PROVO — From the moment BYU blocked a last-second field goal by UCLA to secure a narrow victory in the Las Vegas Bowl last December, Cougar players have been talking enthusiastically about the 2008 season.

The theme for the upcoming campaign is "Quest for Perfection," and today, in the wake of an off-season filled with hype, high expectations and hard work, it's time for No. 16 BYU to stop talking and start playing football again.

"We've waited a long time for this," linebacker David Nixon said. "We're just ready to play some ball. We're excited for that."

The Cougars, who own the nation's longest active winning streak with 10 consecutive victories and have won 21 of their last 23 contests overall, entertain Football Championship Subdivision power Northern Iowa, which has won 17 of its last 20 games. The Panthers are ranked No. 3 in the preseason FCS standings.

Certainly, for BYU, there are ambitious goals looming on the horizon: another Mountain West Conference championship, an undefeated season and a Bowl Championship Series berth.

"These last two seasons we've been 11-2 — real close," said senior wide receiver Mike Reed. "We've lost four games in two years, which is real close to what we want to accomplish. But it's not quite what we want. We want to go perfect, with no losses.

"It starts this Saturday, facing a good Northern Iowa team. We just have to be mentally prepared going into the game and we can't lose focus, because we're facing a good team. ... I just want to help this team go out with a bang. I want to do something at BYU that hasn't been done in a while — that's an undefeated season."

Redshirt freshman running back J.J. DiLuigi, who will make his debut in a BYU uniform today, is eager to help his team reach its lofty aspirations.

"This is where we start our quest," DiLuigi said. "Hopefully with what we've done in the fall, we'll be ready to come out and play hard."

BYU is glad to open the season at home, where the Cougars have won 12 straight contests.

"There's a lot of anticipation after going 11-2 that past two years," said offensive lineman Travis Bright. "There's anticipation of what we can do, just like previous years. We're very excited to have the fans that we have. I think there are 52,000 season-tickets sold. It's really neat to see the encouragement the fans give to us."

While setting the tone for the season is crucial, the Cougars have declared that they are not taking Northern Iowa lightly.

"You'll see a team that is well-coached. I don't think you'll see much difference between Northern Iowa and some of the better teams in our league," said Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall. "We think this is a very good opponent."

Since 1998, BYU has defeated three FCS foes — Murray State (1998), Eastern Illinois (2005) and Eastern Washington (2007) — by an average score of 43.3-8.7.

The Cougars own a huge size advantage up front. The BYU offensive line weighs in at an average of 326.4 pounds and their average height is 6-foot-6. UNI's defensive front averages out at 6-4 and 272 pounds.

One of the most intriguing subplots of today's matchup revolves around junior wide receiver Austin Collie, who was sidelined during fall camp with a stress fracture in his lower leg. This past week, he has been practicing, running routes and catching passes.

What's more, Collie has also been throwing passes. Last week, BYU's coaches — who have not been satisfied with the performances of Brenden Gaskins and Kurt McEuen in scrimmages — told Collie he would be one of the backup quarterbacks. During practices, he has been splitting his time between receiver and quarterback.

In addition to executing the passing offense, Collie has been running the option, a dimension that would give the Cougars' offense a new look and another dangerous weapon. Should BYU open up a big lead today, Mendenhall said that Collie could see action in the offensive backfield.

"We intend to use him any way possible to help our team," the coach said.

Said Collie: "There's a lot of stuff to think about and a lot of stuff going through my head. But wherever the coaches need me, I'm there. My main concern right now is helping the team at wide receiver."

Season opener

BYU vs. Northern Iowa

Today, 4 p.m.

TV: The mtn.

Radio: 1160 AM; 102.7 FM


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com