6:00 PM ET, November 22, 2008
Rice-Eccles Stadium, SALT LAKE CITY, UT
Normally, a November game between archrivals Utah and BYU with Mountain West championship implications would create a big enough stage in the Beehive State.
This year, there's another wrinkle: Utah's bid to reach a BCS bowl is also at stake.
The unbeaten and eighth-ranked Utes may face their toughest and most motivated opponent in their final regular-season game on Saturday when the 16th-ranked Cougars can earn a share of the conference title with a victory in Salt Lake City.
BYU and Utah have faced off 89 times since 1896, but few of those meetings have been as significant nationally as this weekend's game, which earlier this season had potential to pit a pair of unbeatens playing for an outright conference title and a BCS bid.
That prospect died when the Cougars (10-1, 6-1) lost 32-7 at TCU on Oct. 16, but Utah (11-0, 7-0) hasn't yet faltered en route to the second 11-0 start in school history.
In 2004, the Utes finished 12-0 and became the first team from outside the six BCS conferences to reach a BCS bowl, beating Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. They're hoping for a similar end to this season, but first they'll have to beat their rivals for the first time since 2005.
"It's big, you know, because so much is on the line," Utah senior quarterback Brian Johnson said. "We've got an opportunity to do something really special and we hope we can take advantage of it."
A victory Saturday would assure the Utes a spot in a BCS bowl, though coach Kyle Whittingham is trying to keep his team grounded.
"There is a little more intensity than a regular conference game but you can't deviate from the formula that you have," Whittingham said. "... We have to keep things in perspective, play our best football, control what we can control and not worry about the postseason."
The Utes were certainly at their best last weekend. Following a pair of tense 13-10 wins over New Mexico and TCU, they enjoyed a more comfortable victory last Saturday, building a 35-7 halftime lead and cruising to a 63-14 win at San Diego State.
Johnson threw a career-high five touchdown passes, including a pair to top target Freddie Brown, who had 11 catches for 110 yards.
Perhaps just as impressive was Utah's defense, which has allowed 11.4 points over the last five games. Deshawn Richard had a pair of interception returns for touchdowns in a 70-second span in the fourth quarter against San Diego State, while the Utes held the Aztecs to 73 yards on the ground.
They face a much bigger challenge against quarterback Max Hall and the BYU offense. Hall was 28-of-37 for 354 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in last Saturday's 38-24 win at Air Force, giving the junior 34 touchdown passes and boosting his completion percentage to 71.5 percent -- fourth-best nationally.
He's thrown seven touchdowns to Austin Collie in the past three games. Collie leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,315 receiving yards, also adding 15 touchdowns.
Collie also spoke up with the Cougars trailing Air Force 14-10 at halftime, and BYU responded with 21 straight points to start the third quarter.
"I told the team that we're a lot better than this," Collie said. "We're one of the best teams in the nation, we needed to start playing like it ... We needed someone to step up and get in the guys' faces and say, 'This isn't how we play football.'"
"Hopefully, our momentum will carry us on," Collie added.
BYU likely won't need any motivational speeches to get ready for Utah. The Cougars have won the last two Mountain West titles outright, and they'll need to win Saturday to secure a share of their third straight crown, with TCU also involved in what could become a three-way tie.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall's team will also be looking for its third straight win against its rivals after erasing deficits in the final minute of each of the last two victories.
A furious drive capped by Harvey Unga's 11-yard run gave the Cougars a 17-10 home win last Nov. 24 after they scored a touchdown on the final play in 2006 for a 33-31 victory in Salt Lake City.
Utah won 41-34 in overtime in 2005, and 10 of the last 11 meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
"You can analyze 19,000 different angles on paper but you have to go play the game," Whittingham said. "The last three seasons fans have gotten their money's worth."
Top 25 Overview
The Holy War needs no extra incentives, but this edition of BYU-Utah has them. The Cougars are playing for a chance to share the Mountain West title, and the Utes are eying an unbeaten season and a place in a BCS bowl. The teams have split the past 12 meetings, and 10 of the past 11 have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Quarterbacks front-and-center for BYU and Utah
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