BYU, UTEP aiming for winning season
6-6 teams kick off 2010-11 postseason with New Mexico Bowl
The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUUE, N.M. -- One team turned things around after a rough start. The other hit the skids after beginning with much promise. Now both BYU and Texas-El Paso are looking to end their seasons on a high note Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl, the first contest of college football's bowl season.
Although BYU (6-6) is playing in its sixth consecutive bowl game and had won at least 10 games five consecutive years until this season, head coach Bronco Mendenhall believes this year's team can achieve something even greater with a victory against the Miners (6-6). After the Cougars lost four of their first five games, including a 31-16 defeat at Utah State, Mendenhall gave himself and his team something to shoot for.
"I made a statement that if we were able to go to a postseason game and play well and win the game, it would be a remarkable accomplishment, and one that might be the most fulfilling and gratifying thing that has happened to me since I became the coach,'' he said Friday.
The Cougars, who will begin play as a football independent next season, rebounded to win five of their last seven games, closing with a bitter 17-16 loss to Utah in a contest both schools circle every year. Despite that outcome Nov. 27 in Salt Lake City, or perhaps because of it, BYU offensive lineman Matt Reynolds said his teammates feel they're better than their record suggests. "We've got a lot more potential than we've shown,'' he said.
While the Cougars turned things around after a shaky start, the Miners went in the opposite direction by losing five of their last six games after a 5-1 start. Still, UTEP held on to secure the school's first postseason bid since 2005. "We're really excited and glad to be here,'' Miners head coach Mike Price said. "That's the beauty of this game. Both teams have something to prove.''
No member of UTEP's roster has suited up for a bowl game, so it will be uncharted waters even for one of the team's most accomplished players - quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who postponed surgery on his left ankle so he could experience the postseason. "It's kind of the light at the end of the road, all the hard work we've put into it, especially for all of the 26 seniors,'' Vittatoe said. "We've been through a lot. It really feels good that all of our hard work is finally paying off.''
Vittatoe passed up surgery two months ago and Price marvels at his grit, calling him "the toughest quarterback I've ever coached.'' Vittatoe, a four-year starter, is UTEP's career leader with 12,090 total yards, 95 touchdowns, 900 completions and 1,612 attempts. "He's unbelievable,'' Price said.
Vittatoe said his ankle "doesn't feel very good.''
``But my body has gotten used to tolerating the pain,'' he said. "Playing with it six games this year and playing with it nine games a couple of years ago, I've kind of gotten used to it, dealing with the pain. It's never easy when you have to move around.''
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6), 2 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN
Series Record -- BYU leads 28-7-1
Last meeting -- 1998, BYU 31-14
What's at Stake
A winning season. That's what happens when 6-6 teams are matched in a bowl game, but don't be too quick to shrug off the New Mexico Bowl. There have been recent thrillers -- Colorado State rallied to beat Fresno State, 40-35, in 2008 and Wyoming beat Fresno State, 35-28, in double overtime last year.
UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe versus BYU's defense. Vittatoe, a four-year starter, ranks among the nation's most productive QBs with 12,194 career yards passing, 12,089 total yards and 94 TDs. After BYU's 1-4 start, head coach Bronco Mendenhall took over as defensive coordinator and turned around the season.
Players to Watch
BYU -- S Andrew Rich led the Cougars with 106 tackles this season. He's had four games with at least 10 stops, twice logging 14. A first-team All-Mountain West performer, Rich had two interceptions in a 40-7 win against New Mexico on Nov. 20.
UTEP -- RB Donald Buckram ranks sixth in school history with 21 rushing TDs and nine 100-yard rushing games. He's been UTEP's leading rusher in six games this season, but the Miners have a balanced attack with RBs Joe Banyard and Leilyon Myers helping to carry the load.
Facts & Figures
Jake Heaps will be the first freshman QB to start a bowl game in BYU history. His 10 TD passes are three short of Ty Detmer's BYU freshman record. ... BYU and UTEP are former WAC rivals, playing 36 times from 1946 to 1998. One of the biggest wins in UTEP history was a 23-16 stunner of No. 7 BYU in El Paso in 1985, when the Miners beat the defending national champions for their only win during a 1-10 season. ... Mendenhall is the first BYU head coach to reach a bowl game in each of his first six seasons. The Cougars are 3-2 under Mendenhall, including a 44-20 victory against Oregon State in last year's Las Vegas Bowl. ... UTEP is making its first bowl trip since the 2005 GMAC Bowl. The Miners are 0-2 in bowls under head coach Mike Price.