Mendenhall has been accused of many mistakes in this roller-coaster season, but overworking his team isn't one of them. Although they did go through some rather strenuous running and conditioning sessions in the two weeks following their 50-14 win over New Mexico State on Nov. 24, the Cougars didn't begin putting in their game plan for the Aztecs (9-3) until last Monday, and will practice only eight times between the regular-season finale and the bowl game.
"Similar [practice] model to what we've used the past five years," Mendenhall said. "Slight tweak here or there in practice, but same number of days ... I learned a lot the first one. And so I wish I could say you can't count [the 35-28 loss to California in 2005]. Obviously, you can. But I learned so much that I think that has framed with six out of the last seven [wins]. But each team is different; hopefully it matches our team this year."
Many coaches use all of their allotted 15 practices leading up to bowl games, and treat the period like an extra spring camp.
For instance, San Diego State coach Rocky Long said that although the Aztecs didn't put in their game plan for the bowl until a week ago, they practiced several times the week before that to develop and evaluate younger players.
Mendenhall called Monday's practice "a little sluggish" but said he won't be too concerned unless he sees the Cougars have trouble transitioning from play time to work time again Tuesday.
"Based on what I saw today, I think they need a few more days [to be ready to play]," Mendenhall said. "When we left Provo, I was really comfortable with where they were. But based on today and the transition, I didn't think that was as sharp as I had hoped."
Since BYU's main two quarterbacks, Riley Nelson and James Lark, are seniors and expected 2013 starter Taysom Hill is out after knee surgery, the Cougars seemingly could have used the time to get quarterbacks Jason Munns and Ammon Olsen some reps. But Mendenhall has held fast to his time-tested regimen.
"I don't really have a strong opinion on it," Lark said last week, when asked if eight practices was enough. "Coach Mendenhall has done it for seven years, and we have won five of the seven bowl games, so it works. I hadn't thrown the ball in a couple of weeks, so it took me a little bit to get slinging the ball again. But other than that, my body felt really good."
Lark took more reps on Monday than Nelson did, and indications are strong that Lark will be Thursday's starter, although Mendenhall still won't say one way or the other.
For BYU fans who watched legendary coach LaVell Edwards go 7-14-1 in bowl games and Gary Crowton lose 28-10 to Louisville in the only bowl game of his four-year tenure, it is difficult to fault Mendenhall's approach because his bowl record (5-2) is far better than his predecessors' record and the Cougars have won three straight bowl games for the first time in their history.
The coach said his unique approach should not be interpreted as a sign that he doesn't value winning bowl games. He simply believes it strikes the right balance.
"It matters to me to play well, and it matters to me to finish the season on a high note," Mendenhall said. "It matters for our seniors in providing that experience. I just like the feeling a lot better when you end on that note while having a great experience at that bowl game."
BYU in bowls under Mendenhall
Year Bowl Game Result
2005 Las Vegas California 35, BYU 28
2006 Las Vegas BYU 38, Oregon 8
2007 Las Vegas BYU 17, UCLA 16
2008 Las Vegas Arizona 31, BYU 21
2009 Las Vegas BYU 44, Oregon State 20
2010 New Mexico BYU 52, UTEP 24
2011 Armed Forces BYU 24, Tulsa 21
P BYU vs. San Diego State
Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN