ALBUQUERQUE — Remember BYU's dismal 1-4 start to open the season?
Well, the Cougars made that seem like a distant memory Saturday. Playing in the first bowl game of the year, BYU manhandled UTEP, 52-24, in the New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium.
The Cougars concluded their mercurial 2010 campaign by winning six of their final eight games.
"I think this was a continuation of that same trend, which has been consistent over the last eight weeks or so," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "And it's a great way for this team to finish the season. It's a great way for them to remember the 2010 team and I'm proud of them."
With the win, BYU (7-6) sealed its fifth consecutive winning season under Mendenhall and capped off the year with an impressive blowout of the reeling Miners (6-7).
The bowl's defensive MVP, senior safety Andrew Rich, who had two interceptions and a sack, summed it up best amid the postgame celebration when he said, "7-6 has never felt so good."
Once again, BYU played a complete game, both offensively and defensively. While BYU gained 514 yards on offense, the defense dominated the Miners, holding them to minus-12 yards rushing. The Cougars recorded nine tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and four sacks.
Freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, who revealed that he played with a fractured rib that he had sustained in the Utah game, earned bowl offensive MVP honors by throwing four touchdown passes — three to freshman wide receiver Cody Hoffman. The Cougars also set a school bowl record and New Mexico Bowl record for most points scored (52).
All in all, not a bad way to say goodbye to the Mountain West Conference and head into independence next fall.
BYU came out hungry and aggressive from the start against UTEP, as the defense forced the Miners to punt on their first possession. That was followed by a 43-yard punt return by J.D. Falslev, and a quick score to take the lead.
"I was really impressed with the fast start of our team," Mendenhall said. "I know that they were eager to play."
Midway through the second quarter, the Cougars had seized a commanding 31-3 lead as BYU's offense rolled and the defense aggressively blitzed Miner quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, forcing plenty of mistakes.
"Coach Mendenhall wanted to be aggressive with the play-calling. I think he wanted to send a message that we were going to bring pressure and that we were going to stop the run," Rich said. "When you're able to do that, it puts them in tough situations. That made us vulnerable for big plays, but I thought it was very effective early in the game."
"Right from the get-go, the way our defense set the tone, it was huge," said Heaps.
BYU's offense was balanced and explosive. Heaps led the way, completing 25-of-34 passes for 264 yards and one interception.
"It was a special opportunity. It was a blast to be out there. It was rewarding to send our seniors out right," said Heaps. "As an offense, we've gotten better in each game. We're progressing more and more. We had to regroup and kind of start over when I was named the starter (last September). We're showing what we're capable of on offense."
Asked about Heaps' development, Mendenhall said, "I think you saw more complete play and a little bit more consistency. I think he has a very bright future. He continues to learn how to lead our team, he continues to learn what it means to be the quarterback at BYU. Now he knows what it feels like to win a bowl game at the college level. That's something a lot of first-year quarterbacks don't have the opportunity to do."
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