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PROVO — Three games into the season, it didn’t look like BYU would have the chance to finish the college football season with the best record amongst Utah’s FBS schools.
Through three games, the Cougars were as inconsistent as winter weather on the Wasatch Front. The team opened with an abysmal loss to Virginia, came back home and had a marquee win over nationally ranked Texas, then finished with a loss to a Utah team that ultimately proved to be the biggest disappointment in the state.
BYU found its way Oct. 4 in Logan against Utah State — a game that featured a battle to avoid being the third-best team in the state. The Cougars led the entire game, and ensured that they would remain one of the state’s top-two teams this season with a blow-out victory over the Aggies.
Several pundits saw a scenario where BYU would struggle to gain entry into a bowl game of any significance. Now, BYU has a chance to finish the season with the biggest postseason victory of all the FBS independent teams with a win over Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Washington, which opened the season 4-0 before losing to Oregon and Stanford in back-to-back weeks, lost its coach after a win in the Apple Cup over Washington State, and is trying to welcome former Boise State coach Chris Petersen to Seattle on a winning note. Even though some Huskies fans may lament Steve Sarkisian leaving, there is no doubt he left the program much better off than how he found it.
So, as both BYU and Washington enter the Fight Hunger Bowl with much to gain/lose, the key matchup in the game will come down to the battle between Washington running back Bishop Sankey and BYU’s run defense.
Why this matchup?
Washington’s calling card all season long was running the football and getting explosive plays out of Sankey. Huskies quarterback Keith Price is more than serviceable, and there is no doubt he is a threat on the field; yet, the offense runs through Sankey.
Sankey, who averages 5.8 yards a carry, is a runner who is elusive yet powerful. With his ability, teams frequently load the box to stop his rushing and hope their defensive backs can play in man-to-man coverage, or trust that their linebackers can recover and drop into coverage.
For BYU to beat Washington, the Cougars will also have to load the box to first stop Sankey. However, BYU is fortunate in that it has Kyle Van Noy, who is the rare linebacker that has the quickness to drop into coverage at a moment’s notice. If Van Noy plays his normal game, BYU will have more than a good chance to contend in this game. If Van Noy struggles, it could get rough for the Cougars, as Washington will have the ability to do whatever it wishes offensively, whether run or pass.
Who wins this matchup?
After losing Sarkisian, Washington is clearly trying to establish an identity, and several members of the coaching staff have already left for other jobs. A month ago, Washington was clearly the better team, yet distractions may change the tune of how this game flows.
Again, the game comes down to whether BYU’s linebackers can drop into coverage when need be, and Van Noy will do whatever it takes to finish his final game as a Cougar with a win. The savvy of Van Noy will be enough to propel BYU forward, past Washington’s distractions.