PROVO — When BYU was going through fall camp a year ago, there was almost no mention of the Cougars' opening opponent, Northern Iowa.
This time around, however, it's hard to ignore BYU's first game — against national power Oklahoma, which will be played at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium on Sept. 5.
Needless to say, there will be little margin for error against the Sooners. With such a big game looming on the horizon, there's an added sense of urgency in fall camp.
"It is more intense, knowing you have to open up against a big-time opponent, and knowing you've got to be at your best that first game — no room for mistakes like playing Northern Iowa, where if you make mistakes, you can battle back," said quarterback Max Hall. "If we make mistakes (against Oklahoma), they're going to crush us. We've got to go in there with the mindset that we're going to give them a fight, we're going to play sound football, and we're going to take it to the end."
Through the first two days of practice, the Cougars are already trying to simulate game situations as much as possible.
"We're pushing the tempo as quickly as we can," explained coach Bronco Mendenhall. "There's a lot more things going on in terms of making it more game-like, faster and pushing the scheme as quickly as possible. I think it will be effective."
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae is doing something new — taking a spot on the second-story balcony of the Student Athlete Center that oversees the practice field, wearing a headset and calling plays during 11-on-11 drills. On the practice field, quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman and receivers coach Patrick Higgins are wearing headsets, communicating with Anae.
This season, for the first time since he was handed the reins of the Cougar offense in 2005, Anae will be calling plays from the press box instead of from the sidelines.
Defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen said the work done during fall camp is similar to past seasons, but there's an extra spring in the players' steps because of the showdown with Oklahoma.
"With the players, there's a little different mindset because we know we've got that huge game coming up. But all in all, we're working just as hard as we have any other year," Jorgensen said. "There has been a sense of urgency, but with Coach Mendenhall, every day we're working like we're playing Oklahoma. With him, it doesn't matter who we're playing."
So far, Mendenhall likes the attitude of his team.
"We have a team that likes to work and likes to compete. I'm very impressed so far with not only their conditioning, but their spirit to play the game," he said. "Certainly, a lot of execution things to clean up, but I'd rather be holding them back and right now that's what we're spending most of our time doing. We're all hungrier. We might not be as sharp, but mindset-wise, hungrier and more anxious to play. That's a good thing. At the end of last season, I didn't think we were eager to play. It was an endurance test. This is a lot more fun."
Jorgensen agreed, saying there's a marked difference in the approach this season.
"Last year, it was like going to the office, getting a day of work in. We forgot that we're playing a game. We got caught up in how we're supposed to beat everybody. We went out there and we worked hard but we weren't doing what we're supposed to instead of coming out and having fun and playing like we should."
Will having fun make a difference when the Cougars line up against the Sooners? It's too early to tell, but certainly BYU is excited for the opportunity to match up against one of the nation's best teams.
"It's going to be unbelievable," Hall said. "Our intent is not just to go down there and enjoy the stadium. Our intent is to go down there and battle and give it everything we've got. We're going to work like crazy and get ready."
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