Albuquerque, N.M. • Freshman quarterback Jake Heaps earned the Most Outstanding Offensive Player award after throwing four touchdown passes, senior safety Andrew Rich was the best defensive player after picking off two passes, and freshman receiver Cody Hoffman turned in a career performance with 137 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
But Brigham Young University's 52-24 win Saturday in the fifth-annual New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium, and the beautiful piece of American Indian-made pottery that goes with it, should go to the man who engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in school history.
Naturally, coach Bronco Mendenhall had to dodge not one but two attempts to drench him with water on his way out to accept the trophy after the Cougars dominated UTEP to finish the season with a 7-6 record in front of an announced crowd of 32,424.
As BYU's players, the same ones who trudged off the field in Logan after that humiliating 31-16 loss to Utah State put their record at 1-4, hoisted Mendenhall on their shoulders, a crowd of about 4,000 BYU supporters in the east-side stands chanted, "Bronco, Bronco."
Mister Tough Guy might have even shed a tear.
"This was the continuation of a great thing," Mendenhall said
And to think it started the day after that USU loss, when Mendenhall dismissed defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and put himself in charge of a unit that couldn't tackle, could barely defend the pass and never seemed to be in the right places at the right times.
"These [defensive] guys have a special place in my heart," Mendenhall said.
Heaps surely earned a place, too.
Playing with a fractured rib suffered in the 17-16 loss at Utah three weeks ago, Heaps carved up UTEP's defense from the start, never showing any ill effects from an ailment school officials called a "rib contusion" in the days following the rivalry game.
He finished 25-for-34 for 264 yards and the four TD tosses, while throwing one interception.
"He didn't play like a freshman. He played like a veteran," said UTEP coach Mike Price, who said the Miners (6-7) were their "own worst enemy" and lost their composure after falling behind early.
"BYU, they just kind of methodically did what they do," he said.
Sure, but on defense, the Cougars were uncharacteristically aggressive early, and at one point in the second quarter, the Miners had minus 20 yards of offense, thanks to six BYU tackles for loss.
UTEP's first score, a 52-yard field goal, was set up by a 72-yard kickoff return by Marlon McClure and came after the "drive" lost 13 yards. The Miners finally got their offense going when the score was 31-3, as Trevor Vittatoe threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Kris Adams, who finished with three TD grabs.
Of course, BYU's Hoffman matched that with his third TD catch of the game, a 29-yarder from Heaps at the end of the third quarter. If Heaps was the game's best offensive player, Hoffman wasn't far off.
Another freshman, Joshua Quezada, rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown, part of BYU's 514 yards of total offense. The defense held UTEP to 233 yards, and 55 plays. The Cougars ran 86 plays.
Heaps was taken out of the game in favor of James Lark with 9:48 remaining in the game, having earlier passed Ty Detmer to become the BYU freshman touchdown-pass leader. He finished with 14 after having one through the first seven games.
"Our future looks bright," Mendenhall said, acknowledging he "mishandled" the quarterback situation early in the season by playing both Riley Nelson and Heaps the first three games.
On this day, though, that mistake was seemingly forgiven as the Cougars improved to 11-17-1 overall in bowl games and pushed Mendenhall's bowl record to 4-2.
"I thought that the ability to run the football and protect our quarterback was the difference in the game," he said.
Twitter: @drewjay; @sltribbyu
P IN SHORT • BYU gives itself a winning record for 2010, improving to 7-6 with a New Mexico Bowl rout of UTEP.
KEY MOMENT • The Miners drive to the BYU 3 at the end of the first half but come up empty as the Cougars take a 31-10 lead into the break.
KEY STAT • BYU has seven tackles for a loss in the first half, accounting for minus 67 yards for UTEP.