ALBUQUERQUE — Cosmo, the BYU Cougars aren't in Las Vegas anymore.
The BYU football team, which has spent the past five Decembers at the Las Vegas Bowl, arrived in Albuquerque on Wednesday morning and practiced in the afternoon in preparation for Saturday's New Mexico Bowl against UTEP.
After five straight years in Vegas, "it's a different feel," senior wide receiver Luke Ashworth said of Albuquerque.
Wednesday's practice at Wilson Stadium at Manzano High School featured windy conditions, though not nearly as gusty as last year's Las Vegas Bowl.
"Albuquerque wind. It's nothing new," said coach Bronco Mendenhall, who coached at New Mexico from 1998-2002. "But we're playing at noon, though, and it usually doesn't hit until the afternoon."
Rain is in the forecast today, with temperatures in the high 40s. For the game, it's expected to be mostly sunny with a high of 51 degrees.
"I expected it to be a little warmer here. It's a little chilly. But it's fun," Ashworth said. "Earlier this season, I didn't expect us to be in a bowl game. To be here is gratifying."
The practice session wasn't as sharp as Mendenhall would like to see, however.
"It was a little bit distracted, from what I saw," he said. "I think they're excited, I think they're eager, I think they're having fun. I'm trying to zero them in a little bit."
One of the challenges is striking a balance between working hard to prepare for a game while treating this experience as an end-of-season reward for the players.
"You have to rely on your older players to help. I could certainly lock it down to where it doesn't seem like a reward," Mendenhall said. "But what I have to try to do is have the older players help the guys know when it's time for fun and when it's time for work.
"Right now, coming off the plane, with kind of a quick turnaround from meetings to practice, we didn't quite get the switch flipped hard enough, from what I saw. There will have to be some education that goes on (Thursday) before practice."
Both teams attended the New Mexico Bowl Welcome Dinner on Wednesday night at the Albuquerque Balloon Museum. Tonight, the teams will participate in a dinner and bowling activity at the Santa Ana Star Resort.
The Cougars, who are headquartered at the Albuquerque Marriott, are scheduled to practice again at Wilson Stadium this morning.
Returning to Albuquerque has brought back "a lot of good memories," Mendenhall said. The team bus driver for this week is "a great friend," he added. "There's a lot of familiar faces."
STRESS RELIEF: Cougar players have spent the past week taking final exams. They like having those over with so they can concentrate on the bowl game.
"It's good to be removed from the strenuous school schedule we're used to and focus on a football game," said senior safety Andrew Rich. "It's good to be here and get acclimated to the weather and the area."
"I don't know how many (final exams) I passed, but it's nice," Ashworth said. "It's huge burden taken off. It's time to relax now and give it my all in my last game."
There are a few players, like wide receiver McKay Jacobson and linebacker Shane Hunter, who have arranged with their professors to take finals after they return from the bowl game.
LIVIN' LARGE: The BYU traveling party flew from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque on a large aircraft — a Delta Airlines Airbus A330-300 that seats about 300 passengers.
"I slept the whole way," Ashworth said of the flight. "They had all the seniors in first class. I just reclined my seat, closed my eyes, woke up and I was here. It was nice. The plane was huge."
Besides players and coaches, their wives and children, administrators and other associated with the program were on the jumbo plane.8 comments on this story
"It's just us as a team and the people who support us," Rich said. "It's nice to have our wives and families down here. We came down here for one reason — to play a football game and to play our best. We're looking forward to it."
INJURY UPDATE: Cornerback Corby Eason suffered a sprained ankle during Tuesday's practice in Provo and was at Wednesday's practice wearing a protective boot. As for Eason's status, team trainer Kevin Morris said it will be "a game-day decision."
LEWIS HIRED: Former BYU tight end Chad Lewis has been hired as the school's associate athletic director for development. He will be involved in fundraising for the athletic department.