The No. 22 Utah Utes (9-3) could have crumbled after senior running back Devontae Booker went down with a torn meniscus during their double-overtime loss to UCLA on Nov 21. Ranking third on the program’s all-time rushing list, Booker played maybe the most important role in head coach Kyle Whittingham’s offense. But Booker required surgery and he’s missed Utah’s last two games.
Though he was given a four-to-six week recovery time table, Booker’s probably going to be on the sidelines on Saturday when the Utes will meet their fiercest rival, the BYU Cougars (9-3), in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
But junior Joe Williams has emerged and could help quarterback Travis Wilson claim a fifth-straight Holy War victory.
Williams, both a junior college transfer and previously a member of the Connecticut Huskies, exploded over Utah’s last two games once given the opportunity to shine. He’s tallied 308 yards and one touchdown, and caught another four balls for 31 yards, helping the Utes beat Colorado and in their close loss to UCLA.
Whether it was Williams or Booker in the backfield, Utah’s game plan against the Cougars was always going to be run-centric. In defeat, BYU’s allowed 246.6 rushing yards on average in its three losses this season.
The senior Wilson, who completed 24 of his 35 pass attempts for 273 yards and two touchdowns in Utah’s 20-13 victory over BYU back in 2013, will also continue to play a huge role in the rushing attack. He was second to Booker during the regular season with 466 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
But the Cougars, and in particular the seniors who remember the 2013 loss, are legitimate threats to hand Utah its fourth loss of the season and to snap their four-game losing streak.
"This is going to be the best game I have ever been a part of," senior defensive end Graham Rowley told the Salt Lake Tribune.
"Probably the best game in a long time in BYU history, in my opinion. Meeting our rival in a bowl game, I don't think that has ever happened before. I was hoping that we would play Utah. Everyone was saying all year, 'There is no way you are going to play Utah. It just won't match up. Just wait until next year.' I am like, 'I am a senior, and I won't be able to play them?' This came out of nowhere and it is awesome. We are excited. Utah is a great team, and we are a great team. We are both preparing really hard for this game and I think we will be ready when the time comes."
Rowley appeared in 12 games this season and is part of a Cougars defensive frontline that’s generated 37 sacks, a group that will be integral to stopping the dual-threat Wilson.
BYU enters the matchup as a 2.5-point underdog, but it does have the advantage of an excited freshman quarterback in Tanner Mangum, who has shown he can pick apart a solid Utah secondary.
"I am pumped to play Utah," Mangum told The Tribune. "I grew up a huge BYU fan my whole life. I grew up watching all the BYU-Utah games, so to be able to play in one is pretty special, and it is exciting to be able to do it in a bowl setting. It is the first time we've done that. So, that's exciting. But mentally, as far as preparation is concerned, and practice, it is still the same. It is just another game, as far as that is concerned. So watching them on film gets me pumped to play, but going out on the practice field it is just all about us and how we execute and how we perform."
The 6-foot-3 Mangum launched 21 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions, and completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 3.062 yards once he filled in for the injured Taysom Hill earlier this season.
However, Mangum will have to be careful against a Utes pass defense that was the third most-efficient unit in the Pac-12 and lead the conference with 19 total interceptions. Mangum struggled against ranked foes this season, tossing three combined interceptions against Boise State and UCLA, and he completed a season-low 42.9 percent of his passes against much-improved Michigan.
BYU over Utah, OddsShark
Utah over BYU, Adam Rittenberg, ESPN
Utah over BYU, Brady Quinn, CBS Sports
BYU over Utah, Bobby Ilich, IB Times
Utah over BYU, Greg Price, IB Times
BYU over Utah, Anthony Riccobono, IB Times