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Originally published Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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BYU enters UW territory on quest for perfection

The Brigham Young University football team is on a "quest for perfection" this season and hopes improving upon consecutive 11-2 seasons will finally get them into a BCS bowl. The Cougars play Saturday at the University of Washington.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The statement seems as clear as the black and white letters in which it is printed in the Brigham Young media guide.

"The Quest For Perfection," reads the headline to the season preview included inside, with text further stating that the Cougars are tired of simply going 11-2 every season.

Players, though, say it has something of a double meaning.

"That not only applies to the field, but to our lives off the field, so we are always on a quest for perfection and getting ourselves better every day on and off the field," said tight end Dennis Pitta. "It doesn't necessarily mean that we are claiming we are going to go undefeated or anything like that. But obviously you don't want to lose any games, you want to win every game. That's what we've set out to do."

And perfection, they know, is almost certainly the only way to get into a BCS bowl, meaning the hopes of the entire season essentially ride on every game, continuing with Saturday's matchup at Husky Stadium against Washington.

"This is a key game for us if we want to reach our goals at the end of the season and maybe break the BCS," said quarterback Max Hall.

Beating the Huskies would set up a showdown Sept. 13 in Provo with rejuvenated UCLA before BYU enters Mountain West Conference play, in which it has gone 16-0 the past two years.

If the Cougars do reach their quest, they'll complete a comeback to the glory days of LaVell Edwards when BYU was the original gate-crasher to the big-conference bowl party.

Washington fans don't need reminding of the high point of BYU history, the 1984 national title when a 12-0 Cougars team that beat 6-6 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl got the nod in the final polls over an 11-1 UW team that beat 9-2-1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

BYU continued to be a top-10 contender through the late 1990s before Edwards retired in 2000.

Enter Gary Crowton, who scrapped the traditional BYU offense for a spread-style attack, and after winning his first 12 games, hit the skids and had three straight losing seasons.

BYU didn't look far to find a replacement, turning to Bronco Mendenhall, who had been on staff as defensive coordinator Crowton's last two seasons.

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Mendenhall, who played safety and linebacker at Oregon State in 1986-87, had a defensive system in place — a 3-4 alignment with a lot of blitzes and stunts — and decided to dip into the past for his offense, installing the basics of Edwards' attack.

"We are not the flashiest team and we don't have all sorts of gadgets and unique plays," Mendenhall said. "It's possession-oriented passing and a physical running game and just methodically moving the chains."

The Cougars went 6-6 Mendenhall's first season in 2005 and 11-2 each of the past two years, facing Pac-10 teams in the Las Vegas Bowl all three seasons — losing to California the first year, then beating Oregon 38-8 in 2006 and UCLA 17-16 in 2007. But early-season road losses the past two years — at Arizona in 2006 (16-13) and at UCLA in 2007 (27-17) — stalled BCS hopes. In fact, BYU hasn't won a nonconference road game since 2002, something that hovers over the Cougars.

"The last couple of years we've just kind of been in a funk," Hall said. "We've won plenty of road games in the conference, and we can't think of this game any differently."

Hall, a 6-foot-1, 201-pound junior, is on the fringes of the Heisman Trophy conversation after throwing for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns last season in his first year as a starter.

Hall took an unconventional route to BYU, spending the 2004 season at Arizona State. He grew up in Tempe as a fan of the Sun Devils. But after going on a mission for the Latter Day Saints, he decided to transfer to BYU in 2006.

"I felt ASU would have led my life down a path I didn't want to go down," said Hall, who is one of 16 players listed as married in the school's media guide and one of 58 who has gone on a mission, the main reason the team's average age is 21.1, according to a recent story in The New York Times.

Hall leads an experienced offense with 10 returning starters that put up 41 points on Northern Iowa last week despite losing four fumbles. Hall was 34 of 41 for 486 yards.

BYU returns just three starters on defense, but the unit is hardly young — three seniors and eight juniors are listed as starters for Saturday.

Add it up, and the view in Provo is that the team may finally be of age to answer the quest.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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