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No beer, just loathing, in Las Vegas: At the BYU-Utah Holy War in Sin City

The rivalry that divides a state and heavily involves a major church asks you to pick a side, but it's not quite so simple.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The question came up during nearly every conversation.

"Who are you rooting for, BYU or Utah?"

I thought this would be easily deflected. With my brown corduroy jacket, oxford shirt and media credential, I was dressed like I walked out of Sportswriter Central Casting.

"I'm just here to write about the game. I'm rooting for a good story."

No rooting interests here, folks. I'm just a Serious Professional Journalist. Many, whether clad in red and blue, weren't satisfied.

"C'mon, you can tell me. Are you a Utah guy, or a BYU guy?"

This was not the first time I've been asked this question, and my Serious Professional jacket wasn't going to save me.

I've never lived in the state of Utah, and I've only visited a handful of times. I grew up in Central Ohio, graduated from The Ohio State University, and now live a mile or so from the University of Maryland.

But I'm also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), the church that operates BYU.

In that community, once it's known that you love college football, this rivalry has a way of popping up, even outside the Book of Mormon Belt.

I remember my first day in the Missionary Training Center, a mini-college of sorts near BYU where LDS missionaries receive instruction before heading out to knock doors and ride bikes. My teaching partner interrupted a group conversation to ask me whether I was a "BYU guy" or a "Utah guy."

"I'm from Columbus. I'm more of an Ohio State fan."

"Nah, you've still got a preference. Are you a BYU guy or a Utah guy?"

A few minutes before, I had a told a room of LDS missionaries that my favorite movie was Pulp Fiction. Everybody else had picked a Disney movie.

"Uh ... I guess I'm a Utah guy?"

He smiled.

"Good. We'll get along just great then."


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There are things I identify with about both teams.

BYU football has been anything but boring. An innovator in pass-first offenses for years, BYU's experimented with tempo and new formations, something I looked at with jealousy when Ohio State's QB play wasn't very good.

At its best, BYU football is an effective advocate for LDS values and our faith. I loved the firesides program head coach Bronco Mendenhall established; the day before a game, BYU players give a public devotional to discuss their faith.

I also didn't go to BYU for a reason, even though virtually every other Mormon I grew up with in Ohio did. Even though we're active church members, my family didn't feel comfortable with the school. My mom, who joined the church after emigrating with her family from Brazil, is a feminist intellectual. Unlike most U.S. Mormons, everybody in my family is a Democrat. I used to be a union member and worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I joined a fraternity at Ohio State.

BYU is a big place, and there are people like me who go there (my wife, for example, is a grad), but we picked up that the kind of folks who were likely to have a union card and a temple recommend were more likely to be at Utah.

But any philosophical sympathies I had with Utah had to be squared with the fact that the Utes' playing style reminded me of a bigger, better, more Polynesian Minnesota. Having watched many Minnesota noon games, I can't get excited for the upgraded version.

There can be a temptation to reduce the BYU-Utah rivalry to "Mormon" vs. "Non-Mormon."

Not everybody in Utah is LDS (a 2007 survey pinned the state as about 60 percent LDS, with less than half actually active), but it can seem like the church has outsized influence. Two of the largest media outlets in the state, the Deseret News and KSL (not to mention BYU-TV), are owned by the church. About 80 percent of Utah's statehouse are Mormons. Much of Utah's non-LDS population seems to agree the church has "too much influence" in state politics, from liquor laws to immigration policy.

If you resent that, a loud dislike of the football team from the church's flagship university could be a way to express it.

But there are beer drinkers among the BYU faithful on Saturday and scores of Latter-Day Saints who support the Utes. The president of the LDS church, Thomas S. Monson, is a Utah grad (although he's apparently a Michigan fan). Utah's head coach, Kyle Whittingham, is a BYU grad and a Mormon. Per the school, Utah's team has 11 returned LDS missionaries on scholarship and another 10 walk-ons.

The religious factor is an ingredient in what makes the rivalry so explosive.

But to hear BYU and Utah fans tell it in Las Vegas, it isn't the most important part of the rivalry.

The BYU fan complaint goes like this. After decades of shared history, Utah decided it has grown too big. Utah fans engage in Pac-12 tribalism in a way that might make SEC boosters blush.

Any praise of the schedules BYU has assembled as an independent is shouted down with BUT THE PAC-12 and declarations that BYU's schedule is a bunch of NAIA schools, YMCA chapters and Wagner. Utah fans swear that now that they're in a big boy conference, they don't need to play BYU.

As a Midwesterner, the concept of the Power 5 as some dividing line between programs feels alien to me. No Ohio State fan would be convinced Purdue and Indiana are superior to Boise State.

But in Utah, the Power 5 designation has reached Old Testament levels. Unclean programs without lucrative television contracts will be cast into the flames, doomed to play UTEP in the Poinsettia Bowl.

BYU's arrogance drives Utah fans crazy, too.

To hear Utah fans tell it, BYU fans are not shy about reminding the rest of the state that BYU is the more academically selective college and "The Lord's University." Fans and players at other institutions are disparaged as dumber, criminals, or spiritually inferior.

The school makes no secret about its higher standards of conduct, which makes every nationally televised nut-punch even more maddening. To act like you're better than everybody else, when you're still a college football program that does a lot of what everybody else does, is hypocritical.

The mutual dislike of high-and-mighty tendencies alone would make this a passionate affair. But there's more.

Only about 50 miles separate BYU and Utah, and the fan bases mingle year round.

Church congregations, workplaces and families are caught between. Seeing families walk around Las Vegas with both BYU and Utah gear wasn't uncommon.

Add that this game would be Mendenhall's last before leaving for Virginia, his shot at his 100th win with the Cougars, and in Vegas for a bowl Utah fans didn't want to be in, and you have an explosive situation.

Thursday, BYU and Utah players participated in what seemed like a harmless dance competition, which usually pits players from opposing teams. A Las Vegas Bowl representative told me that because "of the intense matchup," teams would compete within themselves. Utah defensive tackle Seni Fauonuku asked for a microphone, then called BYU a "dirty team," adding, "don't start nothin', won't be nothin'."

Friday, the teams held a pep rally at the Fremont Street Experience. BYU and Utah's marching bands played amidst the neon lights and more colorful street performers. The streets were packed with fans in blue and red, many with small children and strollers, while vendors passed out cards for escort services just a few feet away.

Utah punter Tom Hackett took the microphone and fired the next salvo, reminding BYU fans "this is Utah's world, and BYU is living in it" and calling BYU "bastards." Hackett is from Australia, where calling somebody a bastard isn't quite the same thing, but still!

BYU fans could be forgiven for optimism.

Utah's offense was nursing injuries, from multiple wideouts to star running back Devontae Booker. With that, a crowd advantage, and Utah not being as emotionally invested, conditions seemed right for BYU to break a four-game losing streak in the Holy War.

Star QB Tanner Mangum fumbled on the third play, giving the Utes a short field and a 7-0 lead. On the next drive, he threw a pick-six. He threw another interception, run back to the 1-yard line. He threw another pick six.

BYU turned the ball over on its first five possessions. Utah had a 35-0 lead without ever having to cross the 50.

Even when the Holy War ended in blowouts, like in 2011 or 2008, the games were still competitive for at least a half.

Utah fans hugged each other, hugged me, and shook their heads, smiling. Maybe the Vegas Bowl wasn't their first or even fourth choice, but if it ended with nuking BYU by an historic margin, that would be pretty good too.

Some BYU fans coped by cussing up enough of a storm to make J. Golden Kimball blush. Others stared in silence.

Others sarcastically cheered everything.


But then a funny thing happened.

Late in the second quarter, BYU got better about handling Utah's superior defensive front and kept Mangum upright. He led the Cougars on a 13-play, 97-yard drive to get on the board before halftime and followed with a 12-play, 72-yard drive to make it a three-score game. Given Utah's inability to sustain any kind of offense, the crowd woke up.

Mangum was able to find Devon Blackmon for a 44-yard bomb to set up another touchdown, sending reporters to Google BYU's other huge bowl comeback, the 1980 Holiday Bowl. Exactly 35 years prior, BYU upset Craig James and the SMU Mustangs for the first bowl win in school history, overcoming a 20-point deficit in four minutes.

After a 4-yard Mangum run to pull within a touchdown with less than four minutes left, the Cougars needed the ball one last time.

They never got it. BYU kicked deep with 3:23 left. The kickoff sailed out of bounds, and Utah got enough push to eat the rest of the clock, escaping with a 35-28 victory.

Unlike BYU's last bowl game, this one didn't end in a postgame brawl.

BYU and Utah players hugged on the field, spent after what must have been a roller coaster of a week.

Mendenhall was emotional in his postgame press conference, fighting back tears at one point.

"I'm not sure I've ever been more proud of my team. They stayed together, battled back and made it a great football game.

"The credit goes to the players. They're the ones that chose to keep playing hard. They were positive on the sidelines, which is an amazing thing. It was 35-0, and I don't even know how much time had expired. It could've easily gone to 70 if they hadn't responded the way they did."

Utah's Kyle Whittingham added that he was "very proud of our guys. We send them off with a 10-win season and a guaranteed top-20 ranking."

I asked him where this BYU win ranked in terms of Utah's accomplishments this season.

"It's probably right up there in the top two or three. We take a great deal of pride in bowl play. There were some big wins along the way. We beat Arizona State for the first time since we joined the conference and Washington for the first time since we joined the conference. The Oregon game was huge too."

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe announced he had hired Mendenhall's replacement, Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.

Sitake will understand both sides of this rivalry. A BYU grad who played fullback under Cougar stadium namesake LaVell Edwards, Sitake spent a decade coaching at Utah under Whittingham, helping build a consistently excellent defense, before joining Utah alum Gary Andersen at Oregon State for a season.

Respected by both sides, Sitake faces the job of improving the talent level at BYU, either as an independent or something else. He won't need to wait long before getting a crack at his old friends.

BYU plays Utah in week two of 2016.

Sitake's ties to both programs will help the rivalry take a fascinating turn. That's the secret of this whole thing; despite the intensity, history and claims of arrogance, these fan bases are more similar than either would like to admit.

They share families, communities and houses of worship. They share similar histories. Many of the players competed in high school and have known each other since they were kids. They have different conference affiliations and program goals at the moment, but they're still tied together.

The Holy War might ask you to pick a side, but few can claim to be completely one side or the other.