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BYU football: Extra motivation

BYU Quarterback Max Hall.
BYU Quarterback Max Hall.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

PROVO — On the heels of back-to-back outright Mountain West Conference championships and 11-win seasons, BYU entered the 2008 season with great expectations, only to see its BCS bubble burst midway through the season. Then the season concluded ignominiously, with losses at Utah and to Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Memories of devastating defeats a year ago have stoked the embers of motivation during the Cougars' long off-season.

"Everything that's gone on during this summer is the result of last year," said senior linebacker Matt Bauman. "Guys have been working harder. There's been a deeper fire. We went two straight seasons as undefeated conference champions. I think we got a little bit complacent, which is death. That's what we saw. So I think that really lit a fire underneath us. We've got a great group of guys who love the game and want to play and put in the work. It's a whole mentality that we've got to work. We've worked hard and it's shown."

For a number of reasons, expectations have been ratcheted down significantly compared to last season.

For starters, the Cougars have been overshadowed by conference rivals TCU and Utah, which both finished in the top 10 in the final polls in 2008. Then there's the non-conference schedule, with a season-opening game against No. 3 Oklahoma and a home-opener two weeks later against No. 18 Florida State.

What's more, the Cougars are replacing four starters on the offensive line as well as revamping the defensive secondary.

BYU players say they prefer not having the spotlight on them to start the season, unlike a year ago, when they felt a ton of pressure, which was heaped on them both externally and internally.

Most of the attention last fall on BYU was the "Quest for Perfection" slogan, and its bid to go undefeated and earn a BCS berth.

"This fall camp has been a little bit different from last year," said running back Harvey Unga. "It's fun to go under the radar instead of having a big bull's-eye on our back."

Not that the Cougars have been completely forgotten. They debuted at No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press poll and were picked to finish second in the MWC, behind TCU. It's not as if the wheels have fallen off. After all, BYU did win 10 games last season and it has posted a 32-7 mark since the 2006 campaign.

One piece of good news this year for the Cougars is that both the Horned Frogs and Utes visit LaVell Edwards Stadium, where BYU has won 18 consecutive games.

During fall camp, the Cougars have possessed a quiet confidence.

"There's an urgency to this team. There's a lot of young guys who are challenged by the coaches as well as the players," Unga said. "It's fun to see these guys rise to those expectations. Last season was good but it wasn't great. That's one thing we're thriving off of. We're not going to stop until we have a great season. I love the guys we have and the guys we recruited. I can tell they are the guys who want it. They're working really hard and I'm really proud of everybody on the team."

BYU returns quarterback Max Hall, the preseason MWC offensive player of the year. He and his teammates are looking forward to atoning for last year's stumbles.

"After coming in third in the conference last year, we have everything to prove this year and everything to go for," Hall said. "Hopefully we can be at the top at the end."

Instead of having to answer questions about being a potential BCS-buster during fall camp, the Cougars have been focused on simply improving every day.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall explained that lessons have been learned and the approach is different heading into the 2009 campaign.

"Last year we were protecting rather than pursuing and there's a huge difference in mind-set," he said. "I learned a lot in terms of possibly changing that, but I'm not perfect and neither is the team. We hopefully will grow and learn from it at the same time."

Despite failing to reach lofty expectations in 2008, the Cougars still have high expectations for themselves. "When you don't win the conference, you don't win your bowl game and you don't win the state championship, there isn't a player or coach on the team who is satisfied with that," Mendenhall said.