With his team in the Las Vegas Bowl for the fifth consecutive season, BYU’s fifth-year coach Bronco Mendenhall is excited about the opportunity for a better performance in this year’s trip to Sam Boyd Stadium.
Defeating the program he played for more than 20 years ago would make a win even more special.
Looking for their third bowl victory in four seasons Tuesday night, the 15th-ranked Cougars face No. 16 Oregon State, which has won five straight bowl games but is disappointed to not be closing out its season at the Rose Bowl.
BYU (10-2), making its fifth consecutive appearance in the same bowl for the first time since going to the Holiday Bowl from 1978-84, looks for its first postseason victory since beating UCLA 17-16 in 2007. Following a 48-24 loss at Utah in their 2008 regular-season finale, the Cougars fell to Arizona 31-21 in last season’s Las Vegas Bowl.
“None of us felt like we played to our full potential a year ago, so I think that is a motivating factor to go back and maybe do it at a higher level,” Mendenhall said.
BYU, winner of 10 or more games in a school-record four consecutive seasons, faces a Beavers team that finished second in the Pac-10 the last two seasons.
“When you scan through the list of bowl games, I think it could be one of the most compelling matchups of the bowl season,” Mendenhall said of the Dec. 22 game that will mark the first time in the 18-year history of the Las Vegas Bowl that both teams are ranked.
BYU lost to Oregon State 10-7 in the teams’ last meeting Nov. 15, 1986, in Provo. Mendenhall, a starting safety for the Beavers from 1986-87, made four tackles in that matchup.
Mendenhall was a graduate assistant at Oregon State in 1989 before serving as the program’s defensive line coach in 1995 and defensive coordinator in ’96. This will be the first time he coaches against his alma mater.
Mendenhall will look for another solid effort from senior Max Hall as BYU goes for its 10th bowl win. Hall, whose 31 victories are the most for a quarterback in BYU history, threw the winning 25-yard touchdown pass to Andrew George in overtime to lift the Cougars over Utah 26-23 on Nov. 28.
Hall’s brother-in-law, senior tight end Dennis Pitta, is one of the Cougars’ top downfield threats. A finalist for the Mackey Award given to the nation’s top tight end, Pitta leads BYU with 57 receptions, 784 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught two passes against Utah to move past Austin Collie for most receptions in school history with 216.
Pitta also owns the NCAA record for tight ends with 2,856 career receiving yards.
Harvey Unga led BYU in rushing with 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. The Cougars’ all-time leading rusher with 3,384 yards, he is the cousin of Oregon State freshman players Devin and Kevin Unga.
“There are many connections between Oregon State and BYU, of course Coach Mendenhall played and coached for the Beavers, but there are other ties to both programs as well,”said Beavers coach Mike Riley, whose team has won five straight bowls.
“This will be a great showcase for two of the best quarterbacks in the country on a national stage in Max Hall and Sean Canfield. I’m very excited about playing BYU and it will be a tremendous challenge for our team.”
The Beavers (8-4), though, were hoping to head further west for their bowl game. With an opportunity to earn its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1964, Oregon State had its four-game winning streak snapped with a 37-33 loss at No. 7 Oregon on Dec. 3.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Canfield said after completing 24 of 36 for 306 yards and two TDs.
Canfield, a first-team all-Pac-10 selection with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions, led the conference with 3,103 passing yards.
BYU’s rush defense, ranked 23rd in the country, faces a major test in sophomore Jacquizz Rodgers. The first-team all-Pac-10 running back ran for 1,377 yards and a school-record 20 TDs, and he is tied for third in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 21 touchdowns.
Rodgers missed last season’s 3-0 Sun Bowl victory over Pittsburgh with a cracked shoulder blade.
His older brother James, a junior, was also sidelined for that game due to a broken collarbone. He led Oregon State with 87 receptions, 1,007 yards and nine TDs this season, and needs three catches to tie Mike Hass for the school record of 90 set in 2005.
Oregon State has won five of eight matchups with BYU. The Cougars’ last victory against the Beavers was 10-7 on Sept. 9, 1978, in Corvallis.