BYU and UTEP face off on the gridiron this Saturday for the first time since 1998 in the 5th annual New Mexico Bowl.
The Cougars have dominated the all-time series between the two former WAC members 28-7-1, with BYU winning 25 of the last 27 games.
Both teams are 6-6, with BYU surging at the end of the season and UTEP stumbling, losing five of their last six games.
The game will be one of many future appearances on ESPN for BYU, as the Cougars begin their contract with the network as a football independent next season.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:04 p.m. MST.
Scouting the Miners
UTEP’s best win this season came in a 28-14 victory over SMU on November 6th, it was the lone win in the final six games for the Miners. They got out to a fast start, taking a 21-7 lead into the half.
The Mustangs regrouped from the loss to finish 6-2 in Conference USA and play in the C-USA championship game against Central Florida.
Mike Price’s team was hit hard by the injury bug, which was one of the main reasons the Miners have struggled so much during the second half of the season.
According to Price though, most of his troops are healed up and will be at or near 100-percent come Saturday.
An exception is star quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who is struggling with an ankle injury he suffered earlier in the season and then re-aggravated on a hit in the Miners’ 58-21 loss to Arkansas on November 13th. In fact, he is scheduled to undergo surgery on the ankle come Monday.
Vittatoe is a tough kid though that will start and fight through the pain as he did in the season finale against Tulsa, a game UTEP dropped 31-28 to the Golden Hurricane.
Reports coming out of El Paso is that he is still having trouble planting his foot when throwing the football.
Vittatoe has started all 48 games that he has been on the roster, tied for second most among active quarterbacks with TCU’s Andy Dalton. He is 15th on the all-time NCAA career passing list with 12,194 yards, he’s also the UTEP career leader in a myriad of offensive categories include passing yardage and total offense.
He hasn’t been tremendously accurate however, completing less that 55 percent of his throws this year.
That’s not good news when you have to face a Bronco Mendenhall-coached defense.
The senior’s most dangerous weapon is wide receiver Kris Adams, who is averaging nearly 21 yards per reception and has scored 11 touchdowns. Adams goes 6-3, 195 and will no doubt be one of the fastest receivers the Cougar defense has seen this season. He has the ability to stretch the field and can cause some match up problems for BYU on the outside.
Philosophically the Miners seek to run a balanced offensive attack from their single-back offense.
They are led on the ground by Joe Banyard’s 612 yards and 5.7 yards-per-carry average. Four other Miner backs have run for 200 yards or more this season, including Donald Buckram who has been slowed significantly by injury this year. He has rushed for just 325 yards in 2010 after setting a school record with 1,594 yards last season.
Buckram is expected to enter the New Mexico Bowl as healthy as he has been all season.
Even with Buckram in the backfield though, don’t expect the Miners to have much success against a BYU defense that has been one of the best teams in the nation against the run over the last half of the season.
Ever since Mendenhall took over the defense, no one has been able to run the ball on the Cougars. Even No. 3 TCU was held to a season low 108 yards on the ground by Bronco’s defense.
Once again, expect the Cougars to commit to shutting down the run and forcing a gimpy quarterback, who completes just over half his passes, to beat them.
It will be interesting to see how mobile Vittatoe can be with his ankle situation, and how accurate he can be throwing off of it as well.
The Miners do average five yards on first-down plays. If BYU can hold down UTEP on first down, they should be able to control this game and limit UTEP’s opportunities to put points on the scoreboard.
Expect the Cougar defense to focus on creating a lot of third-and-long situations, where they will then seek to bring pressure to try to force Vittatoe to move around in the pocket.
BYU should also have some significant advantages on the offensive side of the ball.
UTEP’s biggest problem will be dealing with BYU’s running game, as the Cougars come into Saturday averaging over 200 yards per game in their last five outings. The physical Cougar offensive line should be able to impose its will on a Miner defense that has been less than stellar in 2010.
UTEP ranks 90th in the country in rush defense and 86th in total defense.
The Miners have shown a tendency to play undisciplined defense all season long, often over pursuing the ball and allowing cuts backs for good yardage.
They are also not overly impressive at the point of attack at the line of scrimmage, their guys at the second and third levels tend to take bad angles and give up on plays as well.
All of this should be music to the ears of JJ Di Luigi, who should have a big day with the ball in his hands.
Also expect Jake Heaps to have the best day of his young career. He showed that he is ready to take over this team as its leader in the game at Utah.
He will have had three more weeks of practice under his belt, and it’s anticipated that the Cougar coaches will continue to take the wraps off of him in this game.
Prediction for the New Mexico Bowl
Expect BYU to come out in this game very focused and determined and take care of business early.
Also expect the BYU defense to dominate and give the Cougar offense some short fields to work with.
This game could easily be over by halftime.
BYU 52 UTEP 17