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There was a common theme among talk from players and coaches as they emerged from a grueling Tuesday practice, four days ahead of BYU's rivalry meeting with Utah: the running game.
The same BYU offense that came out of spring practice looking seasoned and strong in the ground attack has averaged a mere 67 yards per game in the first two weeks of the season, and only 2.5 yards per rush.
"I'd like to see us run more physically. I'd like to see us run more downhill. That's imperative to having the balance we need," reported Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Tuesday's practice reflected the urgency in Mendenhall's tone; the structure of the day was tailored to the running game. Particular emphasis was placed on the offensive line's blocking "so that we can run through people, not just around them," according to Mendenhall.
Offensive tackle Matt Reynolds reiterated that statement. "Blocking is everything," he noted. "If we block it right, our running backs will have a great game. And if we don't, they're going to struggle. The past couple of weeks, we've struggled. We [the offensive line] take it personally that we haven't run very well that past couple of weeks. Coach has really tried to implement a couple of things so far this week to have more of a focus on that and have our biggest improvements in that area."
You can hear complete post-practice interviews with Mendenhall and Reynolds in "Cougar Cuts," above.
Running back Bryan Kariya felt that the offensive line was doing everything necessary, but that it was the offensive backfield's time to step up and make the runs happen. "The blocks are there. We running backs need to take it on ourselves to put our head down and go get the yards. It's not going to be given to you. You just have to hit the open hole, run downfield, and keep your legs moving. Eventually that kind of consistency will wear the defense down."
On the team's feeling after a dedicated practice: "We've got a really good plan in," Reynolds said. "The coaches have done a good job of planning when we want to run and how we're going to run it. I think we'll do pretty well."
Mendenhall added that for what is already the most intense practice of the week, "We worked them hard. We had high expectations for them, and it was a hard practice."
Putting Saturday's 17-16 loss to Texas behind them, BYU is focused on its upcoming matchup against an historic rival: The University of Utah. "This is our chance to prove who is the better team [in Utah], which means a lot to the players and Coach Mendenhall," Reynolds explained. "It can be really, really fun. I've had a lot of really good experiences and some disappointments. Several of these games have come down to a final play."
Five of the last six games, in fact, have come down to the final play of the game. Fans will remember the sheer exhilaration of the last-second John Beck—to-Jonny Harline connection in 2006, as well as the heartbreak of BYU's blocked field goal to end last year's game. In those last six years, BYU and Utah have split their games three apiece.
The biggest threat to BYU in Saturday's game will be Utah's wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, who has 147 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season. "He's a really good player," Mendenhall noted.
"They have a great receiving core." Added defensive back Travis Uale, "We watched film on DeVonte and he's good. He played a great game against USC. When he was called on he made catches. " On how the team will respond, Uale said "We're going to need to be on point coverage-wise to be successful against the pass, especially with him leading that skillful wide receiver core."
With BYU's transition into football independence, Saturday's game against Utah is a deviation from the previous season-ending rivalry games. "It doesn't feel right. It feels like the game is being played about 8 weeks too early," Mendenhall said of the schedule change. "I don't like it. I would like it to be the last game of the season. That's when a rivalry is supposed to be played. Period."
With that being said, Mendenhall noted that the upcoming game "is going to be a good matchup. We've got a really good opponent. We have to take them as seriously as we're preparing." Then, coming full-circle back to the theme of the day, he cracked a smile and said, "Like focusing on the run. If we get that going everything else will follow suit."
Kick-off is Saturday at 7:15pm from LaVell Edwards Stadium. Tune into KSL Radio 1160 AM, 102.7 FM or ksl.com, starting with pregame coverage at 5:00pm.