Salt Lake City is quite possibly the most unusual, exotic town in America. This is hardly surprising, given its history. Founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and his followers, Salt Lake started out weird and has stayed weird over the ensuing decades. Anyone who’s spent any time between flights at the Salt Lake City Airport knows what I mean.
Which brings us to football. Traditionally, there is really only one game each year that matters to fans in Utah: the Holy War, pitting the Utes against their hated in-state rivals, the Brigham Young Cougars (for anyone wondering what the monicker is all about, you could do worse than read a little Mark Twain).
However, this Saturday, the #20 Utes have a chance to redeem their season when they take on the #4 Ducks. Last week’s game was a heart-breaking overtime loss to Arizona State — a game in which Utah kicker Andy “Automatic” Phillips missed a chip shot field goal — twice — in Tempe. Just goes to show the only things in this world that are truly automatic are dinging notices from the IRS when your taxes are late and Mercedes transmissions.
So off Mark Helfrich and the Men of Oregon trundle to SLC to experience what will, for most of them, be the strangest game of the season. Here are five reasons why.
Listen, I don’t mean to imply that Utah fans are any weirder than say Oregon State or LSU fans. It’s just that they’re weird in a weirder way. Any visiting Ducks fan who wanders through the tailgating scene outside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday will instantly know what I mean. There’s the Magic Bus, the one with the toilet with “BY” inscribed on the lid. And of course all the “I (Heart) Polygamy” t-shirts. Berkeley this is not.
THE HOLY WAR
Utah is a secular institution. Brigham Young University is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. Students and alumni of these institutions don’t like one another. Apparently not at all. Now you may be thinking, “Well, so what? Oregon is blessed by an American athletic apparel company, not an American religion.” Ah, but the point is, Ute fans have become highly skilled at the art of making visiting teams and their adherents acutely uncomfortable in their slightly funky, rather intimate stadium (Rice-Eccles seats 10,000 fewer than Autzen). They apparently view it as practice to ensure that when the Cougars come calling, all hell will break loose.
Most of Utah’s best players are kickers. Punter Tom Hackett almost guarantees the Utes excellent field position. I’ve watched him kick from his own two-yard line, then I’ve turned away for a moment to reach for a beverage, only to see the opposing team lining up for its first play from scrimmage from under a chairlift outside Park City when I look up again, seconds later. However, the real star of this Utah team is Andy Phillips, last week’s costly faux pas notwithstanding. Phillips hadn’t played a minute of football before walking on at Utah in 2012. Dude was a member of the U.S. Olympic ski team. And a Mormon missionary in Norway. Does that means he cheers for BYU when they play anyone but the Utes? See what I mean.
COACHES WHO ARE CAGE FIGHTERS
Utah Defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki had a 7-1 record as an MMA fighter, slugging and kicking it out under the ultra-cool name, Ogre 6 (check him out here, taking on a swell fellow named “The Big Potato” –seriously). BYU analysts point out that Utah coaches are paid minimum wage and that Tuiaki did it for the money. (He was paid $50 per fight.) I suspect he simply did it because he’s crazy. Which is, of course, a highly desirable trait in a defensive line coach and may be the primary reason the Utes lead the nation in sacks.
Stack two of Eugene’s signature peak, Spencer’s Butte, on top of one another, then slap a football stadium on top — that’s Rice-Eccles, home of the Utah Utes. There’s a reason why Utah punt and kickoff returners like Kaelin Clay and Dres Anderson average approximately 120 yards per return. It’s the same reason why Sherpas are able to carry otherwise perfectly fit Westerners to the summit of Everest: it’s because they live and train nearly a mile high all the time, and no one else (save for the haplessly inept Colorado Buffaloes) does.
Add it all up, and the Ducks are in for a wild ride Saturday night in the shadow of the Wasatch Range. My advice? Channel Mark Twain, or just pretend it’s Halloween, have some fun, and get out of there before midnight.