December 15, 2015

When former BYU linebacker Kyle Whittingham was offered the coaching position at his alma mater following the 2004 season, Cougars defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall started to look for another job.

Whittingham, though, was also given the chance to stay at Utah and move from defensive coordinator to head coach in place of departing Urban Meyer. After mulling his options, Whittingham decided on the Utes, paving the way for Mendenhall to take over at BYU.

Eleven years later, Whittingham and Mendenhall will meet for the 10th time Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl, but it will be the last in this storied rivalry before Mendenhall becomes coach at Virginia next season.

The way things shook out benefited both schools, as Whittingham has gone 93-46 - including 7-1 in bowls - for No. 20 Utah, while Mendenhall is 99-42 with a 6-4 bowl record at BYU. Mendenhall coached the Cougars to a bowl game each year, making them one of 11 programs to have that long of a streak.

Whittingham has gotten the better of Mendenhall since 2005, winning the past four meetings and six of nine overall with the most recent in September 2013.

"This isn't something that can be scripted, nor is life something that can be scripted," Mendenhall said. "Who I am now is molded and directed through BYU. I am a product of Brigham Young University and am fortunate and lucky to have been challenged and given the opportunities I have been given in a way that is not explainable. I was given the opportunity to be head coach when I had never been one before."

He led BYU to a 9-3 record this season even after losing starting senior quarterback Taysom Hill to a fractured right foot in the opener at Nebraska on Sept. 5.

Tanner Mangum stepped in and did an incredible job starting with that game against the Cornhuskers. He connected with senior Mitch Mathews on a 42-yard Hail Mary as time expired to give BYU a 33-28 win, beginning a season that saw Mangum become the first BYU freshman to pass for over 3,000 yards.

Mangum, who threw 21 touchdown passes and seven interceptions while completing 62.1 percent of his attempts, said he is grateful for the opportunity Mendenhall gave him.

"I was thinking about it and he's been the coach since I was 10 years old, basically since I started watching BYU football," Mangum said. "To think about him gone is kind of a sad feeling because he's meant so much for this program and to this team and to me personally. I'm going to miss him a lot."

His counterpart, senior Travis Wilson, has had to take on a bigger role after Utah (9-3) lost standout running back Devontae Booker to a knee injury in mid-November.

At the time of his injury, Booker ranked third in the Pac-12 with 1,261 rushing yards and second with 11 TDs on the ground. He finished his career third in school history with 2,773 yards, which came in two seasons.

Wilson has been inconsistent, completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 2,024 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

"We get to go to a bowl game for the second year in a row so it's another opportunity where we get to play one more game," Wilson said. "For me, I just want to end my season on a high note and play the best game I can."

Utah began the season with six straight wins while outscoring opponents 219-117, and the Utes were ranked No. 3 in late October before losing 42-24 at Southern California.

That began a season-ending six-game stretch in which Utah played .500 ball and was outscored 145-144. The Utes tied the Trojans for first place in the Pac-12 South at 6-3 but lost the tiebreaker. Still, it was the program's best finish since joining the conference for the 2011 season.

"The first six weeks the emotions were very good," Whittingham said after avoiding a third straight loss with a 20-14 victory over Colorado on Nov. 28. "Every one was excited and then we had a setback against USC, but came back and won a couple of ballgames.

"The biggest disappointment was not being able to get one of these last two prior to this game, which would have really given us the outright championship and the chance to go to the Pac-12 championship game. ... That was tough to take, but we have no one else to blame but ourselves and we own that."

Utah also played in the Las Vegas Bowl last season, beating Colorado State 45-10. BYU lost its second straight bowl game in 2014, falling 55-48 in double overtime to Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl.

"One of the first things that I thought after hearing the news from coach Mendenhall immediately was 'I can't wait to play in the bowl game because of how hard we're going to fight for this guy,'" said Mathews, who leads BYU with 52 receptions, 729 yards and 11 TDs. "That is something that will happen. There'll be a new level of fight in us for coach Mendenhall."

These teams have met 95 times, with Utah holding a 57-34-4 advantage, but this will be their first matchup in a bowl game.

"We're just approaching it as next opponent up," Utah senior linebacker Gionni Paul said. "I've never played in the rivalry, but it's big around here and we'll be ready to play. ... We always talk about leaving a legacy of being one of the top teams in Utah history and playing BYU could help us do that."

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