"It's a huge thing to get momentum heading into next year," Jake Heaps said. "It's always nice finishing the year up with a win."
When TCU made it to the Fiesta Bowl in 2009, the Horned Frogs had 13 players on offense that had received playing time the previous season. The Cougars will follow a similar path by returning a lot of starters and personnel with playing experience. If left tackle Matt Reynolds stays for his senior year, then BYU will only be replacing two starters in wide receiver Luke Ashworth and offensive guard Jason Speredon.
"On offense we have a ton of returning starters for next season, so this is going to be a great opportunity to gel and get closer with each other before we head into offseason workouts, where we can continue to grow even closer then," said Heaps. "I'm really excited for the future."
As BYU jumps into independence, the Cougars will face the teeth of their schedule right out of the gate. They go on the road to face Ole Miss and Texas before coming home to play Utah and Conference USA champ Central Florida. Early victories could set the Cougars up nicely for the rest of the season.
"I think it's going to be a bright future for us as long as we keep working and staying determined and keeping it in the back of our mind what this year was like and how it felt," Heaps said. "I think that's going to be a key for us in having success in the future. Right now we're focusing on this game against UTEP and end the season on the right note."
It was three years ago that Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, now a Heisman Trophy finalist, guided the Bronco to a 12-1 season after posting an NCAA single-season record for completion percentage by a freshman. While sharing quarterback duties in the first three games of the season, Heaps had a dismal 88.57 pass efficiency rating. However, he improved dramatically as the season wore on, even recording the eighth best pass efficiency rating in BYU history (242.64) against Colorado State.
"I think I'm a lot more comfortable and confident as a leader," Heaps said. "I think that's the biggest difference. Other than that I thought we could be playing like this at the very beginning of the year. We just didn't quite figure out who we were yet. I think that kind of held us back a little bit."
Before Heaps leads the Cougars into the brand new world of independence, many eyes will be watching the Cougars live on ESPN in the first bowl game of the season. It's a chance to give a glimpse of what's to come.
The Cougars have learned a few lessons heading into the UTEP game, and won't let the layoff prior to the game affect how they perform.
"Everybody is pushing each other and I'm really pleased with how everyone is fighting and battling here in practice," Heaps said. "I don't think [the layoff is] a problem for this team. I think we've had an experience at the beginning of the season where things were kind of a drag and not as fun for us. Now you've seen the results and I think we've learned our lesson. You just go out there each and every day and have fun and practice as hard as you can and focus on getting better."
"They're eager, and if anything they're a little too eager, so we're just trying to scale things back to where we don't leave all of our best play out on the practice field," Coach Mendenhall said.
One good aspect about the time between the final game of the regular season and the bowl game is it allows the players to heal up some bumps and bruises. After the game against Utah, Heaps was "kind of beat up and sore" according to head trainer Kevin Morris. Heaps even suffered a rib injury in the first half of that last game.
"I'm a little dinged up, but it isn't something that's going to prevent me from playing in the game," Heaps said. "I'm just getting myself as ready as I can for the game, and I'm doing the best I can to get these guys ready."
"Yeah, [Heaps is] doing fine and I'm not sure you can play eight, nine or how many games he has played and not be banged up," said Coach Mendenhall. "It's just part of the deal. He's handling it fine."
As Mendenhall mentioned, the team might be a little overzealous in their preparation for UTEP, but according to Heaps there is good reason for that.
"Obviously you want to send the seniors out with a win against Utah and that was number one, and tough when you're not able to do that for them," Heaps said. "Now more than ever with this bowl game we want to send them out right with a win."
While playing for Skyline High School, Heaps led his team to three state titles. However, he didn't raise the championship trophy until his senior year, instead allowing the seniors to hold the trophy in previous years. The question is will he raise the bowl trophy over his head should he win his first bowl game as a Division I player?
"No, I'm not," Heaps said with a laugh in his voice. "I'll let the seniors do it. I don't think they'll let me look at it right now."