It's funny because every mini preview or blog post I've read on the matchup instantly dismissed UTEP because of the combined record of the six teams UTEP defeated this season. UTEP as we all know beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff, New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico, Rice and SMU this season. Whereas BYU had their six wins against Washington, San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State, and New Mexico.
Big difference right? Not so fast, hotshot.
Combined Record of Opponents UTEP Beat: 20-51 (39%)
Combined Record of Opponents BYU Beat: 22-49 (44%)
So, BYU didn't exactly roll through the SEC West en route to their 6-6 record either. UNLV is 2-10. Colorado State is 3-9. So is Wyoming. New Mexico, who UTEP also destroyed, ended their season 1-11 of course.
When Miner fans think of New Mexico, we have memories of LaVell Edwards, and prolific passers. That's not the case with this year's Cougars. They start Jake Heaps, a 6'1 freshman quarterback. Heaps has been up and down in his first season. He's completing a decent 55.6% of his passes, not bad considering senior Trevor Vittatoe of UTEP has completed a paltry 54.6% of his tosses this season.
Where Heaps has struggled is with his ability to find the end zone. In his first seven starts, Heaps threw only one passing touchdown. In his last five games, he has improved and tossed 10. It's no surprise that the sudden upswing in his touchdown numbers came when BYU started to play some of the softest defenses in the nation (Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming). Nine of Heaps 11 passing touchdowns this season came against those four teams.
On the ground, the Cougars are led by JJ DiLuigi. DiLuigi is not a power back. At 5'9, 190 lbs., the junior is more of a speed/scat back. He's efficient in the screen game and is consistent out of the backfield but not terribly explosive. He hasn't rushed for more than 100 yards in a game since October 9, 2010 when the Cougars played San Diego State. However, given UTEP's struggles with inferior running backs this season, Di Luigi should be the main focus for the Miners defense as they prepare for BYU. He had 819 yards and 7 touchdowns this season with a healthy 5.2 yards per rush.
When it comes to receivers, BYU simply doesn't have anyone that scares me. DiLuigi, the running back, led BYU in receptions with 42 and receiving yards with 422. BYU didn't have a single wide receiver with more than 400 receiving yards. That's a stunning statistic and it shows that Heaps is not looking downfield as much as we might expect from a BYU quarterback. Miner fans should know the name McKay Jacobson, a wideout from Texas powerhouse Southlake Carroll, who had a nice game against Utah (7 receptions, 92 yards, TD).
We'll know more about BYU as the week goes on but right now I can't get over how similar these two teams are statistically. Total offense, UTEP gains 371 yards a game and BYU gains 355. UTEP scores just over 26 points per game and BYU scores 24. UTEP has an slight edge passing the ball (unsurprisingly with Heaps in his first season) but BYU gets a little bit more on the ground (unsurprisingly considering the injury to Donald Buckram). UTEP protects Trevor Vittatoe a little better than BYU does Heaps.
Defensively, it's not surprising to see a team led by a defensive minded and experienced head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, perform better than a team that switched schemes and hired a new coordinator before the season. BYU will be one of the best defenses UTEP will have faced this season. The Cougars bring the 33rd ranked total defense to Albuquerque and the 21st ranked pass defense.
The Cougars are led by senior defensive back Andrew Rich. Rich does it all for the Cougars. He led the team in tackles with 106 (59 solo) and interceptions (3). He also led BYU with three forced fumbles, a stat normally reserved for a defensive lineman or linebacker. He's a smart player, one of those guys that is always at or near the ball. He was a second team all MWC selection last season.
Miner fans should also watch out for Vic So'oto. The senior defensive lineman leads BYU with 4 sacks this season. BYU hasn't been great a getting to the quarterback which shows how good they are in the secondary. So'oto also had 10.5 tackles for loss and 8 quarterback hurries.
Mendenhall was hired before the 2005 season and was BYU's defensive coordinator before that. He's taken BYU to a bowl game in all six of his seasons and 2010 is the first season since 2005 where he has failed to win at least 10 games. Mendenhall hasn't had a losing season since a 6-7 finish in his first season at BYU.
The Bottom Line
Offensively, BYU doesn't scare me. They don't have the firepower that Tulsa, Arkansas, or maybe even SMU had down the stretch. This game should be similar to that Tulsa game in that UTEP will give up some point to the Cougars but I don't see them giving up 35+. The defense will find a way to keep the score down and again it will be on Trevor Vittatoes and Aaron Price's shoulders to keep UTEP in it. Heaps is a steady hand but isn't as polished, yet, as many of the signal callers UTEP has faced this season. The Miners should be able to gamble a bit on defense and make Heaps use his unproven wideouts to beat them.
The Cougars are a well coached team though with a defense that is good at keeping the score down and forcing other teams to earn everything they get. That doesn't bode well for a UTEP offense that is struggling down the stretch. The Miner will have to establish the running game with Joseph Banyard and Leilyon Myers to set up the passing game. Also, let's not forget that BYU is probably looking down at UTEP a bit here. If the Cougars are overconfident, it will only help UTEP come gameday. After taking a look at BYU I have no doubt that UTEP can make a game of it.