"It is a pride thing," said coach Mike Price. "We don't have anybody on the team that's been to a bowl game, and that's not good. We're going out the right way, and we want to go out the right way with a win."
The Miners are not only battling the Cougars on Saturday (noon, ESPN) — in a way they're also battling history.
UTEP (6-6) has won its final game only once over the past 23 seasons. A win over BYU (6-6) would mark only the 18th time that the Miners have won at least seven games in a season. This is their first bowl appearance since 2005, and they haven't won a bowl game since 1967. UTEP has been to four bowl games since then, losing all four.
The Miners limp into the New Mexico Bowl having dropped five of their last six games after starting out 5-1. UTEP's stumble down the stretch can be partly attributed to a rash of injuries. Seventeen Miners have missed at least one game due to injury, and at one point, UTEP was playing its fourth-string center. But now, players are feeling rejuvenated.
"The whole team is healthier," said Price. "The biggest change in the last three weeks is getting healthy."
Among the walking wounded is senior quarterback and team captain Trevor Vittatoe, who has been slowed by an ankle injury for half the season and is still not 100 percent.
A four-year starter and UTEP's all-time passing leader, Vittatoe is tied with — ironically — former BYU QB Max Hall in career touchdown passes. One more TD pass would vault Vittatoe past Hall for 18th place in NCAA history in that category. Vittatoe has started 48 consecutive games and is one of 25 seniors on the UTEP roster (only six teams in the nation have more seniors than the Miners).
The Cougars have faced a steady diet of talented, mobile quarterbacks this year and Vittatoe fits that mold, according to defensive lineman Vic So'oto. The Cougars have taken on Washington's Jake Locker, Air Force's Tim Jefferson, Florida State's Christian Ponder, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, Utah State's Diondre Borel and TCU's Andy Dalton.
"He's a lot like what we've seen throughout the year. He's similar to them," So'oto said. "He throws the ball pretty well, but he's better when he runs. The key to stopping their offense is stopping the run and getting after the quarterback."
Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall said UTEP can strike quickly.
"UTEP is capable of big plays. They have good skill players — the quarterback, the running back, their receivers. They have big-play potential. If they're able to get big plays, then their points generated will make it difficult for us to win. If we can eliminate those plays and run the football, then the game will suit us more."
The Cougars are counting on UTEP throwing in some trick plays.
"There will be at least three, maybe five. We're preparing for that many," Mendenhall said. "It might be more. It could be in the kicking game, it could be from an offensive perspective. But that's just part of their offense. We're not even considering them as trick plays. That's just what they do."
UTEP is also dangerous on special teams. Wide receiver Marlon McClure is No. 5 in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 29.8 yards per return. He became the first player in school history to record a kickoff return for a touchdown in back-to-back games against Arkansas and Tulsa — which were the Miners' last two contests.
"UTEP has a really nice returner," Mendenhall said. "He's good on punt returns and kick returns. So we're very cognizant of that."
Mendenhall knows the Miners are focused on finishing strong.
"I expect them to play really hard and be as motivated as we are to prove that maybe they are a better team than 6-6," he said. "Coach Price, you just look at his history and what he has done at UTEP, you can tell they will be well-prepared and have good schemes."
New Mexico Bowl
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
Dec. 18, noon
University Stadium, Albuquerque
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FMNew Mexico Bowl