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November 18, 2017

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Familiar Cougars, eager Wildcats introduced as Las Vegas Bowl participants

Bowl Stage Set

The Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl officially welcomed BYU of the Mountain West Conference and Arizona of the Pac-10 to Sin City Tuesday. The Cougars and Wildcats square of December 20 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The 2008 Las Vegas Bowl Teams Announcement

Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama addresses the media at the Las Vegas Bowl press conference Tuesday at ESPN Zone. Launch slideshow »

One program knows this drill already. The other is a group of true first-timers.

BYU, making its fourth consecutive Las Vegas Bowl appearance, and Arizona, in a bowl game for the first time since 1998, were officially introduced Tuesday afternoon as this year's participants in the Dec. 20 game at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Following a parade of welcomes from the bowl officials, Pac-10 and Mountain West commissioners and sponsors, plenty of storylines floated around the room in the back of the ESPN Zone at New York New York.

The biggest of them all was, plain and simple, the Cougars' presence in the Las Vegas Bowl. With Utah headed to greenest of bowl season pastures -- the BCS -- TCU finished behind the Utes in the final MWC standings. But the Cougars drew the invite to Sin City anyway.

"BYU is a Top-20 team, they've been in the Top 20 since October, and they have a great offense, they have a great quarterback, they have a fabulous head football coach, they've got a great program and they fill up your stands," said the game's executive director, Tina Kunzer-Murphy. "It's a win-win for everybody to have BYU in our game. If you'd ask me if the players would like a different experience? They probably would. Our staff has worked hard to try to change a few things up, but BYU was a good selection for us this year."

The theme from Day One in Provo this season was 'Quest for Perfection.' The Cougars realized that an undefeated record -- such as the one Utah maintained -- would be needed to land in the BCS for the first time in school history. But even though that never came to fruition, head coach Bronco Mendenhall and junior defensive end Jan Jorgensen both insisted on Tuesday that they're not disappointed with their postseason draw.

"I don't think there's any complacency about being here," Jorgensen said. "We're gonna be ready to play, and we're gonna be ready to represent the conference and our team the way it should be. We have a lot of guys on this team who come back next year, and we have to use this as a springboard for our season next season, to get us on the right foot going into the offseason and rolling into next season."

Next season will yet again bring plenty of BCS aspirations for the Cougars, who will return several key pieces of their high-powered offense -- most notably junior quarterback Max Hall, who has already thrown for 3,629 yards and 34 touchdowns this season.

Their BCS dreams took a major hit when the Cougars were thrashed by the Horned Frogs, 32-7, down in Fort Worth back on Oct. 16. Their regular season ended with a 48-24 loss in Salt Lake City to the Sugar Bowl-bound Utes.

"If we're not gonna be (in the BCS), this is a great place to be," Jorgensen said. "I can't think of a better city, a better place to come to watch a football game than Las Vegas."

Added Mendenhall: "To say that we're not disappointed we lost to our rival in a game that determined a conference championship, that wouldn't be accurate, because we are disappointed. But to say that would lend to disappointment or complacency? I think it lends to more hunger and resolve to return to a level of play we were hopeful and capable of playing at against maybe one of the best opponents we've played in this game since we've been invited."

Mendenhall said that now all of the focus has shifted to securing the school's third consecutive 11-win season.

Meanwhile, the eyes might be a bit wider on the other sideline come next Saturday. Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama addressed the media from the podium and pointed out that no one in a Wildcat uniform has played in a bowl game.

"You know, I'm sure when we come in, it's gonna be dark outside and everyone's gonna see all the lights, eyes wide open," said Tuitama, Arizona's all-time leading passer. "You just have to do a good job of recognizing why we're here. We're here to play football. We're not here to party or anything like that. We've just got to make sure that we're doing the things that we need to do to make sure that we're ready to play."

Fifth-year coach Mike Stoops, whose brother, Bob, will coach Oklahoma in this year's national title game in Miami, said that if his team needs any reminder of how important staying focused can be, all they have to do is look at last Saturday's game tape.

The Wildcats knocked off in-state rival Arizona State, 31-10, in Tucson. But it wasn't as lopsided as the final score indicates. The Sun Devils capitalized early, and led 10-7 at the half.

"Our team, we came out really excited the other night and didn't play well in the first half, we were so emotional and I think we got caught up in that a little bit, and that's a fine line, being overly excited where you can't control your emotions and be able to execute," Stoops said. "So, hopefully, the more we're in those types of environments, that helps you grow, and I think our players will learn a little bit from the other night, but I think we're going to go about this game with the same approach we have all season."

As for Tuitama, he talked with some added excitement, citing that he has 'four or five' cousins who currently play for BYU, including freshman linebacker Masi Tuitama.

"His dad called my dad," he said with a grin. "They had some words, but they're brothers, so you've got to let that happen. You're gonna have a whole bunch of Samoans, so we'll see what happens."

The two teams come back to Vegas next Wednesday for three days of events leading up to the 5 p.m. kickoff on Dec. 20.

The game itself could be one of the more high scoring editions of the Las Vegas Bowl that Sam Boyd Stadium has seen. In terms of total offense, BYU ranks 17th in the nation, while Arizona isn't all that far behind in 34th.

Arizona will be working against more than just Max Hall and friends, though. In the lone Pac-10 vs. Mountain West showdown of the bowl season, the Wildcats will try to reverse the fortunes of their league as a whole. The MWC was 6-1 against the Pac-10 this season, including BYU's triumphs over Washington and UCLA. Arizona lost to New Mexico, 36-28, in the season's third week.

"When you look at what BYU, Utah and TCU have done, they've competed on a national level for many years," Stoops said. "It's not anything new. They just don't get the national media recognition."

Added Mendenhall: "I'm sure Arizona has heard about that record, I'm sure the conference has heard about that record, but you're talking about a conference that's fighting for that respectability and gaining it."

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