Friday, Dec. 11, 2009 | 2:02 a.m.
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Forget about last year.
That was the predominant theme surrounding an appearance by the BYU contingent Thursday at the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas press conference at ESPN Zone.
The Cougars appeared sluggish in last year's Las Vegas Bowl and fell to the Arizona Wildcats, 31-21. But BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was adamant that this year's game would be different.
"Our team is more eager to play," Mendenhall said. "Our team is anxious to continue to prove that we belong and are working toward national prominence."
It would be easy for the Cougars to limp in to Sam Boyd Stadium on Dec. 22 and face Oregon State without much motivation. After all, BYU is in Las Vegas' bowl game for the fifth straight year.
BYU (10-2) has already clinched its fourth straight 10-win season and was at the center of the college football world when it upset Oklahoma in the teams' opening game.
None of that matters, though, said BYU senior tight end Dennis Pitta. The Cougars still believe they have more to prove and are more focused than they were a year ago.
"I think we genuinely are excited to be here," Pitta said. "Especially being able to play a quality opponent like Oregon State. They've had a tremendous year and were a couple plays away from a BCS bowl game. It will be a terrific matchup and a great challenge."
To illustrate the difference between this year and last year, both Mendenhall and Pitta said to look at how the regular season ended.
BYU edged Utah, 26-23, in an emotional overtime victory at home last weekend. That's quite the opposite of what happened last year.
In 2008, BYU's final regular season game was also against rival Utah. Both teams were ranked in the top 15 and the winner would emerge as the Mountain West Conference champion.
Utah pulled away in the fourth quarter en route to a dominating 48-24 victory and advanced to the Sugar Bowl, while BYU was relegated to Las Vegas.
Mendenhall said the Cougars had not recovered from the defeat by the time they kicked off against Arizona.
"The critical moment happens after a loss like that when the players decide they want to do something about it," Mendenhall said. "That opportunity was one I didn't leverage our team well enough on. They were a little bit down from that game and I don't we think we responded."
This season, the Beavers are the team traveling to Las Vegas after a devastating loss in a rivalry game. Oregon State (8-4) lost to Oregon, 37-33, last week in a game where the winner automatically advanced to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-10 Conference champion.
But Oregon State coach Mike Riley acknowledged that the Beavers can't stay down about the loss like last year's BYU team might have done. If Oregon State isn't over the loss to Oregon, Riley knows BYU is well capable of making the Beavers miserable.
"They are a rock-solid football team that is talented and well-coached," Riley said. "They just do everything right."
BYU is 2-2 in the last four Las Vegas bowls. There's reason to believe, however, that this is the best Cougars squad of the last five years.
They want to show it in the bowl they've come to know the best.
"I consider this our bowl now," Pitta said. "I don't know anything but Vegas. I've never been to another bowl, so this is kind of my home. I'm grateful to be back."