PROVO — For the first time since 2004, the BYU football team won't be spending part of December in Las Vegas.
The Cougars' streak of playing in the Las Vegas Bowl has ended at five consecutive years. This time, they're going to the New Mexico Bowl to face 6-6 UTEP on Dec. 18.
Still, BYU players are enchanted with the idea of going to the Land of Enchantment. And they're looking forward to putting their disappointing 17-16 loss to Utah in the regular-season finale behind them.
"It will be the first time in my career not to go to the Vegas Bowl, so I'm sure we'll have a good experience down there," senior safety Andrew Rich said after the Cougars' first bowl practice Monday. "It will be good to see how we react after a tough loss. It will be important not only for our team but the 2011 team. To be able to finish the right way sets the tone for a good offseason. We're looking to play our best and get better."
Asked about the team's mindset in the wake of losing to the Utes, senior cornerback Brian Logan said, "The biggest word is 'anxious,' because we felt like we were the better team. Some unfortunate plays we gave up and some unfortunate calls that happened, we were disappointed about that. But we're anxious to show the world that we're a way better football team than what they saw the last game."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall has noticed that his team, which allowed Utah to block a potential game-winning field goal on the final play of the game, is eager to redeem itself.
"What I sensed is more anger and frustration to have basically controlled the game from the beginning to the very last play, and basically have our opponent where we wanted them, and then didn't protect well enough to kick a field goal," Mendenhall said. "So I think that anger has led to frustration, which they would like to act on, to play better. All indications are that they are really anxious to play another game. I think they felt that, even though we didn't win our game versus Utah, they gained momentum and played well, and are anxious to capitalize on that and even take that a step further. My sense is they are ... eager, hungry and anxious to play again."
"When you lose a tough game like that, you try to forget about it. At the same time, it's been fuel for a lot of guys to keep working hard and improve the areas we need to be able to win," he said. "It's more therapeutic to be out here and working at it again than sitting around doing nothing. We're grateful for the opportunity. The way that the game ended, there were some guys who were frustrated and upset with how it ended. We're excited to get back out and get another shot at it and to try to finish a game and play well."
Given their 1-4 start, the Cougars are just glad to be part of the postseason.
"It's an accomplishment for this team to reach a bowl with the way we started," Rich said. "I'm not complaining. I'm just excited to go down and have another chance to play, Vegas or not. It's going to be a great experience for the seniors and the underclassmen. It's another chance to play and I'm definitely looking forward to it. As a senior, it's my final game, so it's going to be a good opportunity."
INJURY UPDATE: Linebacker Jordan Pendleton will be sidelined for the New Mexico Bowl after undergoing shoulder surgery and a knee scope last week. Pendleton, who has been out since the Utah State game on Oct. 1 with a knee injury, will be out for 4-5 months in order for his shoulder to heal. He will miss spring ball in March.
Quarterback Jake Heaps sustained a sore left (non-throwing) shoulder and suffered a contusion in the rib area during the Utah game, but is expected to be ready for the bowl.
"He was beat up and sore after the game," said team trainer Kevin Morris. "I anticipate him being able to go. He played the whole game (against Utah). We evaluated him at halftime and he looked good and played the rest of the game."
Heaps was not at Monday's practice in order to take care of some academic work.
Senior defensive lineman Vic So'oto suffered a rotator cuff strain in his shoulder against Utah and is rehabbing now and is expected to return to practice next week.
PRACTICE SCHEDULE: The NCAA allows teams to hold 15 practices to prepare for a bowl game. Mendenhall said his team will have 11 practice sessions leading up to the bowl game, including six this week.
Last week, the players rested and conditioned while most of the coaches were out recruiting. The Cougars leave a week from Wednesday for Albuquerque.
New Mexico Bowl
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
Dec. 18, noon
University Stadium, Albuquerque
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM