Loyal Cougars

BYU v. Utah Las Vegas Bowl Preview

Game Capsule

BYU Cougars (9-3) vs. #20 Utah Utes (9-3)

Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada

Kickoff Time: Saturday, December 19, 2015, 12:30pm PST

TV: ABC (Brent Musburger/Jesse Palmer/Maria Taylor), BYUtv Countdown to Kickoff (Dave McCann/Blaine Fowler) 12:30pm MST

Radio: Cougar IMG Sports Network (Greg Wrubell/Marc Lyons): Sirius XM 143, KSL 1160 AM and 102.7 FM, and online at BYUcougars.com

BYU Game Notes

Utah State Statistical Review

In BYU’s final game of the regular season (a mere three weeks ago if you can believe it), the Cougars came away with a convincing win over the Aggies of Utah State. I predicted that BYU would get the win by doing any one of the following. Here are the results:

  • Convert at least 45% on offensive 3rd Downs – FAIL (BYU converted just 4/13 Third Down opportunities – 30.8%)
  • Rush for 150 yards – FAIL (BYU ran for just 74 yards on 31 carries – an average of just 2.4 ypc)
  • Win or tie the turnover margin – YES (BYU finished +2 in the TO margin)
  • Hold average starting field position edge – FAIL (The Aggies had a 2.7-yard advantage though, if stats were counted my way, Tomasi Laulile’s fumble return for a TD would count as a drive starting and ending at the USU 0, giving BYU a 1.5-yard edge and that doesn’t even account for the 66-yard blocked FG return by Micah Hannemann that set the Cougars up at the Aggie 10)
  • Enter the Aggie Red Zone four or more times – YES (BYU finished with 5 scores on 6 trips inside the Red Zone with a final-minute kneeldown accounting for the only failed trip)
  • Not allow any USU punt/kickoff returns across midfield – FAIL (The Cougars allowed Aggie punt returns to the BYU 31-, and 49-yard lines)
  • Hold Aggies to 24 points or fewer – FAIL (USU finished with 28 points)

So, turnovers and sustained BYU drives proved to be the difference in the game as BYU was highly successful in those two metrics. Hannemann’s 66-yard return doesn’t show up anywhere in the stats, but that should basically be considered a third turnover.

Utah Statistical Preview

I’m too amped to put out a list of 7 keys this week, so I’ll keep it simple. Here are the four areas to watch in the first ever Holy Bowl:

  1. Special Teams: Kyle Whittingham has reportedly told his team that the most secure path to a Ute victory this afternoon is to win two of the three aspects of the game. Since it seems likely that each defense will win the battle over the opposing offense, the difference in the game may just come down to whose special teams prove to be more special. And unfortunately for BYU, Special Teams tend to be a strength for the Utes. Utah’s punter Tom Hackett has won the Ray Guy Award as the best punter in the nation the past two seasons. Hackett’s average punt travels 47.8 yards (3rd best in FBS) and 76.4% of his punts have been either fair caught or placed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Compare that to Jonny Linehan’s 43-yard average (38th in FBS) and 58.6% ratio and you can see a clear advantage for the Utes. As a result of these stats, Utah leads the nation in net punting, while BYU ranks 74th. Combine that with Utah’s superior performance returning punts and it’s not hard to predict that Utah will hold a Special Teams advantage in a game that promises to be a defensive (and therefore punt-filled) battle. Utah’s average punt return is 10.83 yards (37th-best in FBS), while BYU allows a 12.38-yard return on average (ranked 110th-best in FBS). On the other side, BYU’s average punt return goes for 8.87 yards (58th in FBS) and Utah’s punt coverage team allows opponents to average 7.33 yards per return (53rd-best in FBS). It seems that a key for BYU will be to have long, booming punts with little/no return. I am confident in the Cougar defense’s ability to hold the Utes scoreless (or at worst to a field goal) on drives longer than 50 yards. And so, the goal for the Cougars should be similar to what I set last week: if BYU can hold the Utes without a punt return to the BYU side of the field, I believe that BYU will win the game.
  2. Turnover Margin: In the nine BYU-Utah matchups of the Bronco Mendenhall era, the Cougars hold a 3-0 record when winning/tying the turnover margin and an 0-6 mark when losing the turnover battle. That’s quite the predictor. I believe it’s fair to say that BYU will lose yet again if the Utes hold the turnover margin edge; Utah comes into the game with a perfect 7-0 record in 2015 when winning the turnover margin. But, when the margin is tied, the Utes are 1-1. And Utah is 1-2 when turning the ball over more times than its opponent. For BYU to have a chance at a win today, the Cougars will need to at least match Utah’s turnover number. And, if BYU wins the turnover battle, I predict a victory this afternoon in Las Vegas.
  3. BYU Run Game: The BYU offense has performed poorly on the ground in 2015, averaging a mere 133 yards rushing per game (only 20 FBS teams run for fewer yards per game). If that average doesn’t change, it will be the lowest rushing average of the Mendenhall era. Injuries played a factor in September as the Cougars averaged only 104 yards per game on the ground. October saw improvement as BYU ran for 217 yards per contest. However, in the final month of the season, the Cougars ran for only 79 yards per game, failing to reach 75 rushing yards in 3 of the 4 games. It will be interesting to see how much of a boost Squally Canada can provide to the backfield now that he is expected to be eligible for today’s game. The Utah defense comes into the game ranked 6th-best in the country in defending the run. If BYU can rush for 100 yards or more, the Cougars should be able to come away with the victory today.
  4. BYU Run Defense: BYU has often been forced to become one-dimensional on offense this year (abandoning the run in favor of the pass). Utah has similarly been one-dimensional in several contests, though the Utes tend to abandon a pass game in favor of the run. The Utah offense averages 188 yards per game on the ground, the 43rd-highest average in the nation. The strength of the BYU defense is against the pass, which is also Utah’s weakness. But, that’s not to say that BYU’s defense is poor against the run: the Cougars have allowed opponents to run for 145 yards per game (42nd-best in FBS). I believe that Travis Wilson and the Utes will only pass for about 150 yards on the day. The difference in the game will be decided by how well BYU can defend against the run. And while Utah’s top rusher, DeVontae Booker, is out for the game, his backup Joe Williams is no slouch. Booker ran for 126 yards per game through the first 10 games of the season. In the final two games, Williams entered and rushed for 154 per contest, with a better YPC number than Booker. Add Travis Wilson’s ability to scramble (42 ypg rushing) and it’s easy to see why the Utes have been able to run the ball so well this season. The BYU defense will not have to completely shut down the Utah run game in order to secure Bronco Mendenhall’s 100th win today. But, if the Cougars can hold Utah below its season rushing average, BYU should be able to get the win.

So, there you have it. Those are the four most important areas that I’ll be watching. Of course, I’ll be interested in a lot of other things as well. It will be interesting to watch Robert Anae’s playcalling to see if the job change will have any effect: will he be less conservative knowing he has nothing to lose as a lame-duck BYU coach? or will the playcalls be more lackluster than ever due to a lack of motivation?

I’ll also be watching how BYU comes out in the beginning of the game. In the past four games against Utah, the Cougars have come out tight and have not matched Utah’s energy level. I want to see how the coaching changes and playing Utah in a Bowl game will affect BYU’s energy. Will we see a similar start to what BYU has done in recent history against the Utes? Or will the Cougars be motivated to come out and play aggressively with more on the line this year?

Finally, I’ll be interested to watch how the teams perform on 3rd Down. Past Bronco Mendenhall-coached teams have performed much better on 3rd Down offensively and defensively. It is definitely an area of needed improvement for the Cougars and there’s no better time than the last game of the year to find more conversions on offense and more stops on defense.

I’m not going to make any score predictions, but I definitely think this is a game that BYU can win. We’ll see how these factors play into the outcome as Bronco Mendenhall and at least six BYU assistants ride off to Charlottesville at the conclusion of today’s game.

Depth Chart/Roster

Lastly, here is a look at the projected Depth Chart for today’s Holy War game against Utah.

2015 12 17 Game 13 Utah

You can download the JPG and PDF versions of the latest Depth Chart, as well as a current roster, at the following location:


Go Cougs!