SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – If BYU is going to end an 8-game losing streak to Utah on Thursday, the Cougars may need to win the battle of the trenches.
And that is a tall task.
The Utes boast one of the best defensive lines in the country, led by Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, John Penisini and Maxs Tupai.
But the Cougars offensive line is no slouch, with Brady Christensen, Chandon Herring, James Empey, Tristen Hoge and Harris LaChance.
“I just know that our offensive line is confident,” said BYU tight end Matt Bushman. “We know what we have to do. It’s not like we’re going to shy away and be afraid of a few players that they have.”
The Utes held the Cougars to just 3.3 yards per carry in last year’s game, but the Cougars offensive line has improved.
“We’ve had a great opportunity to get stronger, bigger and faster,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “So, we’ll see if it matches up. We know that Utah’s defensive line brings a lot of experience and a lot of physical play. I like that matchup.”
Typically, the first game of the season features plenty of miscues and gaffes. And when a heated rivalry like Utah-BYU is thrown into the equation, it may turn out that whichever team makes the fewest mistakes will win the game.
“You’ve got to eliminate chaos,” said Utes wide receiver Britain Covey. “That’s the key in the openers. It’s just like when you go see an opening act in the theater and you have all these miscues, people missing lines. But you’ve just got to avoid chaos.”
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson’s first season was far from chaotic. As a freshman, Wilson finished with a flurry, completing 18 of 18 passes in the Potato Bowl, and his maturity and poise should help him handle all the pressure in his second rivalry game.
“Pressure is one of those things that’s always going to be there, no matter what situation you’re in,” Wilson said. “Especially being a quarterback, there is always pressure when you’re a quarterback. I think that’s where preparation really does come in.”
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham knows how talented Wilson is.
“He was thrust in there as a true freshman, and I thought he handled it well,” Whittingham said. “His numbers got better as the season wore on. You could definitely see him getting more comfortable in their scheme. But if you can just make him feel uncomfortable, and let him sit back there and have time to go through all his reads snap after snap. That’s what really gets you in trouble. We’ve got to be able to disrupt him.”
And that may be the key matchup in the game. Utah’s defensive line, considered one of the best in the nation, against BYU’s relatively young but big offensive line.
“I think our guys are excited to see how they match up against possibly the best d-line in college football,” Sitake said. “Let’s see what happens.”
“They just need to play their game,” Whittingham said. “We have very good players up front. Those three seniors in particular, and then Maxs Tupai and Mika Tafua are really good. You don’t want to press or do too much, just do your job.”
On the other side of the ball, the Utes are going to want to control the game with talented running back Zack Moss.
“They have Zack Moss, who is a running back that can break free,” said BYU safety Austin Lee. “He’s very physical, and they have some wideouts that can stretch the field. So it can be challenging being able to have to defend the run, but at the same time, defend the pass.”
There are so many strong connections in this game, most notably the friendship of Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake. Coach Whitt says he knew he liked Sitake right away when they first met 15 years ago.
“It was that very first interview when I sat down with him,” Whittingham said. “We spent a couple hours talking together, and we hit it off right away. I feel very close to Kalani. We spend a lot of time together in the off-season, and again this year. We have a lot in common as far as how we think, and personality wise. Like I said, we have a lot of common ground.”
Sitake will be looking for his first win against his good friend in four tries.