On December 18, at 2:00 p.m. eastern time, the bowl season will officially open. BYU and UTEP will face off in the fifth annual New Mexico Bowl, played at University Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first of 35 bowls should be enough to whet your appetite for postseason college football all through the holiday season. So when you sit down to watch the game, what should you be looking for?
Both BYU and UTEP come into the game at 6-6, although BYU was 5-3 in the Mountain West, while UTEP went 3-5 in Conference USA. BYU is 86th nationally in passing yards, and 46th in rushing yards, while UTEP is 60th in passing yards and 69th in rushing yards. BYU is 84th nationally in points scored, and 32nd in points allowed, while UTEP is 70th in points scored and 58th in points allowed.
BYU's best win of the season was in the opening game, winning 23-17 against Washington. The Cougars played two teams that were ranked at the end of the season, losing to eventual #4 TCU, 31-3, in Fort Worth, and to eventual #20 Utah, 17-16, in Provo.
After their opening day win, BYU went on a four-game losing streak, including losses to Florida State and Nevada. The Cougars won their last four games before their annual rivalry matchup with Utah to end the season, and knocked off Wyoming and Colorado State in that run.
UTEP's best win of the season was against SMU, whom they beat 28-14 in El Paso. Yep, that's the best win. All of the Miners' other victories were against sub-.500 teams, including a sub-.500 FCS team in Arkansas-Pine Bluff. UTEP played one team that would end the season ranked, losing to eventual #15 Arkansas 58-21 in Fayetville.
Offensively, the Cougars are led by running back J.J. DiLuigi, who lead the team in rushing yards (819) and receiving yards (422). The Cougars quarterback, freshman Jake Heaps, threw for just over a 55 percent completion rate, gaining 2052 passing yards, with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Heaps became the starter after Riley Nelson's season was ended with a shoulder injury.
Part of the Miners' struggle this season, particularly offensively, have been a result of injuries. Running back Donald Buckram was limited to seven games due to injury concerns, and quarterback Trevor Vittatoe has struggled throughout the year with an injured ankle. Joseph Banyard was UTEP's rushing leader with 612 yards, and Kris Adams led the Miners in receptions with 917 yards. Vittatoe threw for just under a 55 percent completion rate, with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
BYU has given up 21.4 points and 339 yards per game on average. The Cougars' standout defensive player is safety Andrew Rich, who leads the team in tackles with 106, interceptions with 3, pass breakups with 7, and forced fumbles with 3. Vic So'oto leads the team in sacks with 4.
UTEP gave up an average of 25.4 points and 404.2 yards per game. Their standout defense player was safety Winston Jeune, who led the team with 78 tackles. Cornerback Travaun Nixon contributed with 69 tackles, three interceptions and eight pass breakups. UTEP's sack leaders were Greg Watkins and Robert Soleyjacks, with three each.
BYU kicker Mitch Payne was 30-32 in extra points, and 16-20 in field goals, with a long of 48 yards. Cody Hoffman is the Cougars' weapon on kick returns, averaging 28.3 yards per return on kickoffs, although O'Nei Chambers still leads the team with 316 of total return yards even though he was suspended from the team in October. Punter Riley Stephenson has an average of 41.3 yards per punt, with a 59-yard long and 19 punts downed inside the 20.
UTEP kicker Dakota Warren was a perfect 39-39 in extra points, but a less-perfect 11-19 in field goals, with a long of 57 yards. Marlon McClure is the Miners' primary return threat, averaging 29.8 yards on kickoff returns. Punter Ian Campbell averages 44.1 yards per kick, with a long of 66 yards and 15 punts downed inside the 20.
On September 01, 2010, BYU announced it was leaving the Mountain West Conference to become independent in football. The Cougars joined Notre Dame, Army, and Navy as the only FBS schools without a conference affiliation. While a 6-6 season was not the way BYU had intended to go out, the New Mexico Bowl will mark the last football game the Cougars play as a member of the Mountain West.
While neither team had the season they hoped for, BYU has certainly faced the more daunting road to reach Albuquerque. The Cougars' non-conference schedule was challenging, and included losses to Air Force, Florida State, and Nevada. UTEP has faced a far softer schedule and achieved the same record from it.
The two teams had one common opponent--ironically enough, the New Mexico Lobos, the team that calls home University Stadium where the New Mexico Bowl is played. UTEP defeated New Mexico 38-20, while BYU took care of the Lobos 40-7.
When predicting bowl games, the motivation of the teams always has to be factored in. BYU has to consider their 6-6 season a disappointment and New Mexico Bowl berth a disappointment. Meanwhile, UTEP was fortunate to make a bowl, and hasn't been in the postseason since 2005. That motivation differential should help keep the game close. However, ultimately BYU has too many weapons and too much experience to let the first bowl game of the 2010-11 season slip away.
Fearless Forecast: BYU 35, UTEP 24
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