As the only rivalry game in the state–sorry, Utah-Utah State doesn’t qualify when played in September–BYU and the Utah State football teams will close out the regular season Saturday at Maverik Stadium in Logan.
With a winter chill likely to blanket the field in 20 degree temps when the Aggies and Cougars square off in their biggest game this season–in their quest to impress a few bowl reps–there is much to play for, even if BYU is treating this game like any other.
According to BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, this game pales in comparison to any home game. “It doesn’t change anything. I think any program, not just BYU, that wants to do well starts with playing well at home,” he said. “That’s one of the first things you have to do. The second thing you have to do is play well in state, and then regionally is third. I think it all expands outward.”
Despite Mendenhall downplaying the importance of this game, it undoubtedly means a ton to BYU, who is 8-3 and looking to go 9-3. The Cougars are also looking to back up private sentiment that they belong in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl instead of the top team from the Mountain West Conference–the same league to which Utah State belongs. But they need that ninth win to gain credibility.
The Old Wagon Wheel showdown should be a back-and-forth tussle with drama and excitement throughout. Here then are BYU’s keys to victory against Utah State.
Establish the running game
The number one issue for BYU this season has been establishing any sort of running game. Of course, your leading rusher has 629 yards and 10 touchdowns and you consider this number to be good for the player in question–or Algernon Brown. The problem is, the output isn’t even close to being acceptable because Brown is averaging just a hair under 70 yards per game. As a team, BYU is averaging 138 yards per contest by a running back-by-committee approach. In two of its three losses, BYU got fewer than 50 yards rushing. If the Cougars get under 150 rushing yards against Utah State, they’re in deep trouble–because that will mean its open season on their freshman quarterback, Tanner Mangum.
The good news for BYU is that Utah State hasn’t been stellar in the throw game. The bad news is that Chuckie Keeton will probably come out with a vengeance because as a fifth year senior, this game is his Super Bowl, his national championship and the final game he’ll probably ever play, making this game even more difficult for the BYU secondary. But, here’s the great news if you’re a BYU fan. CB Kai Nacua–he who made a fool of himself at the Miami Beach Bowl–has been a man possessed, snagging six interceptions including two pick sixes. Collectively, the Cougars have 15 interceptions. This is all terrible news for a Utah State offense that has had its struggles.
Throw for 250 yards or more
Bottom line, BYU is undefeated this season when it throws for 250 yards or more. Obviously this statistic sounds crazy on first glance, but it’s accurate. Against UCLA, the Cougars threw for 244 and at Michigan had a measly 55. At Missouri, BYU nearly had 250 but came up shy with 244. In the three games combined, Tanner Mangum threw just two touchdown passes. If BYU plays anywhere close to how it played in its eight wins, this game could be over quick. But, if the Cougars self-destruct and don’t do what they need to do through four quarters, the moment and a capacity crowd up north could cause BYU to lose its second straight to Utah State and shatter its Las Vegas Bowl hopes of playing rival Utah.