PROVO BYU's 17-16 triumph over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday night wasn't easy in fact, the Cougars came within inches of losing to the Bruins for the second time this season. That aside, BYU has put together back-to-back 11-2 seasons and capped the 2007 campaign with a 10-game winning streak.
So, what's next?
With a host of key players returning, particularly on offense, expectations will be even higher in 2008. The rallying cry in Provo just might be "Bowl Championship Series or bust." It will be a quest for perfection.
"The BCS is our goal. That's what we're going for," said sophomore defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen. "We have to go for higher goals."
"We've got a great team coming back. We're losing some of our really good players, but we have a lot of young guys sticking around, a lot of sophomores," said sophomore defensive lineman Brett Denney. "You can never be complacent and be OK with what you got. We're going to be aiming for the next best thing, going undefeated. I don't know what's going to happen with the BCS, but all we can control is winning the games that we've got. We've done this two years in a row and this will be a little momentum that we'll take into next season."
Departing senior Ben Criddle said a BCS bowl bid might be within BYU's grasp next season. "As long as coach (Bronco) Mendenhall and his coaching staff stay here, I think the sky's the limit for this program. I think they'll be nationally ranked going into next season and they should go undefeated in the Mountain West Conference again and hopefully have a chance at a BCS bowl."
The future looks bright with quarterback Max Hall, wide receiver Austin Collie, tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Harvey Unga, among others, returning next season.
The Cougars claimed their second consecutive outright, unbeaten MWC championship and will finish the season ranked in the top 25, which could serve as a springboard to bigger and better things next fall.
"We've talked all along that our goal is to get to a BCS game and to get into that spotlight," Hall said. "Hopefully (the win over UCLA) will be good for our start next year and we can open in the top 25 and keep fighting and working until we get there."
It took a blocked field goal in the final seconds for the Cougars to preserve a win over UCLA. True freshman Eathyn Manumaleuna got his right hand on the attempted 28-yard field goal attempt by Kai Forbath to alter the trajectory of the ball, which fell short of the crossbar as time expired.
"For the game to end on a play like that, with that kind of surge and that kind of effort is unbelievable," Hall said. "It speaks a lot about our program and where we are going and the type of players that we have here. I don't think we could have gone out on a better play. I just think it was awesome for our seniors to end their season and careers like that."
Though his name is difficult to pronounce, Manumaleuna has suddenly become a household name for Cougar fans after securing a spot in BYU football lore. It was his last play for two years as he sets to depart for an LDS mission to Oklahoma City in January. Manumaleuna had planned to redshirt this season, but those plans changed when Russell Tialavea went down with a season-ending knee injury in August and he acquitted himself well at the noseguard position.
Throughout the season, other players suffered season-ending injuries and, for the most part, their backups picked up where they left off. It happened again in second-half of the Las Vegas Bowl, as offensive guard Travis Bright sustained a compound fracture of his leg. (Bright underwent surgery Saturday in Las Vegas and had a steel rod inserted in his leg. He was released Sunday and will recuperate at home in Arizona.) Center Sete Aulai was switched to guard and sophomore Tom Sorensen filled in admirably.
"Tom stepped right in and we kept going," Hall said. "Travis is obviously a big part of our offensive line and to see him go down was unfortunate. Hopefully he can get healthy for next year. To see Tom step in like that and prove he can play that position, knowing he'll probably play there the next two years is very comforting."
BYU's defense will have to replace a bevy of experienced players at linebacker and in the defensive secondary, but Denney is confident that the 'D' will solid next season."We have some young guys that will have to step up. We have the players. It's about executing and doing our thing," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are or where you are on the depth chart. You've got a part and a place to be. Coach Mendenhall expects the best out of us, no matter who it is on the team. When you're trying to do those things, even when you're not in the spotlight, then when the spotlight is turned on you, you're ready."