PROVO — Last December, BYU was coming off a crushing 24-point loss at undefeated, Sugar Bowl-bound Utah, and it held only a handful of practices before meeting a highly motivated Arizona team that hadn't been bowling in a decade.
Not surprisingly, the Cougars lost to the Wildcats, 31-21, in the Las Vegas Bowl.
A year later, No. 15 BYU (10-2) is making its fifth consecutive trip to Las Vegas — with a matchup against No. 16 Oregon State (8-4) on Dec. 22 (6 p.m., ESPN) — but coach Bronco Mendenhall and his players say the mood, and the motivation, of the team is much better this time around.
While Mendenhall wholeheartedly credited Arizona for the way it played last season, he explained that his team entered that contest deflated. Because of all of the hype of surrounding the possibility of playing in a Bowl Championship Series game in 2008 and having to settle for the Las Vegas Bowl, getting blown out by the archrival Utes, and a matchup against the Wildcats for the third straight year, created a recipe for a poor showing by his team at Sam Boyd Stadium.
But because of the chance this year to face a ranked Oregon State squad that finished in a tie for second place in the Pac-10, and the fact the Cougars are on the heels of a dramatic 26-23 overtime victory over Utah, there's an excitement around the program.
"We're playing a very good football team, a team I know our players are excited to play," Mendenhall said. "That, in and of itself, has them kind of chomping at the bit to get back to Las Vegas and to play well. None of us felt like we played to our full potential a year ago. That is a motivating factor to go back and do it at a higher level."
The NCAA allows teams to hold 15 practices leading up to bowl games and the Cougars plan to practice every day, except on Sundays, of course, before the Las Vegas Bowl. "We haven't practiced as many days in the past as what we are going to now," Mendenhall said. "With some turnover at key positions for our team, we like the idea of some younger player development, and some looking forward as well as tuning up our more experienced players, so more practices in preparation for the bowl game than what we have done in past years."
Defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen explained why the feeling this year is different from 2008.
"Last year we were a little let down, losing the way we did to Utah and knowing we were going to get a fourth or fifth-place team from the Pac-10," Jorgensen said. "We tried to practice as hard as we could, but I think mentally and emotionally we were a little disappointed with what we had done ... I think this is different. We're on a high. We just beat our rivals and we're getting another ranked opponent. We're excited to play."
"Our level of focus is already better than it was last year at this time," said linebacker Coleby Clawson. "Last year, coming off a loss to Utah, it was hard going in and playing another game, knowing how we finished conference play. This year, I think all of the guys are excited and the seniors especially are ready to go out and finish strong and play our last game together and just have fun and get a win."
The Cougars are looking forward to playing the Beavers, Jorgensen said.
"We knew no matter what we were going to get a really good team from the Pac-10 this year. I think there is a little bit different feeling this year compared to years' past just because we know we're getting a very good, quality Pac-10 opponent. They were a game away from the Rose Bowl. I talked to other players when the announcement was made and we're all pretty excited to play Oregon State."
This year's Las Vegas Bowl is the next best thing to playing in a BCS bowl, Clawson said.
"We're excited. Outside of a BCS bowl game, I think this is as close as we're going to get," he said. "We're both ranked in the top 20. Oregon State is a very good team and they'll be ready to play. The Las Vegas Bowl is a fun bowl and they treat us well. It should be a fun bowl game."
Maaco Bowl Las Vegas
BYU (10-2) vs. Oregon St. (8-4)
December 22, 6 p.m.; Sam Boyd Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160AM
e-mail: [email protected]