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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 scores.

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 regular season.

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


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