"It's something that has to change," said linebacker Bryan Kehl regarding the season-ending collapses. "Even when you go back to the 2001 year we didn't finish strong. We won the conference, but we lost our bowl game and that has to change."
"We've been humbled," said running back Curtis Brown. "We have a lot to prove. We don't need a loss in the middle of the season to motivate us to get better. At least we shouldn't. All we have to do is look at what we've done in recent years and how we've finished. It's been unacceptable. We have enough experience in losing big games and close games that we can look back and not want to do it again. That's our motivation right there. I know it's mine."
During drills, a common command barked out by head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his team captains is "Finish!" Finishing the drills and finishing every rep done at practice is a mindset the Cougar head coach has worked diligently to instill in his players. Now at the close of his second season as head coach, Mendenhall has made adjustments to translate that mantra on to the field of play.
Prepping to Peak
A hallmark of the Cougar off-season workouts sandwiched between spring practices and the start of preseason practices in August has been the rigorous regimen the team has undergone to prepare them for the coming season. While the off-season workouts remained intense earlier this year, they were designed to propel the team toward their goal of peaking at the right time and finishing strong.
"I think Coach Mendenhall learned a lot from last year being his first year as a head coach," explained Kehl. "He adjusted and fine-tuned the workouts and practices toward the goal of keeping us sharp throughout the season and fresh. We still have impact in practice, but not as much. We still lift weights, but not as much. It's all designed so that we're going our hardest on Saturdays and so we're our best on Saturdays and so far it's worked out great."
The Cougar are still working as hard as they can with each practice, but the manner in which they are working has changed. The changes are palpable as the players consistently come off the practice field with a bounce in their steps almost ready for more.
"At this time last year I was just beat," said Kehl. "I don't know if it was just me being home from my mission recently or what. I can't speak for the rest of the guys, but I got the sense that they were as well. This year it's different. We feel fresh and we feel like we're peaking at just the right time."
Of course it is not all patty-cake and roses during practices and games leading up to the stretch run.
"People don't realize that all they see from us is what they see on Saturday," explained Brown. "They think these guys can really go, but we're fighting. All of us are fighting through injuries and pain. But overall, I do think we're fresher and what is most important is that we're fresher mentally. This team is mentally tough and that will be the difference going down the stretch."
"Coach Mendenhall has made a conscious effort to limit the amount of practicing we do," added receiver Nathan Miekle. "I can't say this for certain, but it seems like practices have been shorter this year and we haven't gone full-contact as much. So yeah, it seems like we're peaking at the right time and you have to credit the coaches. They've done everything to ensure that we finish strong this year."
Running the Table
Now with seven straight wins under their belt, at least a share of the Mountain West Conference championship, and a bowl bid on the horizon the team is very much intent on not resting on its laurels and reverting back to what has befallen most Cougar teams in the past. This team is fully intent on winning out.
"Oh, it's going to change," said Kehl. "It has to. We're peaking. We have yet to play our best game. We're getting better with every game and that will continue. We're going to finish and get back to the glory days. But what is going to be different is that we're going to win our bowl games. We're going to win out."
Kehl and the rest are not looking toward that bowl game quite yet. To do so would not be consistent with what led to the team's success so far this season. Consistency in and of itself is what has brought the team to where it is now and will lead them to what they want to accomplish.
"Each week we have a plan, and we don't go outside of that plan," explained Brown. "Each week is designed for us to get better. They're designed for us not stay the same in all aspects of our game. But you know what, we're having fun. It's fun to know that what we're doing is paying off every week. Now we just have to focus on this week against New Mexico and not look forward or not look back. If we do that, then we'll finish strong and accomplish our goals."
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