December 16, 2010

New Mexico Bowl: BYU vs. UTEP

NEW MEXICO BOWL

BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
WHEN: 2 p.m., Dec. 18.
WHERE: University Stadium, Albuquerque.
TV: ESPN (Bob Wischusen will do play-by-play, with Brian Griese as the analyst).
THE LINE: BYU by 11.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: BYU 2-5, UTEP 1-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: BYU 57th, UTEP 118th.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither is ranked
OFFICIATING CREW: From the MAC
COACHES: BYU- Bronco Mendenhall (3-2 in bowls); UTEP- Mike Price (3-4 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It's the first bowl of the season, which gives it some cachet. It's also BYU's last game as a Mountain West Conference member, which means it's historic in a way. Truthfully, though, neither team is really that good, and starting/finishing up your Christmas shopping definitely should take priority.
KEY STATS: BYU is 46th nationally in rush offense (163.8 ypg), and the Cougars have run the ball extremely well in the second half of the season (182.7 ypg in the past six games, including four games with more than 200 yards). UTEP is just 90th nationally in rush defense (181.2 ypg). In addition, BYU comes in hot (five wins in its past seven games) and UTEP comes in cold (one win in its past six games).

The season is winding down for BYU, and coach Bronco Mendenhall, for one, isn't happy.

BYU, which has won five of its past seven, plays UTEP, which has lost five of its past six, in Saturday's New Mexico Bowl.

"You have two teams that are 6-6 and have got their different paths - one having a great first part of the year, the other having a great second part of the year," Mendenhall said.

His team's recent hot streak means Mendenhall is disappointed the season is going to end.

"This particular team, from about the fifth or sixth game on, started to find themselves and I think we are going to run out of time before they reach their potential," he said. "So with that clock ticking, in addition to wanting to win the last game, I think we'll end up in having a very motivated football team."

This is UTEP's second trip to Albuquerque this season, and the Miners hope it is as successful as the first. The Miners beat New Mexico 38-20 on Oct. 2; they have won just twice since. Miners coach Mike Price said the bowl is an opportunity for his players to regain some prestige.

"The thing about it is we are really excited and we want to be here," he said. "That's the beauty about this game. ... We've got something to prove."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

BYU run offense vs. UTEP run defense: BYU ramped up its rushing offense in the second half of the season. The Cougars use a committee approach and have three players who have rushed for at least 400 yards. JJ Di Luigi is the leading rusher, with 819 yards. Brian Kariya and Joshua Quezada also will see time. That trio has combined for 16 rushing TDs. UTEP isn't that physical and has had trouble against the run. Teams that have made it a priority to establish the run have had success. DT Germard Reed needs to be disruptive. Edge: BYU.

BYU pass offense vs. UTEP pass defense: True freshman QB Jake Heaps arrived with a ton of hype, but while he has the necessary physical tools, he has struggled at times. He seemed to gain his footing down the stretch, with nine TDs and just one pick in the final four regular-season games. One problem has been that there is no true go-to receiver. DiLuigi is the leading receiver, and freshman WR Cody Hoffman came on late in the season. UTEP has allowed 20 TD passes and has just nine picks; in addition, the Miners have just one interception in the past seven games. Six of their nine picks came against one-win New Mexico, one-win Memphis and FCS member Arkansas-Pine Bluff. UTEP has a weak pass rush, and the Miners will be in trouble unless they can get some pressure on Heaps. Edge: BYU.

UTEP run offense vs. BYU run defense: Donald Buckram, who ran for 1,594 yards and 18 TDs last season, has played in just seven games this season because of injury issues. Joe Banyard ran for 155 against Tulsa in the regular-season finale and is the leading rusher. BYU shouldn't have much problem shutting down this rushing attack. The only team to run for more than 100 on the Cougars in the final seven games was TCU - and the Horned Frogs managed just 108. BYU's defensive backs are active against the run, and a rebuilt linebacker corps has stepped it up in the second half of the season. Edge: BYU.

UTEP pass offense vs. BYU pass defense: Senior QB Trevor Vittatoe threw 58 TD passes in his first two seasons, but has managed just 36 in the past two. He has completed just 54.5 percent of his passes this season, though he does have a nice arm and some OK targets. The best receiver is Kris Adams, who has 11 TD receptions among his 44 catches. He averages 20.8 yards per catch. BYU has allowed at least one TD pass in every game this season, but the Cougars also have managed to come up with at least two interceptions in each of the past four games. SS Andrew Rich leads BYU in tackles (106), interceptions (three), forced fumbles (three), fumble recoveries (tied for the team lead with one) and pass breakups (seven). CB Brian Logan has two picks and five pass breakups. BYU's pass rush is nothing special and UTEP has protected Vittatoe extremely well, allowing just 14 sacks. Edge: Even.

BYU special teams vs. UTEP special teams: BYU's return teams are adequate, nothing more, and while BYU's punt coverage is solid, its kick coverage is lacking. One positive: P Riley Stephenson has a big leg as a kickoff specialist and has had 22 touchbacks. That's important because of UTEP star return man Marlon McClure, who averages 29.8 yards per return and has taken back two for touchdowns. BYU K Mitch Payne is 16-of-20, but just 4-of-7 from beyond 40 yards; he also has had two attempts blocked, including the potential game-winner against Utah. Stephenson is an OK punter. McClure doubles as a dangerous punt returner for UTEP. Miners P Ian Campbell is solid, but K Dakota Warren is just 11-of-19, including 3-of-9 from beyond 40. While Campbell has a strong leg - he has made a 57-yarder - accuracy obviously isn't a strong point. UTEP's coverage teams have struggled at times, especially on punts. Edge: UTEP.

BYU coaches vs. UTEP coaches: This is the sixth bowl in a row for BYU under coach Bronco Mendenhall. He fired his defensive coordinator midway through the season, and the defense has responded with much better play. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae has a good track record, though he has been criticized this season for a lack of production. Given BYU's personnel losses from last season and injuries during this season, the criticism of Anae seems out of line. UTEP coach Mike Price went into the season on the hot seat, but some of that criticism was eased by a 5-1 start. The grumbling resumed, though, as UTEP lost five of its final six regular-season games. Defense has been a problem throughout Price's tenure, but some improvement was made this season under coordinator Andre Patterson. Price's son, Aaron, helps oversee the offense. Edge: BYU.

X-factor: McClure could be huge for the Miners - if he gets a chance to return some kickoffs. Stephenson's ability to put the ball into the end zone on kickoffs could take away UTEP's biggest advantage in this game.

BYU will win if: As long as the Cougars can run effectively, they should win comfortably. BYU does not want a shootout or a game in which Heaps has to win it with his arm.

UTEP will win if: The Miners have to hit some big plays in the passing game. Adams is a big-time deep threat, and he and Vittatoe need to hook up often. Defensively, UTEP has to keep BYU under 150 rushing yards. McClure also needs to come up big in the return game.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: BYU 31, UTEP 21
Tom Dienhart: BYU 29, UTEP 24
David Fox: BYU 35, UTEP 21
Mike Huguenin: BYU 35, UTEP 17
Steve Megargee: BYU 31, UTEP 17

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




 

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