Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has made a bit of a competition out of trying to rattle kicker Louie Sakoda during practice this season.
So far, Sakoda has shut out the coach -- and every other possible distraction while helping lead No. 8 Utah within one win of an unbeaten regular season.
The Utes (11-0, 7-0 Mountain West) host No. 16 BYU (10-1, 6-1) on Saturday in a rivalry that has been decided by seven points or less 10 of the last 11 years. If it comes down to a final kick, the Utes would gladly leave it up to the unflappable "King Louie."
"He's the model of consistency," Whittingham said. "Nothing bothers him. Nothing fazes him. I'm very glad he's on our sideline."
Sakoda is also a four-year starter as Utah's punter and can be just about as accurate in the battle for field position as he has been on field goals and extra points. The Utes have needed the strong kicking game to remain unbeaten and in position for a second trip the Bowl Championship Series.
While Utah's "BCS Busters" of 2004 won every game by at least two touchdowns, this year's Utes haven't had that kind of overwhelming offense and have even been on the edge of losing a couple of times.
Sakoda has bolstered the defense by downing 20 of 46 punts inside the 20-yard line, including 12 inside the 15 and five within five yards of the end zone.
He became Utah's career scoring leader earlier this season and has been just about a sure thing for the Utes every time they have called on him, even in the most stressful circumstances.
Sakoda kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired to give Utah a 31-28 win over Oregon State on Oct. 2, completing an 11-point rally in the final 1:29. His two field goals in the first half against TCU were Utah's only scoring until quarterback Brian Johnson finally got the offense going late in the fourth quarter and scored on a pass with 48 seconds left, giving the Utes a 13-10 win.
"He's the most mentally tough person that I know," Johnson said. "When you get to this level, talent-wise everybody can kick. But I think he has that extra edge in his mental preparation that separates him from every specialist in the country."
Sakoda's has made 19 of 21 field goal attempts this year. His only two misses were from 48 and 54 yards during a 30-23 win at Air Force in September. Whittingham says he should have had Sakoda punt instead of trying the long-shot field goals, which were both into the wind.
Sakoda maintains he should have made them both. He doesn't like to miss, regardless of the distance or conditions.
"I'm somewhat happy, but I'm never satisfied," said Sakoda, who is also 46-for-47 on extra points -- and that one kick was blocked.
"During the week, you just put yourself in that situation in your head. You create pressure situations," Sakoda said. "When I go in there, if I miss a kick it's all mental."
Sakoda knows he could be called upon with the game on the line again Saturday, given the way the last three BYU-Utah meetings have gone. The Cougars have won the last two with touchdowns in the final minute. Utah's last win was an overtime thriller three years ago in Provo.
"They've always been ranked ahead of us. This is first time in my career that we're favored," Sakoda said. "I think that gives us a certain swagger going into this. I've never been more confident in our team."
BYU's own BCS hopes likely ended with a loss at TCU in Oct., but the Cougars can keep their rivals from reaching one of the four top bowl games. BYU can also claim a share of the Mountain West title, which BYU won outright the last two years.
So the rivalry that is the state's biggest every year is looking even larger this time.
"Both teams will try as hard as they can try and if they can handle the emotion, they'll play well," coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "The teams that get caught up in it will probably be more erratic and that may cost a victory."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)