Dec. 18, 2008

(AP) - Although a trip to Las Vegas seems enticing, BYU was hoping it wouldn't have to make it - again.

The 17th-ranked Cougars, who were hoping to land a spot in a BCS bowl game before this season began, make their fourth straight appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 20 when they face an Arizona team playing in its first bowl in a decade.

After winning the Mountain West Conference with identical 11-2 records in 2006 and '07, BYU had high expectations for this season and was picked to win the league. The Cougars were ranked 16th in the AP preseason poll, and jumped to as high as No. 8 before losing to unranked TCU 32-7 on Oct. 16.

The Cougars are no strangers to playing in Las Vegas. They've won the last two bowls at Sam Boyd Stadium.

BYU lost its bid for a share of its third straight conference title with a 48-24 defeat to then-No. 8 Utah in its regular-season finale on Nov. 22. The loss meant another trip to the Las Vegas Bowl for the Cougars (10-2).

"I think any team starting out a season, their goal should be to win all their football games and to make it to a BCS bowl game," defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen said. "Obviously we want to be there. I'm sure if you asked Arizona that question, they'd want to be there, too. But if we're not going to be there, this is a great place to be."

The Cougars are no strangers to playing in Las Vegas. They've won the last two bowls at Sam Boyd Stadium, blocking a field goal last year to preserve a 17-16 win over UCLA and defeating Oregon 38-8 in 2006. BYU lost to California 35-28 in the 2005 Las Vegas Bowl.

Although the Cougars were hoping to play in a more attractive bowl, coach Bronco Mendenhall wants his team focused on its opponent, not the site.

"I think there's maybe an overemphasis on playing or preparing for a place that you've been before - really, the focus is on playing a team," Mendenhall said.

While BYU should be familiar with the surroundings of Las Vegas and what to expect in a bowl setting, this will be an entirely new experience for the Wildcats (7-5).

Arizona is in the midst of its first winning season since 1998, when it went 12-1 and beat Nebraska 23-20 in the Holiday Bowl - the program's last bowl appearance.

"No one on our team has ever been in a bowl game," senior quarterback Willie Tuitama said. "This is our first time. We hear our coaches telling stories about the bowl games they've been to so we're definitely excited to be here."

Arizona was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 this season, but ended up two spots better following a 31-10 win over archrival Arizona State in its regular-season finale Dec. 6.

"It's been a long journey to get to this point but I couldn't be more proud of our players, especially the seniors, for enduring some of the tough times you have to go through to rebuild a program," said coach Mike Stoops, who was hired in 2004.

This will be the third straight season these two programs meet. The Cougars defeated Arizona 20-7 at home in the 2007 season opener after the Wildcats won the 2006 opener 16-13 at Arizona Stadium.

Both teams are led by strong-armed quarterbacks running high-powered offenses.

Max Hall directs BYU, which is 19th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring (35.3 points per game) and 17th in total offense (444.8 yards per game).

Hall led the Mountain West in passing yards (3,629), touchdowns (34) and passer rating (160.3), but didn't have much luck against Utah, throwing no touchdowns and a career-high five interceptions. Hall may have another tough time in this game, as Arizona is 14th in the FBS in pass defense (169.8).

While Hall struggled his last time out, running back Harvey Unga had another outstanding performance, rushing for 116 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. Unga finished fourth in the Mountain West with 1,061 rushing yards.

Arizona is 20th in the nation in total defense (302.1), but has been vulnerable when playing away from Tucson. The Wildcats limited opponents to 14.7 points in their seven home games, but gave up 30.6 in their five road contests.

Fortunately, the offense has usually been able to bail them out.

Arizona is 16th in the nation in scoring (37.1), and Tuitama finished second in the Pac-10 in passing yards (2,763), touchdowns (21) and QB rating (143.0).

In last season's meeting, Tuitama completed 26 of 36 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown, while Hall was 26-of-39 for 288 yards and two scores.

The Wildcats lead the all-time series 11-9-1 against their former Western Athletic Conference foe.