PROVO — For BYU, a regular-season that opened in Oxford, Miss., way back in September, will come to a close Saturday on a December afternoon in Honolulu.
The Cougars (8-3), who are wrapping up their inaugural campaign as an independent, will return to practice Monday after completing their second bye of the month and taking the weekend off for Thanksgiving.
"To have a bye this late in the year and to not be playing Utah in the last game is completely different," coach Bronco Mendenhall said of this year's late-season schedule. "Those days of that happening are over. So we finish at Hawaii, then we get ready to find out who we play in our bowl game."
It appears the Cougars' opponent in the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 30 could be Tulsa (8-4).
For now, BYU is focused on finishing up the regular-season with a win at Hawaii (6-6).
"I go over (to Hawaii) most of the time to not think about football," said Mendenhall, who's an avid surfer. "Now I'm going with that being the primary thought. I'm not sure it's going to seem like Hawaii."
BYU is set to leave Wednesday for the Islands.
Hawaii defeated Tulane (2-11) on Saturday, 35-23, to snap a three-game losing streak. On Nov. 12, quarterback Bryant Moniz broke his leg against Nevada — a season-ending injury. New Warrior quarterback David Graves passed for 260 yards against the Green Wave, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another.
It marked Hawaii's first game since news surfaced of an alleged point-shaving scandal involving Warrior football players. According to an anonymous letter sent to the school on Nov. 3, unidentified players intentionally played poorly to influence the score as part of a gambling scheme. The NCAA is investigating the allegations.
Hawaii needs a victory against BYU to become bowl-eligible and host a Conference USA opponent in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve.
BYU's injured quarterback, Riley Nelson, who suffered lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12, was cleared to fly to Hawaii, but has not yet been cleared to play. Mendenhall said last week it could be a game-time decision.
In Nelson's absence, Jake Heaps helped lead the Cougars to a 42-7 victory over New Mexico State in the home finale on Nov. 19, completing 21-of-36 passes for 238 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Nelson was thrilled when he found out he was healthy enough to go to Hawaii. "It was exciting," he said. "I didn't think it was going to happen this quickly. Now that it has, hopefully I can get cleared to play and be able to play and help my team in whatever capacity."
Nelson is eager to go to Hawaii, but he knows this is not a vacation, but a business trip.
"I want to go over there and win," he said. "I hope our guys go out there focused. It's okay, we can have a couple of hours of fun at the beach. But I hope everybody realizes why we're out there, and it's not for a vacation. It's to go out there, get a win, and finish the season the way we want to finish."
After starting the year 1-2, the Cougars have won seven of their last eight games. They are two victories away from reaching 10 wins on the season.
"We're excited. I think we're pretty focused," Nelson said. "We'll have to see once we get out there because leaving the November Rocky Mountain weather for sunshine and beaches could be a little bit of a distraction even if you don't plan it to be. We are really, really anxious to win our last two games. Despite what's happened the rest of this season, if we can win these next two games, it will be a 10-3 season, which is good by anybody's standards."
While Hawaii has struggled at times this season, Nelson, who lost to the Warriors in Logan when he was a freshman at Utah State in 2006, is aware of how well Hawaii plays at Aloha Stadium.
"We're obviously excited for the opportunity to play a great team out there," he said. "We know they're very tough at home and they come to play. The time difference and the jet lag can be a factor, so we're going to do everything we can to prevent that … For me, personally, if I get the opportunity to play, it's going to be a fun one for me."
Cougars on the air
BYU (8-3) at Hawaii (6-6)
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MT
Aloha Stadium, Honolulu
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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