'Holy War' hate or not, Utah needs a win

The debate in Utah this week has been the state of the Holy War. Some feel it might be more heated on Saturday because of recent events -- Utah bolting for the Pac-12 and then taking a two-year hiatus from the rivalry -- and some feel it might be muted due to its early season date and no in-conference stakes.

It might come down to splitting rhetorical hairs. Is the rivalry scalding or sizzling? Is it boiling or simmering? Here's a guess that things will be fairly intense inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

"I don't know how there could be any increase on what's been in the past," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It was every bit as intense last year, and I expect it to be every bit as intense this year. It's one of the most heated rivalries in the country, and I don't see that changing, personally."

You get the feeling from Whittingham, a BYU graduate, that he's going to leave the rivalry talk to fans and reporters. He just wants to win a freaking football game. He also knows that after losing last week at Utah State -- ending a 12-game winning streak in the series -- his Utes could suddenly find themselves in third place among the state's three FBS football teams.

Further, he doesn't have much time for the politics of Utah's decision to take "a break" from the series for two years starting in 2014, ending what will then be 70 consecutive years of play. He's got his own problems, such as losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, who was forced to retire because of recurrent shoulder injuries, and a porous offensive line.

The Utes gave up three sacks last week to the Aggies, and are averaging just 3.2 yards per rush.

"Obviously, we're sub-par protecting the quarterback," Whittingham said. "And that's going to be absolutely critical if we are going to have a chance to win the game. We have got to play much more efficiently on the offensive front."

The Utes have won seven of the past 10 games with the Cougars, including a shocking 54-10 victory in Provo last year, the biggest win in the series in 89 years. That game, in which BYU imploded with seven turnovers -- six fumbles -- is an anomaly. Over the past 15 years, 12 games have been decided by a touchdown or less and seven of those 12 were decided by a field goal or less.

But 2-0 and 25th-ranked BYU certainly enters the game seemingly in a better place. It outclassed Washington State and Weber State, getting good quarterback play from Riley Nelson and impressive work on both lines. The Cougars already have recorded nine sacks, and they surely plan to get after Jon Hays and true freshmen Travis Wilson, who will both step into the void created by the loss of Wynn.

The good news is both Hays and Wilson are mobile. The bad news is neither is a refined passer. That means the Utes need running back John White to reemerge. You might have heard this before: The Utes are 9-0 when White eclipses 100 yards rushing, and 0-6 when he doesn't. He had 174 yards in the blowout win against BYU a year ago. He had 96 against Utah State.

So this sets up in a fairly obvious way. Utah needs to get White going. BYU knows this. Expect the Cougars' 3-4 defense to be very crowded along the line of scrimmage, daring the Utes to throw over the top.

That might not be a great idea, though, at least in terms of a predictable strategy. If Hays and Wilson get time -- or can make time -- they have a strong crew of receivers and tight ends to throw to. They could gash the Cougars, and a few big plays could make the difference in what should be a low-scoring game.

Win or lose, this game won't count in the Pac-12 standings for Utah. Nor did the loss at Utah State. But it is significant, and not only because it's a rivalry game.

The Pac-12 South suddenly looks far deeper than it did in the preseason, with Arizona and UCLA now nationally ranked, and Arizona State getting votes in the national polls. Utah probably could use some momentum before it begins the conference schedule at Arizona State on Sept. 22. Then, after a bye, plays host to USC and visits UCLA.

Emotions and rivalries and bad feelings and Holy Wars, etc., are great copy. But Whittingham is more concerned with the football part of football. That part is keeping him busy enough.