This Saturday, the college bowl season begins with the UTEP Miners taking on the BYU Cougars in the fifth annual New Mexico Bowl. The two teams were conference rivals in the WAC for nearly three decades, but have not faced each other on the gridiron since 1998. BYU leads the series with an overall 28-7-1 advantage, but UTEP has probably the biggest win in the rivalry over the defending national champion Cougars in 1985. The two schools come into the contest at 6-6, but their paths to those records were very different.
UTEP came into this season with high expectations returning a slew of veteran players including Senior QB Trevor Vittatoe, Senior RB Donald Buckram, and Senior WR Kris Adams from a 4-8 team that lost 5 games by a TD or less. In all, 48 letter winners, and 11 starters returned from that squad.
The season started on a high note as the Miners shot out to a 5-1 record, with its only loss coming on the road to a fully healthy Houston Cougar team. The Miners seemed poised to contend for a C-USA championship as their next three games would be against sub .500 opponents. UTEP wound up losing all three of those game to slide to 5-4 with SMU, Arkansas, and Tulsa still on the slate. The Miners went on to beat the Conference USA West champ SMU, at home, before losing on the road at no. 8 Arkansas, and at Tulsa to end the season.
BYU came into the season with a much younger team, as they said goodbye to standout QB Max Hall, among others, including BYU's all time leading rusher, Harvey Unga after last season. The Cougars entered the year, optimistic, as know one really knew how this team could follow up last year's 11-2 campaign.
The Cougars started the season with Riley Nelson, and freshman Jake Heaps sharing the snaps at QB. Heaps took control of the starting position as Nelson went out with a shoulder injury week 3 versus Florida St. Heaps started out 1-3 with no touchdowns and five interceptions. Since then though, Heaps has been much improved. Over the last five game of the season, the freshman QB has thrown for over 1000 yards with 10 tds to only 2 interceptions .
Junior tailback JJ DiLuigi has also been big for the Cougars this season, picking up where Harvery Unga left off. The 5-9 190lb junior has rushed for 819 yards and 7 TDs on 158 carries. That's good for an average of 5.2 yards per carry.
The Cougars opened up the season with a good win over the Washington Huskies, but stumbled to a 2-5 start after that. In that stretch, were basically 5 blowout losses to Air Force, Florida St., Nevada, Utah St., and TCU. Something seemed to happened after that TCU loss, as the Cougars simply turned it on putting together a winning streak at the perfect time.
They reeled off four straight over Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado St., and New Mexico, just blowing the competition out of the water. The season ended with a heart breaking last second loss to rival, and nationally ranked Utah 17-16, that dropped the Cougs to an even 6-6. Although QB heaps did not perform well in the streak starter against Wyoming, he has been on fire over the last four contests averaging nearly 250 yards a game with 9 TDs to only 1 interception.
UTEP Keys to Success
- The Miners need to stay balanced by running the ball. It seems that at times throughout the season, they would abandon the run and rely solely on the arm of Trevor Vitattoe. This proved to be a mistake, especially in their 3 game skid in mid season. Donald Buckram isn't the same back he was last year, but the Miners still have 3 or 4 talented RBs who can move the ball.
- Control the line of scrimmage. This needs to happen on both sides of the ball. Hopefully time has allowed for the O-Line to heal as they will NEED to give Trevor time to throw, and open up the running lanes to maintain that balance. At the same time, the D-Line needs to get pressure on Heaps and not allow him time to throw. Get the freshman rattled early, he'll fold.
- STOP THE RUN! It's time. The Miner defense needs to buckle down, and make their presence known early. No more letting people run all over you. BYU can easily put up over 200 yards on the ground , but hold them to less than that and you've got a winner.
- THROW THE BALL TO KRIS ADAMS! Another thing that the Miners seemed to just go away from at times. You've got one of the best, if not the best, receiver in C-USA. The guy implanted super glue on his hands this year. Get him the ball!
- RUN THE BALL! The Miners have been very susceptible to the run this year, and have nothing to argue otherwise. Five opponents of the Miners have rushed for over 200 yards, make it six and you have a good shot at winning the game. All five opponents who did it so far, won.
- Take advantage of you matchups. This is big offensive line going up against an undersized defensive front. Give your QB time, and he'll make the throw. He's done it 4 weeks in a row now.
- Don't rely TOO MUCH on Heaps. This may "only" be UTEP, and it may "only" be the New Mexico Bowl, but its a big stage, and he is still a freshman. Take what you can get, don't load him with tough throws. If he gets shaken early, it'll be hard to get him back.