Well, it’s here. Just like most of us envisioned three months ago. The BYU Cougars and the Utah Utes are heading into the final game of the regular season with the MWC title on the line and a potential BCS invitation looming on the horizon. Never before in the history of this rivalry have both teams been ranked as high as they are this season.

Recent history dictates that we can take everything we know about both teams and throw it out the window. Forget about the rankings, the stats, and the media hype. This rivalry has only had two blowouts in the past 20 years—1989 (BYU 70-31) and 2004 (Utah 52-21). All the other games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. The same goes for home-field advantage. The road team has won 12 times in the past 18 clashes.

As of Friday, the day before the game, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged Utah as a four-point favorite.

Three keys to defeat the Utes

1. Play with intense passion. When the Cougars headed into the locker room at halftime last weekend in Colorado Springs losing 14-10 to Air Force, wide receiver Austin Collie called out his teammates for their lack of, among other things, a killer instinct. It worked and the Y scored 21 points in the third quarter to regain the lead for good.

Whatever it takes, the Cougars need to play with fire in their bellies on Saturday–the kind that keeps them fighting until the final tick of the game clock is expired. With their perfect season on the line, you can bet the Utes will play with a maniacal attitude and fight to the finish.

2. Rule the day with the big play. In a game as closely matched as this one appears to be, the outcome will likely come down to which team makes more big plays than the other.

The psychological element of the big play is huge, especially in a rivalry game where the home crowd can be whipped into a furious frenzy or muffled in groans. Every time the Cougars can manage to pull off a long gainer for a score, force a turnover, or stuff a key third-down conversion attempt, they’ll seize the momentum and drive a very sharp and real point of doubt into the heart of the home team and its fans.

3. Mitigate the Brian Johnson factor. He’s cool and calm under pressure, the most visible leader of his team, and a senior playing his last game in front of the hometown crowd. He has a never-say-die attitude and he knows how to win.

So, how do you keep Johnson from beating you? Good question. Nobody’s been able to figure that one out this year.

The key is to bottle up the passing lanes and smother his receivers. Easier said than done because he’s got a bevy of talented receivers beginning with Brent Casteel, Freddie Brown and Bradon Godfrey.

But Johnson has been one-dimensional ever since his massive knee injury. He’s not going to beat you tucking the rock and taking it vertical. He did that once this year, but the stats reveal his vulnerability. He’s been sacked 22 times and is averaging 1.3 yards per carry, the lowest on the Utah squad.

If the Cougars hope to defeat the Utes, they’ll need to hold Johnson to fewer than 200 yards passing and less than a 60 percent completion rate. In the closest games that Utah has played this year, Air Force held him to 243 yards, New Mexico kept him at 195, TCU limited his yardage to 230, and Oregon State capped him at 201 yards on a 56.7 completion rate.

Prediction

I’m really torn on this one. I didn’t think Brigham Young would be able to take the Falcons at home last weekend, but it proved me wrong. I see the Cougars playing with a fierce passion that will make their fans proud, and they should play the Utes as tough as any of the four opponents that took them to the wire this season. Still, I don’t believe they can contain Johnson and his receivers, nor can they keep them from making one more big play that decides the game. It looks like this is the year of the Utes: Utah 34, BYU 28