PROVO — For BYU, it's been a season that's seen four losses by a total of 13 points, three different starting quarterbacks and too much inconsistency on offense.
No wonder Bronco Mendenhall calls the 2012 campaign "one of the most challenging years I've had as a head coach."
BYU (7-5) completed its regular season on Nov. 24 with a 50-14 victory at New Mexico State as James Lark, in place of injured starter Riley Nelson, threw for 384 yards and six touchdowns passes in his first career start while wide receiver Cody Hoffman hauled in five of those TD passes — a school record.
The Cougars will face Mountain West Conference co-champion San Diego State (9-3) in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
While it marks BYU's eighth consecutive bowl appearance under Mendenhall, this is just the third season that the Cougars have failed to win at least 10 games since 2005. BYU posted a 6-6 record in Mendenhall's first season and a 7-6 mark in 2010.
Before they begin official bowl practices, coaches have been out recruiting, and players are undergoing grueling workouts.
At the same time, the Cougars are contemplating a disappointing season that juxtaposed a strong defense (BYU is No. 3 in the nation in total defense) with a mediocre offense (No. 57 in total offense).
After the win over beleaguered New Mexico State, linebacker Kyle Van Noy described the year as "a roller-coaster. We've had ups and downs. We've started to figure out that we need to put more effort into execution and making plays. I think our effort's there. We try really, really hard. We have that never-give-up mentality. We just need to put those to execution and a little more effort and I think we'll not only set the foundation for right now, but for the younger guys to continue that never-give-up effort."
It's been a season filled with squandered opportunities. For example, BYU fell by three points at Notre Dame after leading early in the fourth quarter. Midway through that quarter, Nelson's pass to a wide-open Hoffman deep in Fighting Irish territory fell incomplete. Notre Dame, which ended the regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1, will play for a national championship in January.
Four of the Cougars' five losses came at the hands of teams ranked in the current BCS top 25.
Miscues spelled doom for BYU in big games. A botched snap that was returned for a touchdown played a huge role in a loss at Utah; a pick-six cost the Cougars at Boise State; and a fumble late in the game at San Jose State ended hopes of a comeback victory.
"I'm a little disappointed about how the season went because there were so many games we should have won," said wide receiver/kick return specialist JD Falslev. "But you can't say 'You should have won this, you should have won that.' Our seniors have put everything they have into this program. Collectively, as a unit, every guy on this team has put everything they had into this season. I don't have any regrets, but there's a couple of games here and there that we lost we should have won."
As for Mendenhall, he called his players "fighters — they're competitive. They try hard and they're willing. The execution and the difference of this season between 7-5 and maybe 9-3 or 10-2 is the difference of a couple of plays here or there."
Sometimes, even when BYU won, things went inexplicably wrong. In the waning moments of the victory over Utah State, a miscommunication from the sidelines resulted in quarterback Taysom Hill running a play when he should have taken a knee. He suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Mendenhall said as he reviews the season, he will look at correcting mistakes that prevented his team from reaching its potential.
"That's my job as the head coach," Mendenhall said. "I'm proud of this team. They've had some unique battles and challenges. (It's) one of the most challenging years I've had as a head coach and as a team, and they just keep fighting."
Meanwhile, possible changes loom on the horizon.
Athletic director Tom Holmoe expressed his frustration last month with the way the season has unfolded.
"It takes its toll on everyone," Holmoe told the Deseret News at West Coast Conference basketball media day in Los Angeles on Oct. 29. "It's frustrating, no more so than for the coaches and players. And the fans are a big part of what we're doing. They're frustrated that we lost games that we were in, and could have won, in ways that we normally don't lose games. … The expectations were really, really high with a pretty competitive schedule. And we certainly didn't live up to that."
Given the Cougars' struggles, Holmoe hinted there will be some shake-ups in the program before the start of the 2013 season, which includes games against Virginia, Texas, Utah, Utah State, Georgia Tech, Houston, Boise State, Wisconsin, Middle Tennessee, Notre Dame and Hawaii.
"You could see some of our troubles early (this season)," Holmoe said. "We've addressed some of them, but some of them aren't going to change this year. It's been an eye-opening experience for some of our players and coaches to be able to see and say, 'Oh, OK, that's what we need to do.' I think there will be some changes that take place between this year and next year that will help our team in many ways, in different aspects, from technical details to things that will be noticeable. It will be good."
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