Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
ALBUQUERQUE — There are a lot of firsts with BYU football and bowl games over the years, plenty of angles to tag with storylines, including a few here at the New Mexico Bowl.
This time, you've got BYU starting a true freshman quarterback in a bowl game for the first time in school history.
Is he ready? If words count, roll out the kid.
Jake Heaps cannot wait for Saturday's kickoff against UTEP here in University Stadium. It's like Christmas came early. After Heaps' first on-site bowl practice at Monzano High School in Albuquerque, shortly after a weather front moved through and temperatures and winds started to howl, Heaps was giddy.
I asked Heaps how it felt, to have this honor. After all, even redshirt freshman Detmer, the 1988 Freedom Bowl MVP, had to come off the bench to lead the Cougars to a 20-17 win over Colorado.
The first words out of Heaps' mouth? This bowl deal isn't about him but about the BYU seniors.
And the kid is sincere.
"It's an exciting opportunity and one I'm really cherishing. We're here to win a game and all I want to do is win one for the seniors and send them out with a winning record," said Heaps.
"They've worked so hard for so many years and have gone through a lot. You just respect those guys and I've been very fortunate to be around them and learn from their stories and examples and leadership. For them to have their last game to be a victory would be sweet."
Heaps finishes his freshman season as the most successful ever for a rookie BYU quarterback, with freshman records in passing yards, pass attempts, pass completions, games started and games won. He needs three TD passes to break Detmer's school mark for freshmen with 13.
Since walking out of Rice-Eccles Stadium in his last game, Heaps has already learned lessons about preparing for a bowl. With a few more days off, final exams, the shuffling in and out of players through tests and practices, it is easy to let things drift.
"The biggest thing is preparation. You've got to do the little things right and not lose your focus," Heaps said. "It's nice to have breaks and do all this fun stuff, but in the back of your mind you have to remember what we're here for and what we want to accomplish.
"I think we've handled this situation well. It's been a great combination of getting rest, keeping our focus, getting healthy and practicing hard."
Heaps said after a disappointing 6-6 season and a dramatic loss to Utah, the Cougars still have a lot of fight in them for the finale against the Miners, an old foe from their days together in the Wacky WAC.
"This is a great opportunity to show how far we've come this year and the improvements we've made," he said. "I think you'll see a lot of fight out of us Saturday."
And what about Saturday, the country's first bowl game, a contest sure to fight for interest with a pair of 6-6 teams, a venue that Fresno State refused to come to when possible matchups were tossed around.
Well, there's no hiding it, this game lacks a lot of luster. No question this Albuquerque Bowl isn't Las Vegas or San Diego and it isn't the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. What it is for both teams is a chance at seven victories — and it could set the stage and tone in the two teams' programs for months to come.
For Heaps, Saturday will be the crowning cap to a long learning curve this season. He took a beating when Florida State's defensive ends laid their ears back and sold out in chasing and sacking him. He became the first QB to lose to Utah State in 17 years. He had to earn the trust of teammates and BYU's staff and he's shouldered criticism as it has come.
He believes he is better for having endured the stripes.
"On and off the field, my leadership has increased significantly," Heaps said, "and that's been a huge part of my growth being the quarterback and taking that role. But on the field, it is the mental part of the game where I've progressed.
"At this stage of the season, I feel very confident I can put the offense in a position where we can be successful no matter what the defense throws at us. The quarterback is the last line of defense, and it's my job to get us in the right situation to win the game."
Why do I think Brandon Doman is this kid's coach?
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