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'Just hold on': With history on the line, Utah embraces 9-game win streak over BYU

Utah's Jaylen Dixon celebrates after scoring a touchdown against BYU, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Provo. (Photo: Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

Utah's Jaylen Dixon celebrates after scoring a touchdown against BYU, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Provo. (Photo: Steve Griffin, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — With a nine-game winning streak at hand in its rivalry against BYU, Utah football is on the verge of making history.

No time in the 125 years of the two playing each other has one team ever won more than nine straight games — there's been a couple ties to break up a sustained winning streak from Utah in the early 1900's — as Utah holds a 62–34–4 overall record, but even that's disputed.

The Utes are looking to make it 10 straight on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MT, ESPN) as they hope to spoil the home opener for the Cougars at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

And while that streak is important — all wins are important in a 12-game season — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is the first to downplay the importance of a single game, even if it does come against the program's heated rival and one Whittingham has dominated in his tenure.

"Yeah, you know, nothing lasts forever, but we're just approaching it like we do every year and pretty much every game," Whittingham said. "The preparation will be the key; it's not the emotional part of it or how many wins in a row or any of that stuff, it's just that you've got to prepare the right way, and that's your best chance to win a game is through great preparation."

But since Utah moved to the Pac-12 and BYU to independence, Whittingham believes the rivalry has changed. It's still an important game and one he takes pride in claiming victory over his alma mater, but his aspirations for the program are bigger: a South Division title, a Pac-12 title and the program's first-ever Rose Bowl appearance.

To that extent, BYU is simply a nonconference opponent — one of three matchups before the conference season starts — for Whittingham, even if he doesn't play up the importance of the game in public.

"There's a lot of reasons why it has a different feel than it used to," Whittingham said, while noting the two are no longer in the same conference and the game has taken a hiatus a few times over the last 11 years. "But we're playing this year, so we've got to be ready to go."

Utah will take a two-year break to play Florida instead of BYU, which adds to the importance of the game Saturday; it's an opportunity to hold bragging rights for either team for an extended period. And while Whittingham likes to play down the importance of the game, it's anything but that in the team's facility, which features several opportunities for all to know about the "team down south."

And while there's an increased opportunity to learn about BYU in the facility this week, it's something that not all understand from the onset.

For one, about two thirds of Utah's players, according to Whittingham, have never played the Cougars and have no natural understanding of the rivalry. "We have a lot of guys that haven't (played them) because we didn't play last year, so we'll educate them about what it's all about and our upperclassmen will educate them what it's all about."

For redshirt freshman Micah Bernard, who has been a part of the program for three seasons and is a part of the group that helps educate, he knows the rivalry well. He believes that the win streak alone is enough to get players motivated and ready to go — even if they don't know or care about the rivalry yet.

"You've gotta understand, we've done this for nine straight years already — want it to be 10. So, you know, that should be enough, but we've got a lot of things going around in the facility here," Bernard said. "We talk about it a lot, everybody should know the standard we look for here. The team down south is the team down south, so we've gotta go take care of business."

And even if the game doesn't have the natural stakes that it did a decade ago, the players who have been a part of it look forward to it. It's another way to embrace the pageantry and fandom of college football. Junior receiver Solomon Enis said his message to the team is "not to take it lightly."

"I mean, this is no other game," Enis said. "We're preparing every week like it's the Super Bowl, but this one's a little bit more special. Every year they're a great team, and I feel like we have a very good team this year as well. So, I mean, every year, you never know with the Holy War. It's such a great game, such a great atmosphere with the fans.

"Just hold on because it's gonna be a great game."

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