New Mexico Bowl 2010: 10 Things to Know About BYU
The Cougars are set to square off with UTEP on December 18th in the New Mexico Bowl in a matchup that pits two schools that used to play in the WAC together.
BYU had a disappointing season overall, as it finished 6-6. It ended the Cougars' streak of double-digit win seasons at four and was their worst regular season finish since 2005.
Despite playing in a lesser bowl game then they have grown accustomed to, the Cougars won't want to finish off the season with a losing record.
Without further ado, here are 10 things to know about BYU.
Starting True Freshman Quarterback
It's been a trying season for Jake Heaps, who has struggled throughout the majority of the campaign. The good news for Cougar fans is that the true freshman has come on strong of late. In his last four games Heaps has thrown nine touchdowns to just one interception.
It finally looks like the Cougar QB has found a rhythm, something the team has been waiting for him to find all season long.
Bronco Mendenhall Could Be Making Staff Changes Soon
When things go bad for teams, somebody generally pays the price for it. Seeing how the Cougars finished .500, that could mean some assistant coaches could get the boot.
Bronco Mendenhall has said that he won't relieve anyone of their duties before the New Mexico Bowl, but the BYU coach did say he is going to evaluate his staff after the game.
That doesn't necessarily mean that anybody will lose his job, although there is certainly the possibility.
Started Off Poorly, Finished Strong
BYU's season started off on a good note, beating Washington at home. That win was followed by four consecutive double-digit losses that came at the hands of Air Force, Florida State, Nevada and Utah State.
It was a difficult stretch of quality opponents that left the Cougars reeling. As badly as they opened the season, they managed to fix the problem and turn it on against lesser competition down the stretch.
BYU was 6-5 heading into a rivalry game against No. 20 Utah on the road and almost pulled off the upset in the last game of the season. But it wasn't mean to be, as the Utes escaped with a one-point victory.
Nevertheless, the Cougars are playing well right now, something that their opponent can't attest to.
J.J. Di Luigi Is Cougars' Best Weapon
In his first season, BYU's primary back J.J. Di Luigi has had a very productive season. The junior leads the team in both receiving and rushing yards.
Di Luigi was virtually invisible in the Cougars' last game against Utah. He finished with only 14 yards rushing on seven carries and only caught one pass for 12 yards.
Getting the ball in Di Luigi's hands early and often will be vital to BYU's success against UTEP.
Las Vegas? Maybe Next Year
This will be the first time since 2004 that the Cougars won't be playing in the Las Vegas Bowl. For the past five years the Cougars' football team has been a regular visitor to Sin City around this time of year, but this season has been different from the start.
Instead BYU will head out to the Land of Enchantment to try to improve its record to a game over .500 and secure a winning season. For the players that have grown accustomed to going to Vegas for their bowl game, this could be a nice change of pace.
One thing is certain: The BYU coaches won't have to worry about as many distractions in New Mexico as they would have if they were sent back to Vegas.
Limited in Passing Game
Moving the ball on offense has been a struggle for the Cougars throughout the year, especially in the passing game. BYU's leading receiver is Di Luigi, as mentioned before, and he finished with only 422 yards.
It's never a good sign when your starting running back leads the team in receiving yards. Outside of Di Luigi, there isn't a player on the roster that cracked the 400-yard mark.
Senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman was the closest, finishing with 390 yards, followed by teammate McKay Jacobson, who finished with 378 yards.
Part of the receivers' low yardage numbers can be put on Heaps' struggles this season. But regardless of who is throwing the football for the Cougars, they don't have a ton of explosive options in the passing game.
Defense Has Been Stout Down the Stretch
BYU's defense took a beating early in the season, but over the past five games the highest number of points they gave up were 20 in a win over Wyoming.
It's been an impressive stretch by the defense, although they did collapse in the fourth quarter against Utah, giving up 17 points after they had shut them out through three quarters.
If the Cougars bring the same type of effort they did the first three quarters against the Utes, UTEP is going to have a very difficult time moving the football.
BYU ranks 32nd in the country, giving up 21.4 points per game, which is an impressive number considering they gave up 27 or more points in four consecutive games in the first half of the season.
Player Who Could Surprise
Di Luigi may be the primary back for the Cougars, but that doesn't mean other carries aren't available. Junior running back Bryan Kariya is a guy who could surprise some and have a nice game.
Kariya ran the ball well in five of the last six games the Cougars played with Utah as the only exception, where he struggled to find running room.
Look for Mendenhall to use a one-two punch in the backfield to wear down the Miners' defense to open up the passing game for Heaps. Kariya's had nine or more carries the past seven games and has seen his workload increase as the season has gone on.
Di Luigi will still be the main back, but don't be surprised if Kariya has a nice day on the ground.
A Chance for Redemption
This game may not be as appealing to the Cougar players as the Las Vegas Bowl has been, but this game is a chance to end the season on a high note and build momentum for next year.
A loss to UTEP would mean a 6-7 season for a program that hasn't had a losing season since 2004. Pride is on the line for the Cougars as a program, and it is on this individual team to carry on a winning tradition.
BYU has a chance to be remembered for a strong finish rather than a disappointing two-game skid to end the season.
Get Used to Seeing the Cougars on TV
After making the decision to become an independent, the Cougars followed it up with an eight-year television deal with ESPN. That means get used to seeing BYU a lot more on Saturdays over the coming years.
The decision to go independent was a high risk, high reward move that will start to pay off with the increased exposure the school will receive with its games being broadcast on ESPN's family of networks. BYU is hoping this is a step that could eventually lead to them being a powerhouse football school.
Whether that works out or not has yet to be seen, but one thing is a certainty, and that's that the Cougars' exposure is going to greatly increase over the coming years.