ALBUQUERQUE — Saturday's first college bowl of the season features a pair of teams hungry to get to seven wins because, to put it bluntly, 7-6 sounds better than 6-7.
Nobody wants to go home a loser.
Both BYU and UTEP had their share of struggles this season. Both had injuries and losing streaks. But when they meet today in University Stadium, it is the Cougars who have more momentum and are favored to defeat this longtime-time WAC rival now planted in Conference USA.
Today's game will be decided in the trenches and by quarterback play. In these areas, the Cougars are clearly superior on the defensive and offensive line with speed and size advantages. And BYU freshman Jake Heaps might have the edge on UTEP veteran Trevor Vittatoe, who will undergo ankle surgery on Monday.
Vittatoe has played half this season with a serious right ankle issue. He is an outstanding quarterback who has thrown 95 career touchdown passes. But Vittatoe's unstable launch off his ailing foundation has messed with his timing, velocity and accuracy, as UTEP ended the year with five losses in the last six games.
"I wouldn't be out there if I couldn't contribute something positive to our offense," said Vittatoe. "If I couldn't bring something, then it would not be right to be out there."
If healthy, Vittatoe would easily have the edge over Heaps at this stage of the freshman's career. Vittatoe ranks 15th on the all-time FBS passing list with 12,194 career yards and is 18th in total offense. He has executed more plays than anybody in UTEP history, including chalking up the most total offense, most total offense per game, most touchdowns responsible for, most passing yards, most passing yards per game, most TD passes, most pass attempts and most pass completions.
With the bad ankle, however, BYU's stunting linemen and linebackers and superior scheme may get to Vittatoe, and the Cougar defenders are more than capable of shutting down the Miners' run game.
UTEP coach Mike Price praises Vittatoe for playing with a bad ankle.
"He doesn't have any ligaments in that ankle right now. But he's a tough kid, he's stuck with it because he wants to win and lead this team," said Price.
Expect the Cougars to pound the ball at UTEP's defense and set up Bryan Kariya, J.J. Di Luigi and Josh Quezada behind the Cougars' big blockers. If that can be established, the Cougars will use Heaps to pick at the Miners' zone defense, which primarily plays a fall-back type coverage.
On passing downs, the Miners' defense, which doesn't blitz often, will try to confuse Heaps with shifting three- and four-man fronts, making him guess what kind of pressure he might see, albeit inconsistent as it has been this season.
BYU's offensive attack will be effective if the run gets rolling and Heaps involves his tight ends in the type of downfield patterns seen late in the game at Utah.
"What it boils down to is execution," said Price. "One team does it better and they have the best chance to win."
Sitting by Price's side at Friday's press conference, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall nodded in agreement.
A key for UTEP might be 26 seniors compared to BYU's 13. This is a hungry Miner team with a lot of pride and Mendenhall respects that.
"They have the capability to make big plays and they are very talented," said Mendenhall.
An advantage for BYU is a roster of players, with exception of true freshmen like Heaps, who have spent their entire careers playing in bowl games. UTEP has no player who has played in a bowl game.
"We want to change our legacy and get our program on the right track by going out winners," said Vittatoe.
Mendenhall sees today's game as a crowning moment for a team that once stood 1-4 before turning things around.
"In many ways, this has been the most enjoyable, most fulfilling and most fun year I've had coaching," said Mendenhall.
It also might be his best coaching job in his career after impacting BYU's defense following a loss at Utah State, when he subsequently fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and took over his duties.
BYU comes into the New Mexico Bowl with a blend of veterans and rookies who are humbled and eager to get a victory — taking nothing for granted.4 comments on this story
Mendenhall told the media he had a 10-win team that lost to Arizona in the 2008 bowl game, so 6-6 versus 10 wins sometimes provides a completely different approach and attitude (more hunger) and he sees that in this 2011 squad.
BYU 28, UTEP 14: BYU's superior play in the trenches will be the difference in consistent playmaking. That, in turn, will give BYU better field position, longer and more successful drives and a better run game. UTEP'S best chance is for turnovers and huge plays with returns on special teams, which is the Miners' strength.