BYU became bowl eligible after an improbable comeback, spurred by a change in defensive leadership. Midway through the season, the Cougars were 1-4, and they hit rock-bottom in a 31-16 loss to in-state “rival” Utah State. The loss resonated throughout the Cougar faithful, and many were left wondering just how bad this season would get. The loss prompted the firing of defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, and Bronco Mendenhall resumed his dual role as head coach and DC. The rest of the season the Cougars went 5-2, with the only losses to ranked TCU and Utah. While the Cougars have made Las Vegas their typical post-season home this decade, they were happy to just make a bowl game and are excited to have the opportunity to play in New Mexico on Saturday. So here’s the preview for the 5th annual New Mexico Bowl, between the Cougars of BYU and the Miners of UTEP.
What we know about UTEP
The University of Texas – El Paso (UTEP), is a former WAC foe that since then landed in Conference USA (C-USA). The Miners have had the opposite year that BYU has – having started the year very well at 5-1, but floundered in the second half of the season, going 1-5 in their remaining games. Their lone win in November came against bowl-bound SMU. As their record would indicate, UTEP is a fairly average team – with major offensive and defensive stats being ranked between the high fifties to low seventies. Perhaps the most pertinent stats: points for, 26.2 (ranked 70th) and points against, 25.4 (ranked 58th). Bottom line, the Miners have been playing below their stats during the last half of the season, so they aren’t likely to be as good as these numbers indicate.
What we know about BYU
As mentioned, BYU had quite the opposite season of UTEP: they started 1-4, turned it around, and posted a second-half record of 5-2. BYU sports the 86th ranked passing attack (190.3 yards per game), and the 46th best rushing attack (163.8 yards per game). The Cougars average 24 points per game (84th in the nation, and Mendenhall’s goal for the team each game), while they only give up 21.4 points per game, good enough for 32nd overall. Considering that BYU started their turnaround ranked in the 100’s in each of these areas, their second half effort has been very impressive. BYU is playing above the level that their stats would indicate.
Keys to the game
Jake Heaps and the Receivers. If we learned anything from Utah, it’s that Jake Heaps is for real, and he’s only getting better. He gave everything he had that day, leading the Cougars down the field in a last-minute drive. It resulted in The Block, but Heaps did his part – he gave BYU the opportunity for the win. UTEP is more akin to the lower MWC teams that BYU beat up on than they are to Utah. I think Heaps, Ashworth, and Hoffman combine for 250+ yards and at least two touchdowns.
The Rush Attack. JJ DiLuigi, Bryan Kariya, and Josh Quezada have been a great trio of running backs this season. They should have as much success as they want against the UTEP defense, which has given up 200+ rushing yards several times this season. If Heaps is having success, it should open up the ground game even more.
Special Teams. Cody Hoffman and JD Falslev have been exciting to watch on their kickoff returns this season, but the main thing I’ll be watching for, is our PAT and FG teams. I’m guessing that Bronco has had those units working very hard to prevent any further blocks.
Bronco D. Let’s be honest. Since Bronco took over as coordinator, the Defense has been amazing, though usually for only three quarters at a time. In most of the Bronco as DC games, the Cougars had their subs in when the D really let up. But the BroncoD played high-powered Utah to a 3 quarter shutout, and, aside from the last 1:30 of the first half against TCU, they played an excellent game there as well. I’m looking for a dominating performance by the defense this week – and I’d like to see a complete game from them. I think UTEP is the opponent for that. Bronco’s Defense should hold UTEP to fewer than 100 rushing yards, and fewer than 200 passing.
Despite the records, these teams are headed in different directions. Both have something to prove, and each would love to post a winning record to end the season. In the end, the Cougars will be too much for the Miners. I see BYU winning in a blow-out, 45-13. Go Cougars!