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No. 21 Utes pushed around, outplayed in loss to rival Cougars

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) takes a snap as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 27-16 ending a 9 game losing streak to the Utes.

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) takes a snap as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 27-16 ending a 9 game losing streak to the Utes. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



PROVO — After more than a decade, Utah's reign over in-state rival BYU is over. Nine is now zero.

The Cougars brought an unmatched intensity Saturday night, like a team destined to break a nine-game winning streak that has hung over the Cougars' heads since the Utes jumped to the Pac-12.

But on the weekend BYU was made an equal with Utah in the Power Five ranks with an accepted invitation to the Big 12, the Cougars found an opening and ran through it — literally — for a 26-17 win over the Utes.

The sellout crowd of 63,470 that packed LaVell Edwards Stadium was electric and ready to explode for any positive momentum that BYU could muster on the field; and fortunately for the crowd, BYU gave the crowd many moments to celebrate.

Not even a heavy downpour in the second half could squandered BYU's party — the after party was even greater as the field turned into a makeshift rave as fans rushed to celebrate with the team.

For a majority of the night, BYU was the undisputed better team.

Utes pushed around and outplayed

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said he would have bet his house that Utah would have dominated the line of scrimmage against BYU. His team, however, was anything but dominant on both sides of the ball Saturday night. The Cougars' front on offense and defense executed their game plan perfectly and limited Utah in all it wanted to do.

On the offensive line, Utah allowed two sacks and multiple breaches into the backfield, including a bull rush up the middle by two BYU defenders that were untouched. The blitz forced quarterback Charlie Brewer to throw away the ball, but the pass turned into an interception instead on the first drive of the game. It was a play that set the tone of the game for both teams.

And though the turnover didn't lead to points for the Cougars, it was an opportunity for BYU to prove it was ready to break the streak.

Defensively, Utah failed to get pressure on quarterback Jaren Hall, who was free to escape and pick up big yards with his feet or to extend time on the rollout and make plays with his arm — both effective all night. BYU's run game also had little problem pushing through a traditionally stout Utah front seven.

"We've gotta hit home. We had zero sacks, and that's unacceptable," Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd said. "No turnovers, no havoc plays at all; that's unacceptable for our defense. It wasn't conservative play-calling, we've got to just take pride and get to the quarterback and make big plays at the end of the day."

Third down troubles

As if being pushed around at the line of scrimmage wasn't bad enough, Utah couldn't get anything going on third down — either on offense or defense. The Utes finished the night just 2-of-9 in third-down situations on offense, while allowing BYU to go 11-of-19 on third downs.

While one team couldn't stay on the field, the other team continued to milk the clock and move the chains.

"We've just got to execute on third downs; that's really what it came down to all game," Lloyd said. "We did a good job of the first couple plays, but as the game progressed, they started converting."

Whittingham echoed his star linebacker, who finished the night with a game-high 13 tackles, including half-credit for a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup. Utah didn't have enough chances to combat BYU because of third-down inefficiencies.

"If you can't convert third downs and extend drives and keep drives alive, then it's not going to be a good outcome," Whittingham added. "We only moved the chains, I think it was 15 times, and it's not enough; it's not nearly enough to win a football game in this day and age."

And while not a third-down situation, Utah also failed to convert on a fourth-and-2 opportunity in the red zone. Utah was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and gave BYU the opportunity to build on its momentum. Had Utah tried for a routine field goal, the game would have been tied 10-10 and it likely would have take a bit of the energy out of the crowd.

But analytics told the coaching staff to make the decision to go for it, according to Whittingham. The problem was the the draw play was picked up a mile away and BYU had no problem stopping it. Whittingham said he'd likely go for it again in a similar situation, and the numbers do say he's right, but the play-calling in the situation was anything but encouraging for Utah to be successful there.

Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2) finds an opening in the line as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 27-16 ending a 9 game losing streak to the Utes.
Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2) finds an opening in the line as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 27-16 ending a 9 game losing streak to the Utes. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Micah Bernard is moving up

The one bright spot for the Utes was redshirt freshman Micah Bernard. While the rest of the team looked a step slower than its rival, Bernard made a name for himself. Even with BYU's Tyler Allgeier gashing Utah at the right moments, it was Bernard who had a game-high 146 rushing yards and one touchdown, in addition to 18 receiving yards on four catches.

Bernard almost single handily turned the game around for the Utes after he broke free for a 50-yard gain late in the game, but the Utes got bullied again at the line of scrimmage and Charlie Brewer was sacked to force a 47-yard field goal attempt that Jadon Redding made to make it a two-score game.

But Bernard, alone, was not enough to will Utah to a win. It was, however, a coming out party for the running back, who almost certainly solidified a top spot on the depth chart in a crowded running back room. Fellow running back Tavion Thomas got his opportunities, too, but coughed up the ball for the second straight week, which forced him to an extended time on the sidelines.

"He played very well tonight — ran hard, ripped off some big runs," Whittingham said of Bernard. "He's also a great receiver out of the backfield, so he's a weapon for us. ... Micah certainly seemed to get some separation between him and the other backs tonight."

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