PROVO It's rare for two college football teams to play each other three times during a calendar year or so. When No. 18 BYU entertains UCLA at LaVell Edwards Stadium which is sold out for today's showdown it marks their third meeting in 370 days.
Certainly, there's familiarity between the two programs. They've squared off at the Rose Bowl and in the Las Vegas Bowl, with the Bruins winning the first contest by 10 points and the Cougars claiming the second by one point. As for today's "rubber match" bowl, who knows what the outcome might be?
"I think it is going to be two good football teams," said first-year UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. "We've had two good football games against them in the last (year), and this one will be no exception."
"We're expecting a great game against them. They always put up a good fight against us," said BYU linebacker David Nixon. "In the Las Vegas Bowl, we were favored to win. They showed that we have some weaknesses in our team. I think they're going to come in here with a lot of confidence from their first win (this season). It should be a great battle up here in Provo."
While there's familiarity between the two teams, there is a sense of uncertainty as well. Much has happened since Sept. 8, 2007, when No. 13 UCLA defeated unranked BYU, 27-17, in Pasadena. The Bruins went 4-7 the rest of the way, including a 44-6 loss at Utah the week after defeating BYU and a 17-16 setback to the No. 19 Cougars in Las Vegas to cap the season.
BYU, meanwhile, lost the week after falling to UCLA at Tulsa and it hasn't lost since en route to a 12-game winning streak.
UCLA fired head coach Karl Dorrell in December, and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker was promoted to interim head coach for the bowl game. In late December, the charismatic Neuheisel was handed the reins of the program.
The Bruins upset then-No. 18 Tennessee, 27-24, in overtime, in Neuheisel's debut on Labor Day.
"To me, they're a completely different team this year," Nixon said of UCLA.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said one intriguing aspect of this series is that the Bruins have been led by three different head coaches in the three meetings.
"When you consider the momentum they had in the Rose Bowl when we played them the first time, that was, I think, the best that they played," he said. "In the Las Vegas Bowl, there was some transition (for UCLA). Though it was a hard-fought game, they had more momentum the first time.
"Now, they've recaptured some of that with the new coaching staff. I think there's a renewed enthusiasm and excitement for the program as I watch the (UCLA) players play. They're playing hard and playing excited."
UCLA not only has a new head coach, but also a new offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, a longtime BYU assistant under LaVell Edwards. Walker, who spent the 1995 season as a Cougar assistant, was retained as the Bruins' D-coordinator.
"We know their personnel and they know our personnel. I don't think there will be much unfamiliarity that way," Mendenhall said. "Norm Chow ... has a rich tradition and history coaching here at BYU, and we already know about coach Walker. There might be some uncertainty still, but there is some familiarity as well."
They say familiarity breeds contempt and, apparently, there is some contempt on the Bruin side. The Cougars blocked the potential game-winning field goal by Kai Forbath on the final play in the Las Vegas Bowl.
"I've been waiting for this game since that field goal was blocked," linebacker Reggie Carter told the Los Angeles Daily News. "Tennessee, SEC, great game, but this game touches my soul. I was crying after we lost that game. That hurt bad. That is probably up there on my top two or three most painful moments of football."
Added Carter: "I'm looking forward to this game. I want to dominate. I don't want to just win. I want to dominate. I want them to feel like I did after that bowl game, and the only way to do that is to beat them."
UCLA has not only had this game circled on its calendar since last December, it also had a bye after defeating Tennessee, providing the Bruins with two weeks to prepare for BYU.
Mendenhall said he spent this week watching film of Chow's teams way back to when he was coaching the Cougars, as well as stops at USC and the NFL's Tennessee Titans. The Bruins have a new quarterback, Kevin Craft, who led a second-half comeback against the Volunteers.
"Coach Chow, from what I've seen, is very similar to what he's been doing," Mendenhall said. "Whether the bye week would influence it, I would be surprised if it did, knowing he's now building a system. I'm not sure they consider us worthy of changing things for one game."
UCLA's defense hasn't changed much from last year, Mendenhall said.
"They really didn't change their (defensive) plan in the Las Vegas Bowl as they had played all season. They have a very good package. It's diverse," he said.
"They have pressure, they have man-coverage and a nice zone package as well. They're well-coached. They can play man coverage. They're not afraid to pressure the quarterback.
"I think they're very confident. I think they're confident because their schemes are sound. So DeWayne Walker deserves a lot of credit. We've played them twice now and they know what they're doing. They have good personnel. We expect a good, hard-fought game this week."
The Cougars, fresh off a 28-27 victory at Washington, are looking forward to the chance to beat another Pac-10 opponent."They had a great showing against Tennessee. They're a great ball team," Nixon said of UCLA. "To have them here at home is a great opportunity for us to prove to everyone that this start isn't a fluke and we're the real deal."
BYU on the air
UCLA (1-0) at No. 18 BYU (2-0)
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Today, 1:30 p.m.
TV: VersusRadio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
E-mail: [email protected]