B-Y-U (6-6) vs. Texas-El Paso (6-6)|
Saturday, December 18th, 2:00 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: A couple of .500 programs kick off the 2010 bowl season this
weekend, as the BYU Cougars clash with the Miners of Texas-El Paso in the
fifth annual New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.
BYU, a program that has been one of the elite in the Mountain West Conference
for several years, fell on hard times in 2010 and almost appeared to be
preparing for a long, hard rebuilding campaign. Following a 23-17 win against
Washington in the opener, the Cougars dropped four in a row and the question
about the direction in which they were headed began popping up on a regular
basis. However, despite having a fresh-faced quarterback, head coach Bronco
Mendenhall refused to give up and thus began the great reclamation project
that led to a 6-6 overall record and a 5-3 mark in conference play thanks to
a string of four consecutive triumphs over the likes of Wyoming, UNLV,
Colorado State and New Mexico before bowing at Utah in the regular-season
finale by just a single point, 17-16.
As for the Miners, they built themselves up with early success by posting five
wins in the first six games, the lone setback coming against a powerful
Houston program on the road in week two. Unfortunately, from the middle of the
season on the wins became more and more scarce for head coach Mike Price and
his crew and as a result they just barely made the cut for the postseason with
six wins in 12 opportunities. In fact, UTEP has won just once in the last six
outings, a 28-14 triumph over SMU during Conference USA play.
In terms of past bowl experience, the Cougars are taking part in the
postseason for the sixth consecutive year but the squad is still struggling
with a 10-17-1 mark stretching back to 1974's loss to Oklahoma State in the
Fiesta Bowl. A year ago the squad claimed a 44-20 win over Oregon State in the
Las Vegas Bowl, the third time in the last four years that BYU has claimed
that particular trophy.
Meanwhile, the Miners are back in the postseason for the first time since the
2005 GMAC Bowl when the group suffered a 45-13 loss to Toledo. UTEP has fallen
in four straight postseason appearances and hasn't won since putting up a 14-7
decision against Ole Miss in the 1967 Sun Bowl. For their efforts, the Miners
have a bowl record of 5-7 overall dating back to 1937.
Both programs are taking part in this bowl for the first time, but if past
results are any indication of future expectations, the Cougars should be
pleased to know that the last three winners of the event all hailed from the
Mountain West Conference as well. A year ago it was Wyoming that secured a
35-28 double-overtime win against Fresno State.
As far as an all-time series between these two programs is concerned, BYU owns
a 28-7-1 mark versus the Miners, thanks in part to a 31-14 win in the last
encounter in November of 1998 between the two former members of the Western
Athletic Conference. One interesting note that binds these two programs
together is that Price once recruited Mendenhall many moons ago.
Coach Mendenhall has the Cougars in the postseason yet again, despite the team
operating with a freshman quarterback for much of the season. Initially the
plan was to go with a combination of Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson, but once the
latter went down with an injury all the pressure was placed on the shoulders
of Heaps. In the second half of the season when the Cougars really needed a
boost, Heaps came alive with four straight passing efforts of at least 225
yards and he tossed nine touchdowns against just a single interception in
those outings, showing tremendous growth down the stretch.
Making the second half of the season a bit easier on Heaps was JJ Di Luigi,
who not only led the team in rushing with 819 yards and seven touchdowns on
the ground, he also reeled in a team-high 42 receptions for another 422 yards
and a TD as well. Luke Ashworth responded with 31 catches in just two starts
during his 12 appearances, but he still turned those into 359 yards and six
TDs. During the team's late four-game win streak the rushing attack was a
crucial element in the success as the backs gained at least 200 yards and
scored a combined 12 touchdowns to take some of the heat off Heaps.
While the offense was slowly building momentum for the Cougars in the second
half of the season, so was a defense that allowed a combined 61 points in the
final five games. Prior to that run, opponents of BYU had tallied no less than
17 points in any one contest so it was both facets of the team that began to
turn the corner when it meant the most. The pass defense for the Cougars was
one of the best in the MWC this season, ranking third in the league and 21st
nationally with just 187.8 ypg allowed and because of that opponents struggled
to generate more than 21.4 ppg on the season overall.
When it comes to offense, the Miners have been paced by quarterback Trevor
Vittatoe for a number of years now and has thrown for more than 12,000 yards
in his career. The signal-caller has tossed 94 TDs and been picked off 39
times during his time in El Paso, but this year he seemed to have some wild
swings in which he either piled up the numbers or struggled to reach even the
most basic of achievements. Five times this season, Vittatoe threw for at
least three touchdowns in a game, hitting a total of five versus New Mexico
State early on, but in the other seven contests he threw for a total of two
Unfortunately for Vittatoe, the rushing attack barely made a dent against the
competition on most weekends, averaging just 149.5 ypg to place seventh in
Conference USA and 69th in the country, so there wasn't much help coming out
of the backfield for UTEP. Wideout Chris Adams had some strong numbers down
the field for the Miners with his 44 receptions for 917 yards and 11 TDs, but
like Vittatoe those scoring plays seemed to come in clusters, like the one
during a four-game streak in the first half of the season when Adams hit the
end zone seven times in three games.
"They are pretty hot right now," notes coach Price of the Cougars heading into
this meeting. "They might be one of the hottest teams in college football.
Their freshman quarterback (Jake Heaps) has really turned it on lately and
he's not a new freshman anymore. He's got 12 games under his belt so he knows
how to play. They are huge up front and their backs are going to be hard to
bring down. It is going to be a challenge I think for our defense."
The Miners are well aware of how much potential the BYU offense has when
everything falls into place, which is why it will be important for the entire
UTEP defense to be ready to go. Unfortunately, the squad doesn't have any
singular stand-out performer that the Cougars have to key on with their
blocking schemes and that could come back to haunt the Miners. In fact, UTEP
failed to get much pressure at all at the line of scrimmage this season,
averaging a mere 3.58 tackles for loss per game to rank last in the conference
and 118th in the nation. Generating sacks was of similar concern as the group
logged just 1.2 per contest to tie for 105th in the nation at the end of the
One player that might stand out for the Miners on that side of the ball is
defensive back Travaun Nixon who leads the group with three interceptions and
ranks third on the unit in total tackles with 69 as he was named to the All-
Conference USA Second Team.
"I expect them to play really hard and be as motivated as we are to prove that
maybe they are a better team than 6-6," says coach Mendenhall about the
Miners..."Coach Price, you just look at his history and what he has done at
UTEP, you can tell they will be well prepared and have good schemes. I've seen
it on film so I think you'll get good coaching in the game and two motivated
teams with an intriguing matchup. I think it's going to be a great game."
The outcome of this meeting will rest squarely in the hands of the respective
quarterbacks and even though Heaps had the hotter hand down the stretch,
there's something to be said for Vittatoe who has seen more than his share of
action under center and deserves to finish off his senior campaign with one
final shinning moment.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texas-El Paso 41, BYU 24
12/15 11:16:06 ET