"It's the last game we'll play as seniors, so yeah, it's a huge game for us," echoed fellow senior linebacker Bryan Kehl. "It's a game where we all want to go out on top as champions and continuing the tradition of excellence into next season."
While Poppinga and Kehl join with a host of other seniors in playing their final game as BYU Cougars, they're very mindful of the program they've helped to build. For the seniors on the team, the Las Vegas Bowl is a chance to continue that tradition and, by so doing, prepare the team to reach new heights.
"I'm a BYU Cougar," said Kehl. "I'll be one long after I play my last game, so it's very important to me to leave the team in good hands [and] to help beat UCLA so my team can be ranked at the start of next season."
Indeed, next year has most fans already itching in regards to the prospects therein. With the return of most of the offense and some key defensive players, BYU should be able to make their best BCS run to date. Seniors like Poppinga and Kehl are ever mindful of this and want to see it happen as much as anyone.
"We've accomplished two of the four goals we had when we started the season," said Poppinga. We aim to reach one other goal, which is to win our bowl game, but we didn't bust the BCS, which is a goal we had. Now it's important for us to beat UCLA and make sure that this team is ranked at the start of next season to make it easier for this team to accomplish the goal of playing in a BCS bowl."
Indeed, the thoughts of Kehl and Poppinga reflect a greater sense of unity that Bronco Mendenhall has helped to instill within his team since he took the reins of the program. For underclassmen such as quarterback Max Hall, it hasn't gone without notice.
"I really can't express just how much the seniors on this team have meant to me as a player," said Hall. "Guys like Bryan Kehl and Kelly, Sete Aulai and everyone else have set the tone for all of us since January, and anything we do after this year will be in large part due to their leadership and efforts this year. The seniors on this team are awesome."
"It's our job as seniors to leave this program better than when we came in," said Kehl. "We believe that we've done that, and we're still working on that. We have to win this bowl game. That's a part of it for sure. If we don't, then we didn't leave the program like we wanted to."
Easy on Unga
Thursday's practice session saw running back Harvey Unga getting limited work and almost no reps on offense. Following an ankle sprain against Utah, Unga is still recovering and trying to regain his form.
"It still hurts," said Unga. "I tried it out against San Diego State, but I wasn't close to 100 percent in that game. I was able to play through it, but didn't perform like I had before the injury."
One would find it difficult to imagine that Unga, who rushed for 161 yards and three touchdowns against the Aztecs, was feeling the ill-effects of anything, let alone a debilitating ankle sprain.
"It wasn't me, it was the offensive line that gained all those yards," said Unga. "You go back and watch that tape. The holes they opened up didn't take much for me to run through them. The offensive line was awesome in that game."
A lot of discussion has been made regarding UCLA's reported interest and rumored contact with Coach Mendenhall. Mendenhall addressed these rumors with characteristic bluntness and honesty following Thursday's practice.
"I'm certainly flattered, but then it goes right to annoyance in terms of just one more thing to manage in trying to get a team ready to play," said Mendenhall. "If I can do that in an effective manner they won't even know, is what I would hope, and so I'm working toward managing it better if it were to happen again. My first obligation is to this team and toward their betterment."