Utah BYU Football

Utah wide receiver Sean Fitzgerald (83) is pulled down by Brigham Young defensive back Robertson Daniel (4) in the first quarter of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013 in Provo. (AP Photo/Trent Nelson)

Level of motivation can be a key factor in determining who will win a football game (or any sporting event, for that matter).

A week ago, it looked like motivation was a clear advantage for Brigham Young University when the University of Utah was announced as the Cougars’ opponent in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

The Vegas Bowl was the best possible outcome for BYU after back-to-back losses to UCLA and Michigan, and one that seemed potentially out of reach after a disappointing loss at Missouri. Throw in the opportunity to beat the Utes, a team which isn’t just their biggest rival but one that has humiliated the Cougars four straight times, and I figure BYU couldn’t possibly have any more motivation.  

For Utah, on the other hand, the bowl assignment was pretty much a kick in the pants after the Utes finished the season 9-3 and tied for the best record in the Pac-12 South while also achieving the school’s best Pac-12 record since joining the conference. Yeah, the losses to USC, Arizona and UCLA were ugly, but the Utes deserved better.

To pick strictly based on who should be more motivated, BYU would be the easy choice without question.

But I’m still going to go with Utah.

The fact is, the Utes are just better.

BYU’s rushing attack has been overall pedestrian — and downright atrocious the last four weeks. BYU is averaging 115.2 rushing yards per game and 3.66 yards per carry this season (not including the laugher against Wagner because, frankly, it’s embarrassing that a game against a school with smaller enrollment than Davis High can be considered legitimate). The last four weeks, BYU is averaging 78.5 rushing yards per game and 2.99 yards per carry. This is not a good sign against a team that has allowed 111.8 rushing yards per game and 3.31 yards per carry this season.

Conversely, Utah’s run game hasn’t missed a beat since Devontae Booker was injured in the game against Arizona. All Joe Williams has done is run for 308 yards and 5.13 yards per carry in the Utes’ last two games. BYU hasn’t been horrible stopping the run this year, but in the Cougars’ four games against Power 5 opponents, they’ve allowed 216.5 yards and 4.78 yards per carry. Against Utah State, BYU allowed 202 rushing yards and 4.70 yards per carry. Again, this is not a good sign for BYU.

Basically, don’t be surprised if Utah is able to run the ball and BYU isn’t. The numbers say that’s what should happen.

If you look at the passing game, you might think that BYU has an advantage because Tanner Mangum has been better than Travis Wilson and Mitch Mathews has been better than any of Utah’s receivers.

I actually think the Mangum-Mathews connection could yield quite a few big plays, but Utah’s scoring defense is still second in the Pac-12 and 31st in the nation. And thanks to 19 interceptions (first in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation), the Utes have the third best pass efficiency against in the Pac-12 and the 40th best in the nation.

I expect Mangum will get his yards and Mathews will get his catches, but would hardly be shocked to see a BYU drive with a few big pass plays end in an interception. I know Mangum has only thrown seven of them this year, but opportunistic defenses like Utah’s have a habit of making freshmen like Mangum make mistakes they wouldn’t otherwise make. 

To be fair, BYU’s defense has come up with seven turnovers in four games against Power 5 opponents, so it’s not like the Cougars can’t be opportunistic against good teams. And Wilson certainly hasn’t proven that he’s above making horrible decisions. But if I have to choose between a fourth-year senior and a freshman, I’ll take the fourth-year senior.

I don’t believe this will be a blowout. There’s simply too much pride on BYU’s side. But given the nature of the rivalry, I believe Utah will find plenty of motivation since its initial disappointment and simply has too many advantages.

Mendenhall’s last game against Utah as a BYU coach will be just like his first – a Utes victory.

Prediction: Utah 23, BYU 13

Contact Standard-Examiner sports reporter Ryan Comer at rcomer@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanComerSe and on Facebook.

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