After a disappointing start, BYU is hoping to close out its last season in the Mountain West Conference on a high note.
It’s likely feeling good about facing an old rival.
The Cougars are in the postseason for the 29th time and will take on stumbling UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday.
BYU (6-6), which will become an independent in 2011, lost four straight following a season-opening 23-17 win over Washington. However, the Cougars are going to their sixth straight bowl game after winning five of seven.
“I’m impressed how our football team turned the season around after a slow start,” BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe said. “We are very excited to be playing in the New Mexico Bowl. I am happy for our seniors who fought hard to keep our bowl streak alive.”
The Cougars failed to register a winning regular season for the first time since 2004 after falling to then-No. 23 Utah 17-16 on Nov. 27.
BYU held the Utes scoreless until the fourth quarter, but its four-game winning streak came to an end after Mitch Payne’s 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked with 4 seconds remaining.
“(We’re) really motivated. I think having controlled the Utah game from beginning to end and not winning is playing into it,” said Bronco Mendenhall, who is the first Cougars coach to lead them to a bowl appearance in each of his first six seasons.
“This particular team, from about the fifth or sixth game on, started to find themselves and I think we are going to run out of time before they reach their potential. So with that clock ticking, in addition to wanting to win the last game, I think we’ll end up having a very motivated football team.”
Jake Heaps, who will become the first freshman to start a bowl game for BYU, threw for 228 yards with a touchdown during the regular-season finale, and he is averaging 248.8 yards in his last four games while recording nine touchdowns and one interception.
The defense has also stepped up of late, surrendering 10.3 points over the previous four games after allowing 27.0 in the first eight.
The Cougars have won three of their previous four bowl games, including 44-20 over then-No. 16 Oregon State in the MAACO Bowl last December.
BYU leads the all-time series with UTEP 28-7-1 and has taken 25 of the previous 27 meetings - but the teams haven’t faced each other since 1998, when they both belonged to the Western Athletic Conference.
The Miners (6-6) now represent Conference USA and are the first non-MWC or WAC team to make an appearance in the New Mexico Bowl.
Unlike the Cougars, UTEP got off to a solid start winning five of six, but it finished the season with one victory over its next six.
The Miners, who have posted a 5-7 mark in postseason play, are looking forward to their first bowl game since losing to Toledo 45-13 in the GMAC Bowl on Dec. 21, 2005.
“It means a lot. It gives you another spring ball, 15-20 more practices for our young guys and we’ve been using it for our young players to build on for the future,” coach Mike Price said. “But also, it is a pride thing and it’s been five years for us.
“We’re going out the right way and we want to go out the right way with a win.”
UTEP ranks 15th in the country with a 48.8 third-down conversion rate and has committed 18 turnovers - tied for 33rd-fewest in the nation.
Trevor Vittatoe holds the school record for passing yards (12,194) and passing touchdowns (94), but he’s averaging 155.6 yards and has thrown eight interceptions in his last six games.
Vittatoe completed 8 of 22 passes for a season-low 100 yards in a 31-28 loss to Tulsa on Nov. 20, and he could be in for another long day against a Cougars defense surrendering 187.8 yards per game though the air - tied for the 21st-lowest mark in the FBS.
“We’re excited about renewing our long-standing rivalry with BYU in the New Mexico Bowl,” Price said. “It’s a great opportunity for our fans to drive down for the game, enjoy postseason play and take in the great city of Albuquerque.”
UTEP will be looking for its first bowl victory since defeating Mississippi 14-7 in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30, 1967.