Brigham Young's early season struggles included a loss to UCLA, but the Cougars bounced back with the type of run that the Bruins likely would have needed to save Karl Dorrell's job.
One of the nation's most balanced teams, the Cougars look to extend a nine-game winning streak when they face the reeling Bruins and interim coach DeWayne Walker in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22.
Much has chanced since UCLA (6-6) beat BYU (10-2) 27-17 on Sept. 8. The Cougars lost their next game to Tulsa, but won their next nine to earn their second straight Mountain West Conference title with an 8-0 league record.
The Bruins, meanwhile, were 2-0 and ranked 11th after their meeting with BYU, but were stunned 44-6 by Utah the following week and lost five of their final seven games. UCLA finished the regular season with a 24-7 loss to rival USC on Dec. 1, and Dorrell was fired two days later after five years and a 35-27 record.
Walker, the Bruins' defensive coordinator, will end his second year with the Bruins by replacing Dorrell. Walker and his defense face a tough challenge in trying to stop a BYU team led by quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga, one of the most dynamic freshmen in the nation.
"I had a chance to watch them on film and I was like, 'Wow, here we go again,'" Walker said. "We're going to have our hands full."
Hall has been a revelation for the Cougars, helping them finish 17th in the final BCS standings and 19th in the AP poll in his first year replacing John Beck.
Against UCLA, the sophomore All-MWC first-team selection had an interception returned 56 yards by Trey Brown in the first quarter, but finished with 391 yards and two touchdowns. He threw for a MWC-best 3,617 yards and 24 TDs on the year.
"One of the critical components to our success this season has been due to the play of Max Hall," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "He is a great competitor, and excellent leader. I appreciate the way he has embraced his role on this team."
Hall has been complemented by a strong running game, led by Unga.
The MWC freshman of the year's 1,211 rushing yards are the most for the Cougars since Luke Staley's 1,582 in 2001. Unga also set the league rookie record with 1,840 all-purpose yards, shattering the mark of 1,328 set by New Mexico's Dontrell Morre in 2002.
"Harvey has had an exceptional season," Mendenhall said. "His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and his ability to run the ball with power played a critical role in our conference championship season."
Unga, though, had his worst rushing game of the season against the Bruins, gaining 28 yards on five carries.
UCLA held opponents to 3.1 yards per carry this season, but it was vulnerable down the stretch. The Bruins allowed 231 yards rushing to the Trojans, and an average of 165.6 in their last five games.
BYU, meanwhile, has been stout against the run all season. The Cougars rank ninth in nation in rushing defense (92.1 yards per game) and haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
Sophomore defensive end Jan Jorgenson leads the BYU defense. The first-team All-MWC selection ranks ninth in the nation with 11 1/2 sacks, although he didn't register one in the regular season matchup with UCLA.
Ben Olson - who redshirted as a freshman with BYU in 2002 before transferring to UCLA - was shaky in that game against the Cougars, completing just 46 percent (13-for-28) of his passes for 126 yards and an interception.
Patrick Cowan has since taken over as the Bruins' starting quarterback, but if healthy Olson may have to make another start versus the Cougars. In the USC game, Cowan was relieved by Olson with 6:07 left after injuring his left knee. Cowan hasn't practiced for three weeks and will miss the game.
If Olson is not healthy, look for the Bruins to go with sophomore Osaar Rasshan, who is raw but brings a lot of athletic ability to the table that BYU might not be aware of.
Health problems and inconsistent quarterback play have hurt the Bruins all season. In a loss to then-winless Notre Dame on Oct. 6, injuries forced them to use then third-string walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson at QB.
"Certainly the issues of injuries came into play this year," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "But the concerns that have plagued us just in a general sense ... relate to inconsistent play."
The Bruins have been much more consistent in their ground game, rushing for 1,801 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kahlil Bell and Chris Markey split time at running back and combined for 1,393 yards.
On defense, UCLA is led by defensive end Bruce Davis, and in the secondary by Brown and Chris Horton. Davis is tied for 18th in the nation with 9 1/2 sacks, and has 22 over the last two seasons.
Brown, a cornerback, leads the nation with 23 passes defended and has five interceptions - including his key pick against BYU. Horton is second on the team with 83 tackles, and the safety forced a fumble that led to a field goal in the second quarter versus the Cougars.
UCLA is the first Pac-10 team to play in three Las Vegas Bowls, having defeated New Mexico 27-13 in 2002 and losing 24-21 to Wyoming two years later.
This is BYU's third straight appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Cougars defeated Oregon 38-8 last season after falling 35-28 to California the previous year.
UCLA has won seven straight against BYU since losing the teams' first matchup 37-35 on Oct. 1, 1983. Before this season, though, these teams hadn't met since a 23-9 Bruins win on Sept. 9, 1995.