It didn't take Harvey Unga very long after BYU's 17-16 win over UCLA to put the entire affair into focus.
That's what makes the MWC freshman of the year the player he is.
Unga stood in the north end zone of Sam Boyd Stadium. It had only been a matter of minutes since the ending of the game when freshman Eathyn Manumaleuna blocked a 28-yard field goal to preserve the win.
Unga hadn't kissed his mother or hugged his father yet as masses of celebrating BYU fans swarmed around him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw UCLA players leaving the field, dejected and hurt. That would have been him if not for a few inches and the palm of somebody's hand.
Unga knew the Cougars hadn't played that well, especially on offense, where the Cougars continually struggled to take advantage of UCLA's cheating linebackers and safeties that crowded the line and shot gaps to nail him.
Unga knew BYU's defense would miss Manumaleuna, who'd received his LDS mission call and would be headed to Oklahoma City next month.
And finally, more importantly, Unga was already thinking of the UCLA-BYU rematch in Provo next season, a few months from that very day. The Bruins and Washington are BYU's two BCS opponents the way the schedule stands today.
"UCLA's defense is very, very good. And you know, it's going to be tough when we see them next season. I'm glad we're playing them next year at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but it's not going to be easy, and they're going to bring it."
"Our preparation for next year starts right now. We have to be ready for next season," said Unga, who became the MWC's all-time leading freshman rusher with his effort, however limited by the Bruin defense last Saturday.
Unga knows what everybody in the country will figure out when 2008 projections by those drugstore magazines hit the shelves this summer. BYU returns 10 of 11 starters on offense and Unga is in the center of it all.
With two 11-2 seasons, the Cougars own a 10-game win streak, soon to be the nation's longest when Hawaii loses to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
You get the idea. Bronco Mendenhall has something going in Provo.
Aside from Unga, Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, Austin Collie, Michael Reed, Manase Tonga, Fui Vakapuna and all but one of the offensive linemen returning, the Cougars also return a solid core of the league's No. 1 defense, led by sack leader Jan Jorgensen.
But as the UCLA game proved, both times, if the Cougars want to raise the bar in their program next season, they'll have to be better, execute more consistently, and be better with coaching decisions, game plans and midgame adjustments.
Mendenhall is the first to acknowledge there's plenty of work to be done. And as sad as it seems that the Cougars and the Bruins will meet for the third time in a year next fall in LaVell Edwards Stadium, that Pac-10 team and program has become the measuring stick for the Cougars.
Unga and Company aren't going to run against UCLA like they did against San Diego State or Utah. But they'll have to do better than they did in Las Vegas to reach their goals in 2008.
"The BCS, that's our goal," said Jorgensen. "We return a lot of guys on offense and a good core on defense. We have to shoot for that. If we shoot for this each year, we'd be doing ourselves a disfavor and our fans a disfavor."
No disrespect to Las Vegas, a bowl BYU has basically reinvented the past three Decembers.
Yes, Mendenhall does have something going. Perhaps the biggest thing is he's instilled a belief system in his players. Just four years ago, they were disillusioned, disappointed and frustrated. Mendenhall has provided direction and soul where there was madness. Some call it swagger. Others call it magic.
But it's there.
After the Cougars turned certain losses to wins against Utah and UCLA in the space of a month, it became as tangible as the pads and cleats issued out by equipment manager Mick Hill.
After the blocked field goal to end Saturday's affair, referencing the fourth and 18 conversion in the last home game, longtime assistant Barry Lamb wasted little words in describing it.
"That's BYU football, that's just BYU football. I can say more but not for print."At BYU those finishes just happen. They do. You have a couple go against you at times, but we certainly have had our share where we've won at the end. It's a matter of believing, and our guys just believe."
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