Bronco Mendenhall will trot out with the BYU Cougars (9-3) one more time as head coach, and he can complete his 10-year tenure in Provo by snapping the Utah Utes (9-3) active four-game winning streak in the nearly century-old in-state rivalry.
Mendenhall, who was named Virginia’s new coach last week and is expected to take several assistants with him, guided the Cougars to several huge victories earlier this season, including at Nebraska and over then-No. 20 Boise State and wound up with nine victories for the first time since 2011’s 10-win campaign.
But no accomplishment would be more fitting a send-off for Mendenhall and his time in Provo then downing the Utes in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 19.
Mendenhall spoke of getting his soon-to-be former squad ready one more time at Wednesday’s first practice for the bowl, and gaining a sense of “normalcy” after a whirlwind week
“We’ve had a pretty unique couple of days and for what I saw at practice today, I was encouraged,” Mendenhall said to Deseret News. “We need a sense of normalcy. It was a relief to get back to practice and play the same roles we’ve been playing and fall into what we’re used to. The last little bit has not been what we’ve been used to. We all crave consistency. It felt good for everyone to get back to (practice) today.”
Specifically BYU will have to work on stopping the run against a Utes offense that ranked No. 4 in the Pac-12 with 187.8 yards per game. In their three losses the Cougars surrendered 246.6 yards per game to UCLA (296) Michigan (254), and Missouri (190), compared to just 111.5 yards to the nine opponents they defeated.
And BYU has the talent and personnel to complete the hefty job. Sophomore linebacker Fred Warner and senior defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi combined for 27.5 tackles for a loss of 121 yards and 15 of the Cougars 37 sacks on the year.
Mendenhall is also 3-6 against Utah and his Holy War counterpart Kyle Whittingham, who nearly took over the Cougars before they decided to promote from within and elevate Mendenhall from defensive coordinator.
Utah’s won the last four meetings dating back to 2010, and padded their all-time record hold of 54-31-4 since the rivalry began in 1922. The Utes are favored in the matchup, but by less than a field goal.
And even though they wound up with identical records, Whittingham posted arguably one of the best seasons of his career in Salt Lake. The Utes downed Michigan, then-No. 13 Oregon, No. 23 California and reached as high as No. 3 in the national rankings while contending for a shot in the College Football Playoff before slipping late in the Pac-12 schedule with a 1-2 slide to end the regular season.
Unlike BYU, the Utes have largely excelled against the rush this season and ranked first in their conference with 111.8 yards let up per contest and only nine total touchdowns. Senior linebacker Gionni Paul led the unit with 12.5 tackles for a loss and in total tackles (109), and he was one of five players to record three or more sacks on the year.
Utah’s defense, which finished the regular season tied for No. 31 in the country with 21.8 points per game, will more than likely lead the way against the Cougars. The real question is how much more pressure the offense will put on the unit.
Turnovers proved to be the Utes downfall late in the season, with eight committed during their three losses, including four total interceptions for quarterback Travis Wilson against USC. The senior tossed five combined interceptions during Utah’s letdowns, compared to five in all of the Utes other contests, though he was one of the Pac-12’s best dual-threat players.
Wilson finished 11 th in total offense with 2,491 yards and 19 total touchdowns, and senior running back Devontae Booker was third in the conference with 1,261 yards and 11 scores.
Prediction: Utah over BYU, 24-20