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."
UTEP coach Mike Price was impressed with Heaps. "I like him a whole lot. He didn't play like a freshman, he played like a veteran," he said. "He commanded the offense really well."
BYU rushed for 219 yards as freshman Joshua Quezada gained a game-high 101 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries while JJ Di Luigi had 98 yards and a TD on 20 carries.
"Being able to run the football and be able to protect our quarterback was the difference in the game," Mendenhall said.
Heaps also gave credit to the Cougar offensive line, which gave up zero sacks against UTEP.
"We have the best offensive line in the country," he said. "They've carried us all year long."
The end of the first half and the opening minutes of the second half played key roles in BYU's victory. Late in the second quarter, after UTEP intercepted Heaps, the Miners reached the Cougar 3-yard line but were turned away by the BYU defense as time expired. The Cougars held a 31-10 lead at halftime.
Then, to open the third quarter, the BYU offense drove 75 yards in 6:36 to extend their advantage to 38-10.
"When they came out and put together a fine drive (to start the third quarter), it was difficult to take," Price said.
For Mendenhall, the defense's overall effort was gratifying. He took over as defensive coordinator in early October after firing Jaime Hill, a move that sparked the entire team.
"These guys have a special place in my heart," Mendenhall said of the defense. "I made a very difficult decision eight weeks ago. Our team was struggling and our culture was failing. I didn't really know what else to do, other than immerse myself in the coaching and lock arms with our team and try to provide an example and let them know I was with them. To see them respond the way they have, I don't think they've played a poor game since then."
And they nearly erased memories of that abysmal 1-4 start.