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PROVO — With just a week remaining before facing the Washington Huskies in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, the BYU Cougars returned to practice on Thursday to officially begin preparations for their Pac-12 opponent.
The Cougars haven't played a football game since ending the regular season on November 30th with a win at Nevada. With finals to prepare for, and with several players dealing with injuries, the break came at a good time.
"I feel fresh out there," linebacker Alani Fua said. "I feel rested, like the beginning of the season again."
Even though it might seem a tad late to begin on-the-field preparations for an opponent, Coach Bronco Mendehall says this is the format that BYU has always used -- and with great success.
"Same number of practices, and exact same number of days in pads or no pads. 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. It's what I think works best here and I think past records show that it has."
For a player like JD Falslev, who suffered a fractured hand during the season, any extra time to heal is a good thing.
"It was good to heal up," Falslev said. "Get refocused, get re-energized as a team and get ready to play one last game.
That last game will come against an 8-4 Husky team that, like the Cougars, love to run the football. Coach Mendehall believes that Washington is the best team they've faced in a bowl game since he's been at BYU.
"I do think Washington is our best bowl opponent and I think they're probably maybe the second best team we will have played this year, after Wisconsin."
Since Coach Mendenhall took over the Cougar football program in 2005, his teams have gone 6-2 in bowl games, which includes a current four-game winning streak.
While Bronco mentioned he'd rather be 8-0 instead of 6-2, his players take a significant amount of pride in playing well in bowl games.
"We haven't forgotten about it," JD Falsev said when asked about continuing the streak. "BYU's not a team that just goes to bowl games to go -- we go to win."
While most of the Cougars' injuries suffered during the season have healed, there are still two players that are trying to make their way back in time to face the Huskies.
Tight end Devin Mahina (groin) and linebacker Spencer Hadley (MCL) are still not 100%. While Bronco called Mahina 'probable' to play in the bowl game, he wasn't as optimistic about Hadley.
"I would say not likely," Mendenhall said of Hadley's chances of playing. "I would say that from this moment on we're probably not counting on him."
With just one game to go before the end of the 2013 Cougar football season, many have begun to reflect on how the BYU offense performed with a new system under new offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
Coach Mendenhall used the word, 'encouraged' when he was asked to describe his feelings after year one.
"(It's) still a work in progress, but encouraged," Bronco said. "The team is united from an expectation, effort, toughness, practice standard...and the coaching staff is untied in relation to the direction and goals I have for the program. The statistical numbers in many cases bear that out against better opponents. All those indicators to me show progress, but certainly there's a lot of room to grow and improve."
Jamaal Williams, who enters the bowl game against Washington with 1,202 rushing yards this season, believes the offense improved as the year went on.
"I think we did pretty good this year, for our first time in this offense," Williams said. "I think we improved tremendously and I can't wait for next year since it will be second-nature for us...this is the perfect offense for us right now."
You can listen to post-practice audio from Bronco, Jamaal Williams, Alani Fua, Eathyn Manumaleuna and JD Falslev by clicking on the links in "Cougar Cuts," ablove left.