ALBUQUERQUUE, N.M. » One team turned things around after a rough start. The other hit the skids after beginning with much promise.
Now both BYU and Texas-El Paso are looking to end their seasons on a high note today in the New Mexico Bowl, the first contest of college football’s bowl season.
Although BYU (6-6) is playing in its sixth consecutive bowl game and had won at least 10 games five straight years until this season, coach Bronco Mendenhall believes this year’s team can achieve something even greater with a victory over the Miners (6-6).
After the Cougars lost four of their first five games, including a 31-16 defeat at Utah State, Mendenhall gave himself and his team something to shoot for.
"I made a statement that if we were able to go to a postseason game and play well and win the game, it would be a remarkable accomplishment, and one that might be the most fulfilling and gratifying thing that has happened to me since I became the coach," he said yesterday.
The Cougars, who will begin play as a football independent next season, rebounded to win five of their last seven games, closing with a bitter 17-16 loss to Utah in a contest both schools circle every year.
Despite that outcome Nov. 27 in Salt Lake City, or perhaps because of it, BYU offensive lineman Matt Reynolds said his teammates feel they’re better than their record suggests.
"We’ve got a lot more potential than we’ve shown," he said.
While the Cougars turned things around after a shaky start, the Miners went in the opposite direction by losing five of their last six games after a 5-1 start. Still, UTEP held on to secure the school’s first postseason bid since 2005.
"We’re really excited and glad to be here," Miners coach Mike Price said. "That’s the beauty of this game. Both teams have something to prove."
No member of UTEP’s roster has suited up for a bowl game, so it will be uncharted waters even for one of the team’s most accomplished players — quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who postponed surgery on his left ankle so he could experience the postseason.
"It’s kind of the light at the end of the road, all the hard work we’ve put into it, especially for all of the 26 seniors," Vittatoe said. "We’ve been through a lot. It really feels good that all of our hard work is finally paying off."
Vittatoe passed up surgery two months ago and Price marvels at his grit, calling him "the toughest quarterback I’ve ever coached."
Vittatoe, a four-year starter, is UTEP’s career leader with 12,090 total yards, 95 touchdowns, 900 completions and 1,612 attempts.
"He’s unbelievable," Price said.
Vittatoe said his ankle "doesn’t feel very good."
"But my body has gotten used to tolerating the pain," he said. "Playing with it six games this year and playing with it nine games a couple of years ago, I’ve kind of gotten used to it, dealing with the pain. It’s never easy when you have to move around."
Spann leads Huskies rush
Just like Fresno State’s "anybody, anytime, anywhere" mantra, Northern Illinois football has a national reputation. The Huskies are known for talented running backs.
Spann will spearhead the Huskies’ offensive attack against the Bulldogs in today’s Humanitarian Bowl. He has 1,293 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns this season. His 47 career rushing touchdowns are the second most in school history.
Huskies defensive end Jake Coffman said Spann’s size allows him to run at a good pad level.
"He’s very explosive through the line, and he keeps his feet moving," Coffman said. "Even when you think you have him wrapped up … he finds a way to keep his feet moving and spins off."
Fresno State coach Pat Hill has noticed Spann’s ability on film: "He’s a thick, tough downhill runner with the ability to make you miss."
Troy goes for win No. 2
Winning a share of five straight Sun Belt Conference championships has helped Troy build a solid reputation in the South.
Yet the Trojans still wonder how they’re viewed nationally. They’ve been to four bowl games since becoming a full member of the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2002, but have won only one.
Troy (7-5) gets its latest chance to make an impression on a national television audience today when the Trojans play in their third New Orleans Bowl and meet an Ohio program that has risen to prominence in the Mid-American Conference under former Nebraska coach Frank Solich.
Ohio (8-4) came within one victory of playing for the MAC title but fell flat in its regular-season finale, a 28-6 loss at Kent State that snapped a seven-game winning streak. Despite that setback, the Bobcats still have a shot to take their first-ever bowl victory in five tries.
This is the second straight season that the Bobcats have gone to a bowl under Solich. Last year they lost to Marshall, 21-17, in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
The game matches two teams that have contrasting styles and strengths, and which have never played against each other.