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An Uncertain Future for the Holy War

Add up the total margin of defeat in Utah’s five losses during its first season in the Pac-12. Nine points to U.S.C., with an added seven points coming after the Trojans blocked the Utes’ potential game-winning field goal and returned it for six as time expired – Vegas still remembers that finish. Seventeen points to Washington; 21 points a week later to Arizona State. Twenty-four points at California in late October. Shockingly, by three points to Colorado in the season finale. That loss, at home, gave Colorado its first road victory as a member of the Pac-12 and its first true road win altogether since beating Texas Tech in Lubbock in 2007. Add up the total margin of defeat: 74 points.

On the other hand, Utah’s win over B.Y.U. in September came by 44 points. In this case – and not many others, other than in golf – 44 points trumps 74 points. This game itself, the rivalry’s first with Utah in the Pac-12 and B.Y.U. as an Independent, will go down in history for more reason than one.

Historically, Utah’s victory might have been the most impressive in the long, storied, bitter rivalry of the Holy War. The two teams have met 87 times since 1922, when Utah kicked off the series with a 49-0 win in Salt Lake City. When it comes to Utah wins, you need to go back to that debut to find a larger margin of victory in the series.

Only once, in 1988, had Utah scored more points against the Cougars. The Utes dropped 57 points that fall, Ty Detmer’s freshman season; a generation later, in 2004, the Utes scored 50 points for the second time in its Holy War history. Utah has scored at least 41 points in four of its last five wins over the Cougars, and have won three of its last five in Provo altogether.

From the Department of Believe it or Not: Utah actually trailed, 10-7, with less than a minute left in the first half. From that point forward, beginning with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Wynn to Jake Murphy with 32 seconds left, the Utes scored 47 unanswered points. Alone, the 47 points scored over the final 30:32 of the game would have tied for the program’s sixth-most in the history of the rivalry.

B.Y.U. turned the ball over seven times. Jake Heaps, then the starter, though not for too much longer, threw one interception and fumbled twice. The Cougars lost six fumbles, killing any semblance of offensive momentum over the game’s final three quarters. Obviously, the inability to maintain possession was a major contributor to Utah’s ferocious second half.

From Utah’s perspective, the win was the crowning achievement of a season that was otherwise defined by the program’s feel-good move to the Pac-12. In this case, little has changed: Utah has a new conference and a bright new future, but a Holy War win, as in the Mountain West – and everywhere else – was the shining moment from this past season.

From the perspective of those in Provo, the loss sends a message along similar yet diametrically opposite lines. B.Y.U.’s debut as an Independent was carried along by its head-to-head bouts with those teams that will now dot the schedule: Mississippi, Texas and T.C.U., among a few others. But losing to Utah – and losing in the way it did – indicated to B.Y.U. that while schedules and conference affiliation may change, the Holy War continues to dominate the hearts and minds of those in the Beehive State.

And will until the Holy War comes to an end; as of today, the rivalry’s future remains in serious doubt. Like the Border War, conference expansion might lead to the end of this century-spanning rivalry. As noted earlier this week by Jay Drew of The Salt Lake Tribune, both sides seem hesitant to commit to a long-term extension on the series.

“Because if things were to change, it might not be a situation where either one of the schools, it might not be in their best interest,” said B.Y.U. athletic director Tom Holmoe, via Drew.

“But the fact of the matter is we are an independent school. I want them on our schedule every year. But to make sure that we can get the game at the right time, and it works for both schools, this is what [Utah athletic director] Chris [Hill] and I have agreed upon, just to take it slow, not go way out into the future.”

Read between the lines. For B.Y.U., maintaining the series carries the bonus of, well, maintaining one of the most meaningful rivalries in college sports. On the other hand, however, retaining Utah on the schedule adds another layer of difficulty to a schedule that, eventually, will near a Notre Dame-like level. The team’s schedule isn’t close to that standard in 2012, but will add more nationally-relevant programs over the next four or five years.

The same can be said of Utah. Thanks to its move to the Pac-12, the Utes now play nine conference games every year. Dropping that one non-conference game, along with a vastly more difficult conference schedule, leaves Utah in the position of needing clear wins in September; going 1-2, let alone 0-3, in non-conference play would make it far more difficult for the Utes to make a bowl run coming out of the Pac-12.

For Utah and its fans, B.Y.U. is running scared. For B.Y.U. and its fans, Utah’s thinking has changed since its move to the Pac-12 – now, scheduling down during non-conference play is a necessity, not a luxury. For now, no game has been scheduled between the two teams beyond this September’s date at Utah.

So last year’s shellacking may go down in history for more reason than one: Utah’s win was historic, but it may also be remembered as the last time these two in-state rivals – rivals in more ways than just geography, in fact – met in Provo. There’s no way that a 44-point loss is the way B.Y.U. wants this series to end, even if the Cougars have one more shot to get in the win column before this rivalry potentially meets its end.

And as great as that win was, Utah must want this rivalry to continue. Sometimes, the game itself trumps wins and losses; for each program, a loss to the other means more than a win over anyone else. Unfortunately, unless the two sides make strides in their discussions over the next few months, conference expansion might claim another long and distinguished rivalry.

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Comments

  1. bayzing says:

    Hmmm…

    This blog post seems to insinuate that UTAH was completely outmatched by it’s opponents during it’s first year in the PAC-12… that simply WASN’T the case! Utah was in the conference championship hunt until the last week of the season…. despite having absolutely terrible luck with injuries… particularly when starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined for the season following a shoulder injury on Oct. 1st.

    Turns out that Utah finished the season with a 7-5 record… including a Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech…. that victory (not BYU) was the highlight of the season.

    Despite the blogs obvious bias in favor of BYU… virtually everyone in the greater Salt Lake City area (that follows both teams closely) considers Utah’s 2011 season a more successful campaign than BYU’s. Especially considering the extraordinarily weak competition BYU faced during the last half of their season (Idaho, Idaho State, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Utah State, Hawaii)… complete with two late season bye’s in the mix.

  2. Shaboom says:

    Other than the fear of tough competition, I can’t understand why Utah wouldn’t relish keeping the rivalry going. The annual USC/ND game is a perfect example of an independent school vs a conference school. While Utah might get beat more often than they’d like, I think it would be beneficial in the long run because the competition would force the team to improve. And, of course, don’t forget the gate receipts.

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