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SALT LAKE CITY — There has been just one September matchup between BYU and Utah in the rivalry's 92 meetings, and that was in 1958. Needless to say, forecasting this matchup — already the most evenly matched rivalry in the country — is almost impossible.
Without a full season's worth of data to dissect and digest, Saturday's Utah-BYU game isn't so much about individual players and matchups as it is about situations. With four games played between the two teams, however, some trends have emerged, most notably that both teams have above-average defenses and mediocre quarterback play. How can Utah gain an advantage from the known and unknown that exists about BYU?
1. Avoid 2nd and long
"Long" in this instance is nine yards or more. At 2nd and 8 or better, Utah still has a lot of options available in its playbook and can keep BYU's defense honest. It will be important for Utah to gain positive yardage on first down, ideally through the running game, where it has averaged a respectable — not outstanding or even above-average — 4.3 yards per carry. It's enough of a threat that BYU has to respect.
2. Win the turnover battle
Through two games, the one thing Utah has done exceptionally well is force turnovers. Utah's lone turnover this year, against USC on a John White IV fumble, proved huge as the Trojans got a touchdown off that turnover. But at 10th nationally, with a +2 turnover margin per game, Utah will need a similar effort against BYU to make up for its impotent passing attack (95th and 93rd nationally in passing offense and passing efficiency, respectively). Conversely, with equally dismal passing numbers for BYU, the Cougars rank 38th in turnover margin — a decent number, but with absolutely horrible timing when they have turned over the ball. Utah needs to make BYU pay when the Cougars are careless with the football.
3. Make and capitalize on the big play
Utah has all of two pass plays of 20 yards or more through two games. That is not going to cut it in any league, and is a major reason why Utah has the worst passing attack in the Pac-12 through two games — even worse than Oregon State, and that's saying a lot. Obviously, the more such plays Utah can get, the more likely it is to win, but a good number to start with would be double its output from this year: four. If those plays can be spread out over three scoring drives that result in at least two touchdowns, it would be promising for Utah.
Patrick Sheltra is sports editor of the Twin Falls (Idaho) Times-News and the author of "100 Things Utes Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die." (September 2011 release) Read more of his thoughts on University of Utah sports at scriptutah.blogspot.