Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
California's Noris Malele celebrates a stop against BYU during the Bear's victory in the Las Vegas Bowl on Thursday night.

LAS VEGAS — Welcome to BYU bowl heritage, Bronco Mendenhall.

It's called losing.

Mendenhall's charges proved that guts, hard work, living right and practicing tough are only part of the formula in bowl wins. It takes the horses, otherwise you lose — a trend BYU continued Thursday night in the Pioneer Pure Vision Las Vegas Bowl. It's simply the way the Cougars do these things. Now Mendenhall's wearing the same toe tag.

BYU has now gone without a bowl win for nine years, stretching back to 1997 at the Cotton Bowl, a win over Kansas State. The Cougars are 0-4 in bowls since then. Overall, they're 7-16-1. Not good. They are bowl-unable.

Effort aside, it takes better talent. Mendenhall's team worked as hard as, if not harder than, any bowl team BYU has ever had. Still, they were bowl-unable.

That was never more apparent than in Las Vegas, as the Cal Bears beat BYU 35-28 before a record bowl crowd. Yes, BYU fans did their part, but like so many bowl trips through 30 years, this one ended with a Cougar loss. This one could be chalked up to the defense and special teams.

Sure, Cougar defenders are hobbled. Yes, they made a final stop at the end and gave the offense a chance to tie Cal. But one simple fact stood out in Las Vegas —the Cougar defense entered this game undermanned to the task of consistently stopping Cal. And it showed.

This was never more apparent than Cal's 42-yard TD just before half. BYU's secondary was mere cardboard cutouts on that play. It was the difference in the game. And it was embarrassing to witness.

Defensive football players make plays, they tackle in the open field, cover receivers, hit the gaps, plug holes, bring down receivers, tackle ball carriers. There was little consistency in doing all of this Thursday night by the Cougars. It wasn't for trying — they simply didn't do it very often.

So, this is the starting spot for Mendenhall in 2006. His defense has to improve if BYU gets serious with Pac-10, ACC or any other battles in their own league. You know it is bad when BYU's scout team moves the ball on Cougar defenders and that was a trademark of BYU football in 2005.

Back in the old days — the ones Mendenhall wants to return to — Mike Holmgren, Norm Chow, Doug Scovil had a goal of scoring a touchdown every quarter — 28 points — and they'd win. Thursday night the Cougars had a goal of scoring 40. Had to. They ended up scoring 28. It wasn't enough.

But scoring 28 should have been good enough.

BYU's offense had scoring drives of 96, 91 and 93 yards on Cal. Folks, that's good football. Mendenhall and Robert Anae have that equation solved.

John Beck set a Las Vegas Bowl record with 35 completions and 352 yards. BYU resurrected Todd Watkins in this game. You could forgive Anae for trying to force Curtis Brown, an inside runner to the outside because 28 points should have been enough. You can forgive him for starting the game with passive plays, a lot of passes, allowing Cal to tee off on his blockers and set the tone for the game as aggressors, because 28 should have been enough.

But it wasn't.

"This is the way it happens sometimes," Watkins said, trying his best stab at diplomacy. "I felt we played really good today, but it wasn't good enough to beat this very good Cal Bear team."

Watkins refused to blame the defense. But the evidence was on the scoreboard: Cal 35. BYU's defense allowed 76 points in its final two games. Not good.

The Cougars ran 80 plays, gained 446 yards against Cal. But Cal got 469 yards on just 66 plays. The Cougars controlled the clock, had the pigskin for six more minutes. It wasn't enough.

There are two ways Mendenhall fixes his defense, three if he decides he doesn't have the horses to run the 3-3-5. First, he gets talent. Second, gets experienced players on the field who can better run his schemes because of seasoning — and that's another tough chore.

This past week, Mendenhall got a commitment from San Bernadino Junior College corner Mike McCoy. A few days later after McCoy tripped to Kansas, he decommitted and signed with Kansas. Kansas?

You can see the battle before Mendenhall to get talent. But he's game.

But until he hikes up the playmaking on that side of the ball, championships and bowl victories will elude him and his Cougars.

Watkins, who does have talent, ended his Cougar career with five catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. BYU's attempt to tie Cal in the closing seconds of the game ended on a pass to an open Watkins fluttering like a duck from Beck, who was hit on the arm as he released the ball.

But it shouldn't have come to that. The Watkins 9-yard TD with 4:24 to play should have been the game winner, or the tie score to put this into overtime.

"My career, like that over everybody in this game, had its ups and downs," Watkins said. "But being here and competing against Cal, it almost ended it on a high note.

"We all played really hard. We know we can beat these really good teams. We're growing as a program under our new leadership. We know we'll be good in the future."

In the future, playing hard will again be dandy.

But BYU's going to have to play hard and be good to beat a team like Cal.

Until then, BYU's appearance in Las Vegas, was a routine Cougar bowl affair — another loss. And it had nothing to do with effort or hard work.

The Cougs had that. It wasn't good enough.

E-mail: [email protected]