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Provo • They have played the second-most difficult schedule in college football, according to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings, but in many ways the hard part is starting for the BYU Cougars.
While their schedule lightens in October, their quest to stay motivated gets tested now that their goal of reaching a New Year's Six bowl game is seemingly out the window.
The first examination in that regard comes Friday as the Cougars play host to Connecticut at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. and the game will be televised by ESPN2.
"We are ready to come out and compete again on Friday," said BYU linebacker Jherremya Leuta-Douyere. "We have somewhat of a chip on our shoulder [after the 31-0 loss at Michigan]. We are ready to prove everybody wrong and just get better, game by game."
This predicament for the Cougars and the annual motivation questions are nothing new. They have been here every year since they went independent in 2011 that point in the season when the opponents are not as strong, but the sense of urgency to win weakened with their bowl destination mostly set and no conference championship for which to play.
They will probably need to run the table or lose only one more game to get invited to the Las Vegas Bowl; Anything less than that probably means they will spend Christmas Eve playing in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
"We are 100 percent motivated to go undefeated the rest of the season," defensive back Micah Hannemann said. "That is our goal now."
They were saying that last year, too, after they lost 35-20 to Utah State in their traditional Friday night game before LDS General Conference weekend, but went into a funk and dropped their next three without star quarterback Taysom Hill. Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have fought all week to ensure history doesn't repeat itself after the devastating and confidence-crushing loss to the Wolverines.
"Usually, [a bad loss] will only linger if there haven't been the appropriate lessons taught, and the right closure given," Mendenhall said. "Hopefully I did that with the team, and hopefully they took it that way. And then practices, one day at a time, and one rep at a time, will determine if we get better or not, which I think we will."
Connecticut has also lost two straight games and was walloped 35-10 in East Hartford last year by BYU, but the Huskies made the 2,000-mile trek the longest regular-season trip in the history of the program with an upset on their minds after having almost dumped another big-name team two weeks ago.
UConn led Missouri 6-2 at halftime before falling 9-6 when a last-minute fake field goal attempt failed. Having defeated Villanova and Army before falling to Mizzou and Navy, the Huskies are No. 21 in the country in total defense and No. 24 in scoring defense. They won't be intimidated this year by a Taysom Hill-less offense that couldn't score against Michigan, and a defense riddled by injuries.
"We very easily could be sitting here 3-1," said UConn coach Bob Diaco. "We had opportunities to be 4-0. The guys should be encouraged."
Meanwhile, Mendenhall's guys have needed encouragement.
"When we do what we are supposed to do, assignment-wise, and we do it consistently, we are a pretty good team," he said. "When we don't, we make a lot of critical mistakes that lead to other good teams having an outcome like we did on Saturday."
The Cougars are 19-point favorites to get their 300th win in program history in Provo, but enter the game at less than 100 percent, with linebacker Harvey Langi, running backs Adam Hine and Algernon Brown, offensive lineman Kyle Johnson and defensive tackle Travis Tuiloma among the starters who probably won't play.
Their confidence has also been nicked.
"Your confidence definitely takes a shot when you lose like we did," receiver Terenn Houk said. "But the sign of a good team is to show resiliency and bounce back. That was a big thing in the meetings, is that we have to brush that loss aside and really work on getting our confidence back."
UConn at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff • Friday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM and Sirius XM 143
Records • BYU 2-2; UConn 2-2, 0-1 American
Series history • BYU leads 1-0
Last meeting • BYU 35, Connecticut 10 (2014)