PROVO BYU resumes formal practices in preparation for the Dec. 22 Las Vegas Bowl against UCLA on Thursday within the confines of the Indoor Practice Facility, but they'll do it without the services of reserve offensive lineman Jason Speredon.
A redshirt freshman from Granger High School, Speredon injured his knee in the closing minutes of the win over San Diego State, according to family members, and underwent ACL surgery last Thursday. Speredon suffered an Achilles' tendon injury shortly after returning from an LDS mission in 2005 and sat out the 2005 season.
It's been 97 days since UCLA defeated BYU 27-17 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall says the Cougars are a different team than the one that showed up in its second game of the season with an unseasoned quarterback in Max Hall, new running back, freshman Harvey Unga, and a tight end who'd played one game in three years in Dennis Pitta.
"I think we've made tremendous progress since then," said Mendenhall. "More so on offense than defense.
"There was some uncertainty. There was some newness. There was some lack of consistency early in the season offensively. I think a lot of those things have been addressed. It's not perfect yet, but I think if you look at the identity we have, the confidence we have, the execution we are performing with, I think that's what I've seen as the biggest difference."
Mendenhall said BYU is not approaching the bowl game as a matchup it has to "settle for" because it's already faced the Bruins.
"We have a great chance to improve our football team. I view it as another opportunity and blessing to do that, knowing our goals are not accomplished yet. Winning back-to-back conference titles paves the way to national prominence but winning consistently in the postseason solidifies that and keeps respect on a national level."
Mendenhall said the progress of BYU's offense from the start of the season to now, is reflective of how he has approached the goals he set after the 2006 season and a 38-8 win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.
A win against UCLA would mark the first time since the 1994 Copper bowl and the 1996 Cotton Bowl that BYU has had wins in back-to-back bowl appearances and the first time since the 1983 and 1984 seasons the Cougars would enjoy back-to-back bowl wins in consecutive seasons.
One measuring stick is the play of Hall then to now as the MWC's all-conference quarterback.
Another could be that of Unga, who carried just five times for 28 yards in the Sept. 8 game at UCLA but now stands to be the most productive freshman in MWC history in the bowl game.
COUGAR NOTES: Junior offensive guard Ray Feinga was named second-team All-America by Sports Illustrated. Sophomore defensive end Jan Jorgensen, who led the MWC in sacks this past season, was named honorable mention. Senior center Sete Aulai was named to the Rivals.com All Transfer Team.
Speredon is the second offensive lineman to go down to ACL surgery this season. Reserve guard Garett Reden was injured midway through the season.
In the final USA Today Coaches Poll, only two coaches left BYU off their ranking ballots. They were Washington's Ty Willingham, whom the Cougars play next season, and LSU's Les Miles whose offensive coordinator is former BYU coach Gary Crowton.
This week BYU's athletic department announced it had obtained additional Las Vegas Bowl tickets from UCLA. Those tickets are available to the general public and will expand the "BYU section" in Sam Boyd Stadium where school officials estimate 30,000 will be linked to the Cougars.
"We've had tremendous interest from BYU fans. The original allotment of bowl tickets (12,000) was gone by the middle of last week," said Clark Livsey, Marriott Center ticket manager. "Fortunately we were able to obtain additional tickets from UCLA and have them available for our fans."
Las Vegas Bowl tickets may be purchased at byutickets.com or by calling the Marriott Center ticket office at 801-422-BYU1 or 800-322-BYU1.