Albuquerque, NM – University Stadium
Brigham Young Cougars
Let’s be honest- this matchup falls under the “someone has to play in these bowls” category. Neither of these programs played well enough to warrant a post-season appearance, yet the inaugural bowl of 2010 saw fit to host them anyway. So be it– a bad football game is still better than anything else on TV.
At the beginning of the year who could have expected BYU to play as poorly as it did? We’re talking about a program that had finished with 10 wins or more in each of the last 4 seasons. The Cougars were mentioned in the same breath with other elite BCS-Busters like Boise State, TCU, and Utah. In fact, when Boise State first thought about joining the Mountain West Conference, there was hope that all 4 of these programs would clash each season, setting up some tremendous games. That was not to be, as BYU pulled out of the MWC to become an Independent. Perhaps the distraction of that move led to this year’s flop.
On the other side of this New Mexico are the UTEP Miners, who finished 4th in the Conference-USA West. Aside from an upset win over SMU, there’s not much about their season that draws attention. The good news for UTEP is that Albuquerque’s exotic dancing scene is practically non-existent, which should help Coach Mike Price stay focused.
- BYU: Not much went right for BYU this year, but one bright spot was RB J.J. Di Luigi.The versatile junior led the team in rushing yards (819), receptions (42), receiving yards (422), and total touchdowns (8). His 1,241 yards from scrimmage represent nearly 30% of BYU’s total offense. The Cougars are very much a “by committee” team, needing to spread the ball around in order to win. But Di Luigi is clearly their #1 option in all facets of the offensive gameplan.
- UTEP: The Miners didn’t have a particularly potent offense in 2010, but much of what they did achieve can be traced back to WR Kris Adams. The team’s top receiving threat, Adams hauled in 44 catches for 917 yards– on average, that’s better than 20 yards per catch. Most importantly, he found the endzone 11 times. The second-leading receiver on team was Marlon McClure, who caught only 26 balls for 305 yards; those numbers clearly show how vital Adams is to the team’s offensive production.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
This matchup features two teams with mediocre quarterbacks and few playmakers, so the outcome will depend largely on fundamentals. The team that makes the fewest mistakes and plays the best football at the line of scrimmage will probably win. Keep an eye on both offensive lines. How each fares against the opponent’s defensive front 7 will go a long way toward deciding the game. BYU’s Jake Heaps and UTEP’s Trevor Vittatoe are the kind of passers that need time to execute; if the protection fails, things could get very ugly.
TALE OF THE TAPE
The Big Play:Even though both teams appear fairly even on paper, the Cougars come in as a clear favorite. They matched UTEP’s overall record despite having the tougher schedule. They fared better in conference play despite being in the tougher league. And as the previous few seasons have shown, coach Bronco Mendenhall know how to put together a winning program. BYU’s advantage means that UTEP will need some kind of game-changing play to pull off the upset. A turnover, a kick return, a deep ball to Adams– something good has to happen to get momentum on the Miners’ side. And they’re capable of doing it. UTEP has a top 15 return game and a bona fide deep threat in Adams. However, if it ends up being BYU that makes the big plays, then UTEP could be out of contention early.
Yes, it’s been an uncharacteristically lousy season for BYU. But don’t forget that this has been one of the best non-AQ programs in football since 2006. All of the Cougars’ losses came against quality opponents– Air Force, TCU, Utah, Florida State, Nevada…even Utah State had flashes of brilliance this year. In contrast, UTEP lost to some very mediocre teams. The Miners just don’t have the overall talent necessary to compete with Mendenhall’s squad.
PREDICTION: BYU 27, UTEP 17