LAS VEGAS On the surface, the BYU-UCLA matchup in the Las Vegas Bowl appears to be a retread game, a done-that, saw-that, do-over ditty with little on the line but pride for both teams.
But boiling underneath, there's plenty for both teams to gain traction over.
The 6-6 Bruins want to go out winners and deliver a victory for interim coach DeWayne Walker. The 10-2 Cougars, 10-point losers to the Bruins back in September, can keep a national ranking and momentum that could catapult BYU to a 2008 season that might include a BCS berth.
The Bruins and Cougars kick off today at 6 p.m. (MT) in Sam Boyd Stadium. The game will be televised live on ESPN that exposure alone is a significant step for BYU football that remained relatively hidden from SportsCenter and the eyes of poll voters, especially during a 9-0 run to end the 2007 campaign.
Getting respect is a century-old mission for the Cougars, who have a paltry 1-7 mark against UCLA. The Pac-10 record for the Cougars isn't exactly sterling.
A year ago here in the Las Vegas Bowl Bowl, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti was asked if BYU could compete in the Pac-10. He told reporters he would have to be reminded again who played in the Mountain West. Bellotti then told reporters it would be hard for BYU to compete with the middle of the Pac-10.
On Friday, Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review Journal repeated Bellotti's quote to Walker and asked what he thought. "I don't know what team he played against, but having played BYU earlier this year, knowing their coaching staff and players, I think they definitely could compete in the upper tier of the Pac-10," Walker said.
UCLA senior free safety Dennis Keyes agreed.
"It's hard to say, but all I know is they have a great football team and they played us hard," Keyes said. "They beat Oregon here last year, so, you know, it's hard to say but I think they would be an upper-tier team."
BYU senior receiver Matt Allen told reporters UCLA caused the Cougar offense all kinds of problems in the first meeting and he suspects they will have the same challenges this time around.
"They have a great matchup coverage and then they really do a good job of man press when they blitz," Allen said. "We'll have to do our best and do better than we did before."
Walker said the BYU-UCLA matchup poses intriguing storylines because they have played before.
"I've been in the NFL for seven years and anytime you play a team a second time, you look for the little changes in the run game, the tweaks in the passing game and defense," he said. "It will be interesting to see how these adjustments have been made for this game by both teams."
Ball security was a big issue for the Cougars in the first meeting. A Trey Brown interception for a touchdown proved key and was UCLA's first touchdown in a game the Cougars dominated statistically.
"We'll have to do a better job," said BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae. He would not cut his quarterback Max Hall any slack because it was only the second game of his college career.
"We have to protect him better. We have to hold on to the ball. It all boils down to blocking your man. Everything else is just an excuse."
The Bruins will likely start Osaar Rasshan at quarterback since Ben Olson and Pat Cowan have been injured this season.
Bruce Davis, UCLA's defensive leader, said it doesn't matter who the Bruin quarterback is because the defense still has its work cut out for it.
"If BYU doesn't score, BYU doesn't win. It doesn't matter who our quarterback is, they can all play."
Davis stood up for Rasshan, the converted wide receiver who may be thrown in a starting role against the Cougars. Rasshan didn't fare too well against Oregon but Davis explained why.
"Osaar is a big-play guy. Oregon had a good day against him because they've been playing against Dennis Dixon for four years and are used to facing an athlete like that. How many teams can say that? BYU doesn't do that."Osaar is a very explosive football player. With a little bit of work, he can be a great football player. I think he's in the same caliber as Dennis Dixon. That's not necessarily the system (Oregon) that we run. Osaar can get it done. It doesn't matter who they put in there at quarterback."
Las Vegas Bowl
BYU 10-2 vs. UCLA (6-6)
Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
Today, 6 p.m. (MST)TV: ESPN Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160 AM