Pac-12 South champion Utah will turn back the clock for a rare late-season rivalry battle with BYU.
When the No. 17 Utes face the Cougars on Saturday, it will mark the first time the Holy War has been played on the final weekend in November since 2010. Since leaving the Mountain West Conference, BYU and Utah have played each other in September nearly every year.
Dramatic plays and close finishes have turned it into one of the nation's best college football rivalries -- 17 out of the last 20 games in the Holy War have been decided by seven points or less.
"It's really competitive," BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. "Here are a lot of people that really care about it -- we definitely do. This is an important game to me, an important game to our coaches, an important game to the administration and the fans. Our players are really excited for it."
The Utes (8-3, 6-3 Pac-12) are seeking to extend their rivalry winning streak over the Cougars to eight games after clinching their first Pac-12 South title with a 30-7 victory over Colorado last Saturday. Utah needed an assist in the form of an Oregon win over Arizona State, but the Utes are headed to the Pac-12 championship game for the first time.
Utah had to battle through one of the nation's toughest schedules, as well as injuries to starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and starting running back Zack Moss, to get to this point. The Utes never wavered and avoided their customary November swoon with back-to-back wins over the Buffaloes and the Ducks.
"Our guys never backed down from anything," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They just kept fighting and kept swinging. It's great to see them write this chapter of Utah football history, because that's what it is. The first South Division championship and these guys are the ones that did it."
Once again, Utah has carved out success by imposing its defensive will on opponents. The Utes lead the nation in red-zone defense (19-of-32, .594). Additionally, they also lead the Pac-12 in several other defensive categories, including total defense (312.1 ypg), rushing defense (95.5 ypg), tackles for loss per game (8.1), opponent third-down conversion percentage (.325) and turnovers gained (18).
Individually, Bradlee Anae leads the league in sacks (7.0) and Chase Hansen ranks second in tackles for loss (19.0) and TFL per game (1.73).
An improved offense and a dose of mental toughness have combined with that stout defense to create a winning formula that's seen Utah bounce back from a 2-2 start with six wins in its last seven games.
"I'm glad to see all of our hard work is paying off," senior center Lo Falemaka said.
BYU (6-5) knocked off a ranked opponent on the road earlier this season and is eager to do it again after notching back-to-back wins to get bowl eligible. The Cougars have struggled with slow starts and inconsistency on offense over their last four games. During that stretch, BYU has been outscored 31-17 in the first quarter.
Starting slow is not an option against Utah if the Cougars want to avoid giving the powerful Utes defense early momentum.
"They want to be tough in every position," BYU receiver Micah Simon said. "They want to be physical in every position so we'll have to match that and bring more intensity, more passion to it and use our strengths as well against them."
Upset chances for the Cougars will likely hinge on taking care of the ball. Utah has a knack for applying tremendous pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. It could spell trouble for Zach Wilson, a true freshman who took over as BYU's starting quarterback midway through the season. Wilson has struggled with taking sacks under pressure in his five starts.
Over the last three seasons, BYU has totaled 11 turnovers against the Utes. Those takeaways have accounted for 52 of the 74 points scored by the Utes in those games.