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April 20, 2014

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL:

Breaking down the Las Vegas Bowl

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Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

Arizona football coach Mike Stoops (left) and BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall pose for photos between Las Vegas show girls during a news conference at ESPN Zone inside the New York New York casino on Dec. 9. BYU will face Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday.

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Expanded coverage

The time for talk is over.

At 5:06 p.m. Saturday, the No. 16 BYU Cougars will face Arizona in the 17th Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Both teams have battled harsh winter conditions and even harsher media scrutiny, and now it's game time.

Steve Silver and Brett Okamoto have spent all week following both teams and here is how the Las Vegas Bowl squads match up.

No. 16 BYU Cougars

Record: 10-2, 6-2 Mountain West conference

How they got here: With the Utah Utes finishing a perfect 12-0 and shuttled away to the BCS Sugar Bowl, the Las Vegas Bowl had its choice between the Mountain West Conference's TCU and the Cougars. It's a situation where the fans may have earned the trip to the bowl as much as the players, as BYU is sure to fill the stadium more than the Horned Frogs from Fort Worth, Texas would have.

In the past, MWC teams have been favored as they send their top team to face the fourth or fifth-place team from the Pac-10. But with the Cougars finishing third this season many are labeling them the underdogs, something the team is trying to ignore.

"You hear it, but I haven't really thought anything about it," said offensive lineman Travis Bright. "But it doesn't really matter, it's whoever comes out and executes. Media can say whatever they want but ultimately it's the players who write the script when the day is done."

Leading passer: Junior Max Hall, 300-for-431 with 3,629 yards, 34 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 160.3 passer rating

Leading rusher: Sophomore Harvey Unga, 223 carries for 1,061 yards and 10 touchdowns

Leading receivers: Junior Austin Collie, 95 receptions, 1,419 yards, 15 touchdowns; Junior Dennis Pitta, 78 receptions, 1,025 yards, six touchdowns; Senior Michael Reed, 40 receptions, 472 yards, two touchdowns

Best win: UCLA may have finished a disappointing 4-8, but in early September they were 1-1 and looking for revenge for a 17-16 loss they suffered to the Cougars in last year's Las Vegas Bowl. BYU jumped from No. 18 in the country to No. 14 with a 59-0 win over the Bruins. Hall tied a school record by throwing seven touchdowns passes and the Cougars outgained UCLA by 282 yards.

Worst loss: Described by Hall as "hard to swallow", the Cougars had a 16-game winning streak and their BCS hopes come crashing down in a 32-7 loss to TCU on Oct. 16. The Frogs scored on their first three drives and Hall was sacked six times and intercepted twice. After climbing to as high as No. 9 in the polls, BYU tumbled to No. 21 and lost a bit of their swagger.

Keys to victory Saturday:

Defensively, the Cougars secondary will need to focus on All-American tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski has a team-leading 10 touchdowns, despite missing the team's first three games because of injury.

"He's a fabulous player," Mendenall said. "I don't think he's been defended effectively by anyone they've played. He has a unique combination of size and hands, it will be a difficult challenge for us."

The biggest thing is the Cougars have to want to be here. Arizona's intensity will be up for the first bowl game the school has made in a decade. BYU have been to Las Vegas the past three years and hadn't planned on coming back this season. The team has said all the right things this week about wanting to be here, but only gametime will show if the passion is truly there.

Anything less than a full effort won't be enough against what head coach Bronco Mendenhall says will be the toughest challenge they've faced in the Las Vegas Bowl yet.

"I believe they are the best bowl team we've faced in the last four years," said Mendenhall. "It's why many of the experts think we're the underdogs. I think we've been in some emotional games and hopefully learned the lessons necessary to execute with emotion and precision in the big game."

Arizona Wildcats

Record: (7-5, 5-4 Pac-10)

How they got here: The Wildcats, who have long dwelled in the cellar of the Pac-10, showed the program's first sign of life this season by earning their first bowl game bid in 10 years.

Despite a lack of size and physicality, Arizona displayed a knack for defensive prowess thanks to the Stoops family genius on that side of the ball with head coach Mike Stoops' brother, Mark, handling the defensive coordinating. The Wildcats are 20th in the nation on total defense.

Finishing above .500 in conference play is really what propelled the Wildcats into the Las Vegas Bowl – that and Tucson's proximity to Las Vegas had the bowl committee money machine salivating.

Although the Wildcats are only 7-5, they lost five games by 10 points or less, so do not count them out just because of the notches in the win-loss columns.

"This year we could have done so much better, but we've really grown as a program," said senior quarterback Willie Tuitama. "This program is going up. We have some great young guys here."

Leading passer: Senior Willie Tuitama, 235-for-364 with 2,763 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Leading rushers: Sophomore Nic Grigsby, 194 carries for 1,107 yards and 12 touchdowns; freshman Keola Antolin, 117 carries for 534 yards and 10 touchdowns

Leading receivers: Senior Mike Thomas, 70 receptions for 796 yards and four touchdowns; Sophomore Delashaun Dean, 46 receptions for 505 yards and three touchdowns; Sophomore Chris Gronkowski, 43 receptions for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns

Best win: After falling to Stanford 24-23 on Oct. 11, the Wildcats responded in a huge way by blasting then-No. 25 California 42-27 in Tucson. That victory improved Arizona to 5-2 and really boosted their confidence going into the meat of the Pac-10 season.

Worst loss: The Wildcats could have pulled another upset in Tucson when the-No. 21 Oregon State entered Arizona Stadium.

Oregon State trailed Arizona 17-16 with only 1:19 to play. The Beavers had the ball at their own 20-yard line and marched down the field to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Had the Wildcats not snagged defeat from the jaws of victory, they might not be freezing in Las Vegas right now.

Keys to victory Saturday: Defense, defense and more defense. The only way the Wildcats can upset the Cougars is if they can stop BYU's high potent offense.

The Cougars are 17th in the nation total defense and boast the seventh-best passing offense, so the Wildcats' secondary has a tough task ahead of them.

The key to victory is somehow stop junior receiver Austin Collie and junior quarterback Max Hall.

"Collie is a beast," said Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. "He is a very skilled player and he is more athletic than people give him credit for. We will have our hands full with him."

One other advantage the Wildcats might wield is that the Cougars have no desire to play in this game. BYU had their sights set on the BCS and when those dreams collapsed thanks to losses to Utah and TCU, the Cougars knew they would have to make the trek to Las Vegas for the fourth consecutive year.

The Wildcats, however, not only need this victory to signal a resurgence in their program, but Mike Stoops knows a victory could land him a lucrative contract extension.

Steve Silver can be reached at 948-7822 or [email protected].

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