BYU football: Momentum quest

BYU seeks win over Pac-10 opponent to bolster program's image, set tone for 2010 season.
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Is this the last hurrah for the senior-laden BYU Cougars and their remarkable run of 10-win football seasons, or simply a jumping off point to bigger and better things?

That seems to be the primary question facing coach Bronco Mendenhall's program as it takes on Oregon State in tonight's Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN), a matchup of ranked teams looking to establish more respect for not only themselves, but their conferences.

It is 10-2 BYU, the second-best team in the Mountain West, against 8-4 Oregon State, which tied for second in the Pac-10. And it is the best matchup in the history of this mostly pre-Christmas bowl, the Cougars sporting a No. 15 AP ranking, the Beavers No. 16.

At the bowl news conference here Monday, Mendenhall called it "maintaining traction" and another step in his attempts to "re-link our program to what it once was."

Tight end Dennis Pitta said it is important to win not only for the 19 seniors, "but also for the future of this program. We're trying to gain momentum going into next season. That's important to those of us who are fully invested" in the overall program.

That sounds good to junior safety Andrew Rich, a likely team captain next year.

"Every game is important in college football, but it seems like this one really carries a lot of significance," Rich said. "We lose a ton of guys, but we're still going to have high expectations next year, and a win over a great Pac-10 team will give us a much better feeling as we get back into it this spring."

In other words, the Cougars could use a big shot of momentum that a win over a nationally ranked team could bring, seeing as how they will be breaking in a new quarterback next season, a new tight end, and quite possibly a new primary ball carrier. Several players such as Rich and receivers McKay Jacobson and O'Neill Chambers say that is true, even if Mendenhall somewhat disagrees.

"Any game helps you build momentum, and we would like to win as many games as possible," Mendenhall said. "But really, regardless of the outcome, we will apply the lessons that move the program forward. And when you play very good teams, those lessons are usually easier to see."

Mendenhall can point to last year, when the Cougars fell 31-21 in this same bowl to Arizona, but really saw no lingering effects into 2009. After all, they upset then-No. 3 Oklahoma 14-13 to start the year, and were sailing along quite nicely until what could be analyzed as their most mysterious loss in the Mendenhall era, that 54-28 setback to Florida State.

But the Cougars had quarterback Max Hall, tight ends Pitta and Andrew George, and defensive ends Jan Jorgensen and Brett Denney, among others -- all of whom will be playing in their final games as Cougars today --to right the ship. Next year will either be about reloading or rebuilding, and the showdown with the Beavers will seemingly point the program in one direction or another.

"Last year, we ended the season on a sour note, but we had the leadership to pull us out of it," Rich said. "Plus, [not long after the loss] we learned we would be playing Oklahoma."

Jacobson, who stands to be the team's biggest offensive threat next season, said he hasn't allowed himself much time to think about the importance of the Las Vegas Bowl in spurring on the younger players. But he remembers the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl win over Oregon, 38-8, which he played in before his LDS Church mission, and how it "gave the program even more spark and confidence" to continue its climb.

"For me, I just try to focus on this year and not worry about what is going to happen next year. We owe it to Max and Dennis and all the seniors to finish strong," he said. "But I think how you finish one year has a lot of carryover to the next, so in a way playing well is doubly important."

How they match up

Points Per Game34.832.4
First Downs273261
Rushing Yards Per Game148.2144.2
Passing Yards Per Game288.9275.2
Total Offense Per Game437.1419.4
Third-Down Conversion %5547
Red Zone Scoring49-5652-54

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No. 15 BYU vs. No. 16 Oregon St.

At Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Today, 6 p.m. TV » ESPN