BYU, Utah prepare to go separate ways

Coaches Bronco Mendenhall and Kyle Whittingham face off for the last time as conference rivals. Icon SMI

BYU and Utah have been joined together for over 90 years as conference members, establishing one of the fiercest, most bitter rivalries in the country.

The hatred among the fans has escalated so much that BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall asked for both fan bases to show sportsmanship headed into their big game Saturday in Salt Lake City. Of course, former BYU quarterback Max Hall did not help cool any of the heated tensions last year when he said he hated Utah, too.

But both teams are trying to take a tactful, respectful approach headed into their final game as conference members. Utah (9-2, 6-1) is leaving for the Pac-12 and BYU (6-5, 5-2) is going independent, marking the final time these teams will meet to close out the regular season.

Next year, Utah will travel to play BYU in Provo on Sept. 17 -- only the second time in the 86-year history of the rivalry that the game will be played in that month. The two have a game scheduled for Sept. 15, 2012, in Salt Lake City but nothing beyond that.

Still, both sides are hopeful to continue a rivalry and tradition that has spanned so many years and divided so many in the state of Utah. Nobody anticipates this game will have a different feel to it, but whether that changes next season remains to be seen.

“We always attack every game the same, but this one is a little more special,” Utah cornerback Lamar Chapman said. “We look forward to this game always, no matter what, we have it circled on the calendar. Everybody is going to be on top of their game, no matter if the records are 0-10, or 10-0.”

No question about that. Only two games in the last 13 years have been decided by more than a touchdown. BYU has won three of the last four meetings, including a 33-31 win in Salt Lake City in 2006 -- the Cougars’ only win in Rice-Eccles Stadium since 2000.

Utah is still smarting from a 26-23 overtime loss last season. The Utes erased a 20-9 fourth-quarter deficit to send the game into overtime, but Hall threw the winning touchdown pass to Andrew George to win it. Afterward, he unloaded on Utah, saying, “I don't like Utah. In fact, I hate them. I hate everything about them. I hate their program, their fans. I hate everything. It felt really good to send those guys home.”

Hall received a reprimand from the Mountain West Conference office, but his comments are what most fans in the rivalry feel.

As for the game this season, BYU heads into the contest with the momentum, having won four straight games and five of its last six to become bowl eligible after a 1-4 start. The offense has come to life, and the defense has improved under the direction of Mendenhall, who took over as coordinator after he fired Jamie Hill.

Mendenhall said Tuesday he will stay on as defensive coordinator next season. BYU safety Andrew Rich credits Mendenhall for helping right the ship because he took on a greater role with the entire team.

“We weren’t together enough, we didn’t believe in each other enough, we didn’t want to win together enough,” Rich said. “That was kind of why we struggled. It’s unfortunate but at the same time, I think those are valuable lessons we learned during those tough times, and I hope it’s more than beneficial to the younger guys that they won’t let this happen again.

“It’s been hard for me because it’s been under my watch as a senior and as a captain that we’ve struggled. I feel responsible for that. Some of my darkest, hardest times have been trying to figure out how we were going to get this thing rolling.”

BYU won’t have a 10-win season for the first time since Mendenhall became coach in 2005, but getting his team turned around has been one of his most gratifying moments.

As for Utah, the Utes were riding high three weeks ago, ranked No. 5 with an outside shot at a BCS game. Back-to-back losses to TCU and Notre Dame sent them into a tailspin, but they got a huge 38-34 win over San Diego State last week. After scoring a combined 10 points in the two losses, the Utah offense returned to form behind Jordan Wynn.

“That win was a relief off everyone’s shoulders,” Chapman said. “We needed it real bad just for our confidence level, to get our swagger back going into the BYU game.”

Utah has it back, and BYU has confidence, too. This has all the makings off another classic as the two programs prepare to go their separate ways.