still need work in fully adjusting to Kalani's new 4-3/one-gapping system.
UZ: What is your prediction for the game, including the score?
BG: I'm very hesitant to predict a BYU win after five straight losses to the Utes. Turnovers always play big in any football game, but BYU's struggles against Utah can be directly related to an inability to even draw even in turnover margin, with last year's game exhibiting the most extreme example.
I expect both offenses to struggle. Utah's defense largely performed as expected last week against Southern Utah while BYU's probably exceeded expectations in limiting Arizona's normally prolific offensive attack.
I expect a close, low-scoring game with Utah coming out on top, 16-13. Of course that's sort of the same score I predicted for last year's Las Vegas Bowl, so who really knows when these two teams match up?