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Provo • Perhaps never in the history of BYU football has a drive that ended without points, a game that ended without a victory, done so much to elevate the status of the losing quarterback.

As the Cougars work this week to put memories of that 17-16 kick-in-the-gut loss to Utah behind them and continue preparations to meet UTEP in Saturday's New Mexico Bowl (noon, ESPN), confidence in quarterback Jake Heaps has never been higher — from his coaches, his teammates and even the freshman himself.

"He made a critical drive against a good team in a hostile setting, and handled it with a lot of poise and class," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "That's probably the next step of just handling difficult circumstances, and he did it really well."

Quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman said it was the kind of game Heaps can build on in the bowl game, and throughout the offseason.

"He finally played in a game that was as intense and as big of a game that you can play in," Doman said. "We can't create something like that for him. I was real pleased with how he played in those critical situations, and not being affected, and not letting the fans or the score, or the opposing team, affect the way he played.

"It is the first time this year where he has been in that setting, and I was real happy with how he did."

Heaps' performance against the No. 20 Utes — 22-of-37 passing for 228 yards and a touchdown with one interception — also changed some perceptions in Provo among the BYU faithful, so much so that Mendenhall's proclamation before the Utah game that the starting quarterback battle will be reopened next spring was roundly met with bewilderment.

"He can't be serious," was the general reaction on message boards and in e-mails to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Six weeks ago, the notion that Riley Nelson, who started the first three games, would return from September shoulder surgery and again challenge Heaps for the starting job was not that far-fetched. There were whisperings inside and outside the program that Heaps was a bit of a disappointment, especially after he passed for just 81 yards against Wyoming and threw a pick-six that nearly cost the Cougars the win.

But Heaps found his rhythm against some weaker opponents in the ensuing weeks. He validated his improved play against the likes of UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico with an outing worthy of a win against Utah, No. 20 in the country in total defense.

"Well, I mean, it doesn't really get any more hostile than that," he said of his Utah-game experience. "There's not a lot more pressure I could face other than in a rivalry game against Utah. I am not saying that I have experienced everything and nothing new is going to come my way, but at this point I feel confident that I am prepared for the harshest situations, and our coaching staff has done a real good job of preparing me and getting me better."

Still, Mendenhall has said that the job won't be handed to Heaps next spring.

"I think that Jake will certainly have the lead going into it," Mendenhall said. "But to say there won't be others that have a chance to compete for it, I can't say that, because we have good players.

"But I think the job right now, coming out of the season, Jake would certainly be ahead and have the first shot, going into the spring."

In his past four games, Heaps threw for 995 yards and nine touchdowns with just one interception. He brushed off a question about whether the starting job should be his going into spring camp.

"We will go into the offseason, and we will see what will happen from there," he said.

drew@sltrib.comTwitter: @drewjay —

Heaps of Improvement

BYU Quarterback Jake Heaps

First Six Games

Comps Atts Ints Yards Touchdowns

96 177 4 885 1

Last Six Games

Comps Atts Ints Yards Touchdowns

98 168 4 1,167 10 —

Fifth annual New Mexico Bowl

P Where • University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.

Who • BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)

When • Saturday, noon