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PROVO — It isn't easy, but BYU's football players are trying hard to focus on the upcoming Las Vegas Bowl matchup against archrival Utah.
Even as BYU officials move forward in searching for a new head coach to replace the outgoing Bronco Mendenhall, who took the same position at Virginia a week ago, quarterback Tanner Mangum said the Cougars have done a good job of putting their efforts into preparing for next week's postseason game.
"It's never fun when you lose a coach; we've grown close to him," said Mangum, who became BYU's first 3,000-yard single-season passer since Max Hall in 2009. "But at the same time, we're excited for this last bowl game. It's tough to hear the news, but we're excited to finish the season strong."
Still, BYU's practice Thursday morning was loose and relaxed as they prepare for their 11th consecutive bowl game.
"I don't know why it is; maybe it's because coach Mendenhall is leaving, and people are just trying to enjoy it," tight end Remington Peck said. "But there's more excitement and people are having fun, which is how the postseason should be. It's been nice to see."
If anything can grab the players' attention back to the gridiron, it's the rivalry showdown many are calling the "Holy War in Sin City."
"I can't think of a better ending than to play Utah in a bowl game, and more that it could be 10 wins and Bronco's 100th win," senior wide receiver Terenn Houk said. "We didn't think that we were going to play them this year, and all of a sudden, it's reality."
The Dec. 19 meeting will be the 90th between the Utes (9-3) and Cougars in school history, and BYU's sixth-ever trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. The sellout crowd will see the two winningest Las Vegas Bowl teams pitted against one another, with the winner staking claim to the all-time winningest participant in the long tenured bowl game.
There's plenty of emotion behind the game, as well. Mangum's first-ever in-person rendition of the rivalry came in 2006, when the Cougars won on John Beck-to-Johnny Harline's miracle pass as time expired.
For Peck, a graduate of Bingham High in South Jordan, the rivalry matchup calls back to his favorite game in a Cougar uniform.
"I beat Utah once and lost twice, and that once is still my favorite game," Peck said. "The excitement of that game is unexplainable. It's the best game you will play in, and there's an excitement about it. I guess being from in-state adds to it, but it's fun.
"If you can't get up for that game, you shouldn't be playing the sport."
It's hard not to notice the Cougar seniors' reaction to capping off their career against the Utes after the two schools chose to delay the rivalry series for two years when many of them were sophomores.
"Everyone was saying there was no way we'd play Utah; it just wouldn't match up. But this came out of nowhere, and it was awesome," BYU defensive lineman Graham Rowley said. "Utah's a great team, and we're a great team, and we're both preparing really hard for this game.
"I think we'll be ready when the time comes."
BYU is carrying momentum into the game, having won seven of its last eight games while Utah enters with one win in its last three contests, a 20-14 home win over Colorado in the final week of the regular season.
"I'm pumped. I grew up a huge BYU fan my whole life, and I grew up watching all the BYU-Utah games," Mangum said. "To be able to play in one is pretty special. It's exciting to be able to do it in a bowl setting."
Listen to interviews with Mangum, Peck, Houk and Rowley in the "Cougar Cuts" section below.