The Holy War – BYU v Utah

Thanksgiving is known for a lot of things in the United States, but aside from eating with family, it’s perhaps known most for football. There are three NFL games played on Thursday, which I talked about a bit in my weekly preview yesterday. But it’s also the weekend that a lot of NCAA football games are happening, including some that will determine participants in conference championships in a few weeks.

There is one rivalry, however, that will have minimal impact on any kind of conference standings, if only because the teams haven’t been in the same conference since 2010. Brigham Young University and the University of Utah are separated by 45 miles along I-15. One is the flagship public school in the state of Utah, and the other is the flagship private school of the religion that has dominated the state since it’s founding.

Remember the WAC? It was awesome…

For decades, the schools’ teams belonged to the same athletic conference, first with the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, then the Skyline Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, and finally the Mountain West. In 2010, after the last round of conference realignment in NCAA athletics, the clubs diverged: the PAC-10 accepted the Utes (and the Colorado Buffaloes) as they expanded to 12 teams, while BYU, who was left out of the latest round of conference musical chairs, decided to take the Notre Dame route and become an independent (at least in football).

Since 2012, one team’s fortune has improved, while the other probably hasn’t reaped the rewards they were hoping. This season, one club will be playing for a spot in a preeminent New Year’s Day bowl game (after a rematch against one of the Washington teams), while the other will most likely play a lower-tier bowl against a team from Conference USA. In light of the 99th iteration of “The Holy War” – a name I hate for the rivalry, honestly – tomorrow, I wanted to talk about my personal tie to the rivalry and one of the teams involved, despite never attending either college.

I was born into a BYU family, mostly because my father graduated from the school in 1964, shortly after he followed his older brothers to the school (and the religion behind it). I was just under a year old when I accompanied my family to the 1981 Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which I obviously don’t remember, but a fun story to tell nonetheless. Because of my father, BYU athletics was a foundation to my sports fandom growing up. Not only did I grow up watching most games live with him on Saturday’s throughout the fall, but there were many non-fall Friday nights – at least before I got too cool to hang out with my dad on a Friday night – where I saw games replayed on KBYU.

Time for the Clip Show

Like the comeback against SMU at the Holiday Bowl in 1980, played one day before my birth, which ended with one of the most epic comebacks in that era of college football:

Or future Hall of Famer Steve Young catching the winning touchdown to beat Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl:

Or the 1984 Holiday Bowl against Michigan that clinched BYU’s only national title in football:

(BYU played a lot of Holiday Bowls back in the day).

The Ice Cream Was Delicious!

I was the perfect age to watch the Ty Detmer era at BYU as well, watching almost every minute of every game during the 1990 season on his way to the Heisman Trophy. That was a magical season for another reason, and it wasn’t for something that happened on the field or television. In their second game, the Cougars hosted the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes at Cougar Stadium (now LaVell Edwards Stadium) in Provo. My dad, perhaps oblivious to the impact that such a high-profile game would have on attending the game, decided that he wanted to drive down for the game. He didn’t have tickets or anything, but thinking back to his days as a student nearly 30 years prior, he thought that he could simply walk up to the ticket counter and get some tickets.

Shockingly, there were tickets available, but not for the low price that he was expecting. He offered to just buy me a ticket so I could go in and watch while he listened on the radio, since he wouldn’t get home in time to watch. Even though I was nine at the time, I realized this was a bad idea, so I told him that I wouldn’t watch it without him, so we went to a local Arctic Circle (a Utah burger place) and sat in his truck listening to the game, which BYU surprisingly won 28-21:

Back to the “Holy War”

A lot of my memories of my dad surround BYU sports, but especially football. I was never going to follow him the BYU as a student, but it was nice to have something that bound us together. Obviously, part of this shared fandom was the annual “Holy War” game with the Utes. If you look at the overall record of the rivalry through 98 games, you see that the Utes hold an overall advantage of 60-34-4, with long stretches of domination by the Utes prior to the arrival of LaVell Edwards at BYU. But during his tenure, which covered the bulk of my direct fandom (he coached at the school from 1972-2000), losing to the Utes was pretty rare.

He won 18 of the first 20 games he coached against the Utes, and it wasn’t until Ron McBride arrived to coach the Utes that the rivalry became a little more even. During his tenure at Utah, it was more often that the teams exchanged victories in the rivalry games, and in his 12 years at the helm of the Utes, the Utes went a respectable 5-7 in games against BYU with LaVell Edwards on the other sideline.

More Dad Memories

I personally stopped following either side of the rivalry when I moved out of Utah in 2001, but I would follow it enough to have something to talk to my dad about when I came home to visit or talk on the phone. The post-LaVell Edwards era was often a point of discussion, especially when Gary Crowton stunk up the place as head coach. Bronco Mendenhall took over and had a nice run at the school, shepherding them through the end of the Mountain West era and into independence.

One of the last BYU football moments I shared with my dad was the brawl that occurred at the end of the Cougars’ bowl game in 2014 – the aftermath was on the television in my dad’s hospital room when I arrived on the night he died, so one of the last conversations I had with him was about BYU football. He was a fan to the end.

BYU has had a rough go of things in the Utah game the past decade or so. Once the teams no longer shared a conference, the incentive to play the game, especially as the last game of the year, stopped, and the teams took a two-year (regular season)break from the rivalry in 2014 and 2015, only meeting in the latter year because of the Las Vegas Bowl. The following season, the rivalry was renewed, but it may be facing another break after the 2022 game.

BYU is in the midst of a seven game losing streak against the Utes, and the game recently has been evidence that the Utes football program has benefited greatly from the move to the PAC-12, while independence for BYU has often looked more like Army and less like Notre Dame. But BYU has faced stretches like this in the rivalry against Utah, and it only takes one victory to turn things around. After all, prior to the current losing streak, BYU had won three of four against the Utes (though that was after losing the prior four games during the Urban Meyer era at Utah). But I don’t think this will be the year they turn it around.

The season so far…

While the Utes have had a tendency to play down to their opponents this year, BYU has had trouble with consistency this season. They are the same club that beat #6 (at the time) Wisconsin the week after losing to a Cal team that are currently 6-4. They also lost 7-6 to Northern Illinois, a team that the Utes beat 17-6. The teams have two other opponents in common – the Washington Huskies and Arizona Wildcats – and both teams lost to the Huskies and beat the Wildcats, and the Utes might get an opportunity for revenge on the Huskies in the PAC-12 Championship game. Utah has simply been the more consistent team this season (and over most of the past few seasons). The last three games in the series played at Rice-Eccles Stadium have been close, with Utah winning all three games by a total of five points.

It would be great to see this rivalry return to its heyday, when either team could win. But for that to happen, the BYU football team needs to find some of the magic they used to have, which may mean leaving independence at the next opportunity. I readily admit that I am not much of a college football fan these days, for reasons that I may put into another post. But seeing BYU beat Utah is still something that is important, if only because I know that it would make my dad happy every time it happened. So while I don’t think the Cougars will win this year, I’m always hoping that they will for that reason, my personal fandom be damned.

Until next time…

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