Provo • Nineteen days after a sluggish, uninspired 28-23 win over Nevada, the BYU Cougars got back on the football practice field Thursday night, their first official practice before facing the Washington Huskies in a week in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
The Cougars (8-4) will practice just five more times between now and kickoff, which is at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at AT&T Park in San Francisco, following the same bowl preparation model that Bronco Mendenhall has used in previous eight bowl appearances since becoming the head coach in 2005.
Fight Hunger Bowl
O At San Francisco
BYU vs. Washington
Dec. 27, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Mendenhall said his 6-2 record in those games shows that this model works, even if a lot of fans think the Cougars should practice more than they do.
"The intent simply is to build a team that really wants to play and is looking forward to playing, rather than enduring practices to get to the game," Mendenhall said. "It is what I think works best here. And I think past records show that it has."
Mendenhall said Washington will be the toughest bowl opponent yet for BYU in his tenure, and the second-best team the Cougars will play this season, behind only Wisconsin, which steamrolled them 27-17 in Madison. But that doesn’t mean the preparation model will change.
"Whether it works with this team or not [remains to be seen]," Mendenhall said. "Each team is a little bit different, and hopefully it is the right model."
If there was a troubling aspect to Thursday’s first bowl practice, Mendenhall said, it was that players who missed the Nevada game due to injury — namely tight end Devin Mahina (groin) and linebacker Spencer Hadley (knee) — "looked the same" as when he last saw them.
He said coaches are "probably not counting on [Hadley]" to play. He deemed Mahina as "probable."
One player who healed fast enough to return from a late-season injury was inside receiver and punt returner JD Falslev, who said his broken hand has gotten better and won’t slow him down a bit against the Huskies. Falslev said the Cougars didn’t hit the ground running in Thursday’s practice, but it all came back to them rather quickly.
"You have to shake a little bit of rust off, because we have been out for two weeks. But guys are in college now. Guys have been taking care of their bodies and working out, so that part is fine. It is just a matter of going out and getting going again," he said. "But after a couple of minutes, you are right back in sync of things. So it was good."
Sophomore running back Jamaal Williams, usually the first player out on the practice field and a self-described practice lover, said coaches had a good pulse on the team and knew the players needed a good chunk of rest.
"It was a good break. I enjoyed it, but I kinda felt it in practice today," Williams said. "It was just a good time to go away from football just a little bit get our mindset ready for the bowl game. … We really needed to get our bodies healthy, and now we are ready to go."
Linebacker Alani Fua said he felt fresh and ready to play at practice for the first time in quite a while, although it was difficult to concentrate for him because he still has one more final exam to take, at 7 a.m. Friday for an accounting class. Most of the other players finished up Wednesday or Thursday.
"We usually only get five practices [before each game], so anything extra is nice," Fua said. "I mean, given the circumstances with finals and everything, it is the best we can do right now without having everybody failing finals and being ineligible."
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