Everyone following the BYU-Utah football rivalry knows that the Utes have won eight straight games. That’s a point of pride for Utah supporters and one of disappointment for Cougar fans.
But how many know what happened in the next game after the rivalry contest for each team during that stretch?
It might be surprising to know that the Utes lost their next game in five of those eight years while winning their next game just twice (the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl matchup was the final game of the year).
The Cougars weren’t much better over that same stretch, managing just a 4-3 record after the Utah game.
Those number indicate that playing such a physical and emotional game can have consequences that last long after the final whistle is blown.
But no matter how big the season-opener on Aug. 29 is — and there is no doubt that it is the biggest annual sporting event in the state of Utah — one game doesn’t make a season.
That means both teams — win or lose — have to understand the importance of being able to bounce back emotionally and continuing to play at a high level.
“We have been trying to build up to this game for a long time now, since the last game ended,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “But it’s not just the game itself; it’s the season. This just happens to be the first game. The plan has been in place since January and everyone is following it.”
Leading the way
The Cougar seniors have faced the Utes multiple times and seen the toll those hard-fought nail-biters take, and this year that means facing it from the start.
“I look at as I have to give it my all in Game 1 and then I have all week to recover,” BYU senior safety Austin Lee said. “It’s a very emotional game on both sides of the ball. They teach the same way and they don’t like to lose. We know what we are up against, that they are fast and physical and we have to be the same way — and we have to do it for four quarters. We have to be very focused.”
But once the final whistle blows and the 2019 edition of the rivalry is over, the experienced Cougar players know they can’t get carried away in either celebration or disappointment.
“We’ve been talking a lot throughout this offseason about keeping the same energy throughout any type of success or adversity,” BYU senior wide receiver Micah Simon said. “You have to be the same guy who comes to work every day. If you are, come and lead, one who is going to come and make plays, you have to do it every day. That keeps the level of everyone up. Throughout the season, you have to have the same hunger each week, coming off a win or a loss.”
Understanding the process
Cougar senior tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau believes that experience and leadership play big roles in keeping the right perspective.
“The best teams I’ve been on have had really good leaders who are older,” Laulu-Pututau said. “Then you have to have guys who are willing to follow those leaders. Last year we were really young and a lot of starters were freshmen. But a team can change so much from one year to the next. It’s night and day.”
The BYU leaders believe it is up to them to make sure the team maintains an even keel and doesn’t get swamped.
“It starts with us setting the example,” Simon said. “As an upperclassman, as a senior and as a former captain from last year, it’s kind of my job to be that person that others can look up to no matter what the situation. That’s the first thing that they see. As a freshman, you are going to come in and look at the upperclassmen because they’ve done it before. We can’t fall off or act a different way because something didn’t go right.”
The Cougar hope to benefit from the fact that with playing so many freshmen in 2018, there should be even more experience on the field this fall.
“There are a lot of guys who benefit from it being familiar now,” Sitake said. “We have a lot of youth on our two-deep but we have young experienced guys now. Some are still brand new to it and having guys who have been there recently will help because they can mentor those who have less experience and help them through it.”
Understanding the flow of a season and knowing the expectations is something Lee believes the underclassmen who got on the field grasp better now.
“We compete with the best teams,” Lee said. “We compete with big-time, Power-5 conference teams and this is how it is. It’s how our schedule is going to be this year and we can’t shy away from it. We have to frame it as an opportunity to grow.”
Lee emphasized that he sees BYU training to face the rigors of this type of week-to-week challenge.
“It’s easy to have energy on Day 1 of camp but how will it be on Day 8 when it is 100 degrees outside and you don’t feel that good because you are sore,” Lee said. “Are you still going to be running to the ball? Are you going to be locked in mentally? That’s what we have to do when we play these teams because they are going to run and be physical. We’re going to be tired. We’ve been training for it to be hard.”
Laulu-Pututau said that the work the Cougars put in during the spring and summer has given the players the right to believe they can play well, regardless of the situation.
“Win or lose, we will know we have put in the time and run the drills and gotten the reps,” the senior tight end said. “We have earned it and the guys have confidence. We are ready.”
The BYU coaches have also studied how the emotions can impact the team and they want the players to be as prepared as possible throughout the year.
“We have to use it,” Sitake said. “We’ve had a lot of specialists come in and talk about things from pre-game to game-time situations. We’re not trying to focusing on just one game but get the best output and times it by 12.”
Yes, the Cougars are emphasizing starting off 1-0 by defeating Utah in LaVell Edwards Stadium. That’s how all teams get ready for the first game.
Yes, it would be even more rewarding because the Utes have been so successful recently.
But BYU players and coaches firmly believe they won’t be defined by that one game, that it will just be one step in the progression of the 2019 season.
“We have goals that carry on throughout the season,” Simon said. “Obviously we want to win this first game but we have other goals that go beyond through the season, so I think those are things that keep us going.”
Daily Herald sports reporter Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.