PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has a practice model when it comes to preparing for a bowl game, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Cougars have won six of eight bowl games under Mendenhall, including four in a row.
For the first time since a 28-23 victory at Nevada on Nov. 30, BYU put on the pads Thursday for its first practice for the Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 27 (7:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) against Washington.
That means the Cougars will hold just six practices before facing the Huskies, but Mendenhall said it’s the right model to follow. It’s the same model he has used for years.
“The intent is simply to build a team that really wants to play, is looking forward to playing, rather than enduring practice to finally get to the game,” Mendenhall explained. “It’s what I think is what works best here. Past records show that it has. Whether it will work with this team or not, each team is a little bit different. Hopefully it’s the right model.”
His players are believers.
“He knows how to prepare us for bowl games,” said defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna. “He has a bag of tricks, and he knows what he needs to do to prepare us for a big game like this. The practice schedule that Coach Mendenhall (has) will prepare us. I did see a little bit of rust today (at practice), but as we continue with our preparation, that will go away.”
Mendenhall wanted his players to focus on their schoolwork before returning to the practice field.
“Finals at BYU are hard. The players need balance. They need focus on what is most important, and that is school in terms of school or football,” he said. “It was a moral decision. You can’t interfere with finals to practice when there’s a choice.”
So how did that first practice go?
“You’ve got to shake off a little bit of rust off because we’ve been off for two weeks,” said senior team captain JD Falslev. “Guys have been taking care of their bodies. It’s a matter of getting going again.”
The past couple of weeks, the Cougars have been lifting weights, conditioning and taking final exams.
“It’s kind of slow. But it’s good,” said linebacker Alani Fua of Thursday’s practice session. “I still have finals, so I’m still juggling in my mind, getting back into football and finishing up classes. It’s kind of crazy right now. It feels good. I feel fresh out there. I feel rested. It’s like the beginning of the season again.”
Fua had an accounting final Friday. “Once I get that over with,” he said, “I can relax and think about the game.”
For Mendenhall, it’s important to remember all the things the players are dealing with now as they finish the semester.
“It was good to be back with the players,” he said. “While they’re anxious to get back to practice, it’s clear their mind isn’t all the way there with managing finals. But they’re anxious to play. It’s fun to get started again in terms of preparing for an opponent.”
And that opponent is a good one. The Huskies, like the Cougars, have an 8-4 record.
When Falslev found out he would be facing Washington, “I was very, very excited. They’re a great team," he said. "They play one of the toughest schedules in the country because they’re in the Pac-12. Every opponent they lost to is a very good opponent. So their 8-4 record I don’t think does them justice in proving who they are. They have great athletes, great coaches.”
“I do think Washington is our best bowl opponent,” Mendenhall said. “I think they’re probably the second-best team we will have played this year, after Wisconsin.”
Asked about his team’s health heading into the bowl game, Mendenhall said, “The team looked about the same to me as they did before (the Nevada game). The guys that were hurt, I was expecting a significant transformation. They still look like they’re at the end of the season, even though it’s after a break. Maybe my opinion will change (in the coming days).”
It hasn’t been determined whether linebacker Spencer Hadley (knee) and tight end Devin Mahina (abductor) will play in the bowl game.
“I would say not likely, from what I think now,” Mendenhall said of Hadley, who hasn’t played since suffering an MCL injury at Wisconsin.
Running back Jamaal Williams said the time away from football was beneficial.
“We used the break to weight lift and condition, just to stay in shape,” he said. “It was a good break. I enjoyed it. I kind of felt it in practice today. It was a good time to go away from football just a little bit and get our mindset ready for the bowl game. The break was what we needed to get our bodies healthy. Now we’re ready to go.”
“It was good to get our bodies back in better shape,” Falslev said. “It was good to heal up, get refocused, get re-energized as a team, and be able to play one last game.”