The Cougar ground game bogged down against Utah in the last regular season game, and BYU will look to improve on that in the New Mexico Bowl. Slowly, but surely, the bulk of the workload is being transferred to Joshua Quezada, and that could continue against UTEP.
UTEP is a defense that can be had on the ground. The Miners operate out of a 4-3 defense that is much more like a 4-2-5 base than a traditional 4-3 base given how they play one of their linebackers.
"They drop one of their linebackers a lot and he honestly plays more like a defensive back than a linebacker from the film I've seen," said quarterback Jake Heaps. "Up front they're a team that plays very hard and I think they've gotten a bit better defensively late in the season."
Two of UTEP's three leading tacklers are defensive backs, which almost always indicates a weak run defense. Against UTEP, opponents have rushed for an average of 181 yards per game and 4.9 yards per rush, giving further indication that the Miners can be had on the ground.
"I think that they all just play hard together," said running back Bryan Kariya when asked about UTEP's defensive strengths. "They all run hard to the ball and I can't really say one specific position group that stands out more than the other, but they just play hard and aggressively."
Folks, I've been doing these previews for a while now, and believe me when I tell you that a defense that "just plays hard" - as cited by a BYU player - is a defense that can be had on most occasions. We ask specific questions about defensive strengths, and when the players can't point out a specific strength, then there isn't much to be concerned with.
BYU's rushing attack will be back in force against UTEP. The Cougars won't be focusing on the run, but will look to run a balanced attack. Look for the ground game to find its stride in the second half should BYU run out to an expected early lead.
BYU passing attack vs. UTEP
Jake Heaps engineered the best and most consistent passing attack against Utah since 2006, so Cougar fans should be very excited with what's in store for the New Mexico Bowl. The offense has finally been opened up, and Heaps is taking every advantage of it.
His teammates have responded, with the tight ends and McKay Jacobson all showing well against Utah. Given almost a month to lick their wounds, the receivers and tight ends should come out strong against the Miners.
UTEP isn't awful in defending the pass, although they can give up yardage through the air against the right team. They give up an average of 223 passing yards per game, with an average of 6.6 yards per attempt.
"They run a defense similar to what we've seen the last few games of the season," observed Kariya. "They're quick and they're good athletes and they play hard. It really comes down to how we execute against them and what we find successful in the game. At this point of the season there isn't going to be a ton of new stuff that we haven't seen already."
UTEP will present a mediocre pass rush, at best, that is given to sit back and play coverage rather than blitz with a lot of frequency.
With Heaps and his passing options seemingly settled in, fans should expect a 300+ yard outing from the Cougar passing attack in this game. Heaps' ribs are a concern, but it doesn't look like he'll be taking a lot of hits, as BYU's offensive line should easily handle the Miner pass rush.
With Jacobson looking to be over his gimpy hamstring, the tight ends becoming a bigger part of the passing attack, and hopefully a resurgent Luke Ashworth, the Cougars should be throwing for big yardage in this game.
BYU rush defense vs. UTEP
The Cougars did a phenomenal job defending the run against Utah until they wore down in the second half. A lot of his was due to Eathyn Manumaleuna having to take almost every rep at nose tackle. BYU should be much better prepared for that this time around, leading to better execution in defending the run throughout the game.
The effectiveness of Andrew Rich's lateral pursuit, coupled with surprisingly good - if not dominant - play from the outside linebackers, have allowed Shane Hunter and Brandon Ogletree to play downhill, which they're both very good at.
UTEP likes to run the football, and the Miners have a very good running option in junior Joe Banyard (6-0, 205), who averages 5.7 yards per rush. Most of his good work came late in the season.
"They're very similar to Utah," said cornerback Brian Logan. "They'll try to run it, but if they can't, then they'll look to air it out, which is where I believe our strength is. If we can't stop the run, then we'll be in a for a long day."
UTEP will also present a running quarterback in senior Trevor Vittatoe (6-2, 220). He's by no means a run-first quarterback, but will run it effectively if nothing opens up downfield.
"He can run it, definitely," said Logan about Vittatoe. "What I like about him though is that he'll look to pass first and mix it with running, but he's always looking to pass first. If he can't throw it though, he'll run it on you."
It's easy to be high on BYU's ability to stop the run these days for the reasons mentioned. They should be able to garner more effective nose tackle play from Graham Rowley now that he's had more practice time at the position, which should lead to Manumaleuna being more effective throughout the game.
UTEP averages 149 yards per game on the ground and an impressive 4.6 yards per carry. The Miners should prove to be about as effective as Utah in running the football, but look for BYU to hold them below their season average.
BYU pass defense vs. UTEP
BYU's pass defense has been very good all season and is probably the best pass defense BYU has fielded since the 1996 season. The Cougar defensive backs are a confident group, and should be able to limit what an average UTEP attack is able to do through the air.
The Miners throw for an average of 221.5 yards per game and 6.7 yards per attempt. Their leading receiver is the 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound Kris Adams, who will be joined by Evan Davis (6-1, 200) and Marlon McClure (5-9, 155) as the primary receiving options.
"All their receivers are extremely talented," observed Logan. "They're tall, fast, quick and they run good routes. All of us, all our corners, safeties, we're excited for the challenge."
UTEP hasn't yielded many sacks this year, which may speak more to their quarterback's mobility than their effectiveness in pass-blocking. BYU had been effective with their blitz packages before being neutralized to a great effect against Utah.
Overall, fans shouldn't expect UTEP to mount a dominant effort through the air. They should expect UTEP to open it up a bit more than they did in the season, given the fact that they're playing in a bowl game.
UTEP is an average football team at best. They're better than the bottom-feeders in the Mountain West Conference, but don't appear to bring much of anything in the way of concern for a Cougar team that ended the season playing very well.
Final Score Prediction: BYU 34, UTEP 13