Stevens: Who Will Lobo Fans Support in NM Bowl -- BYU or UTEP?
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  12/15/2010
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Dec. 15, 2010

The New Mexico Bowl - Noon Saturday - University Stadium

Brigham Young (6-6) Mountain West vs. UTEP (6-6) Conference USA

Tickets: $23, $30; 504-925-5626 or 505-925-5999

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Take your pick of traditional New Mexico Lobo enemies and draw a confusing and maybe crooked line in the sands of one-day loyalty.

The 2010 New Mexico Bowl might be a tough game for University of New Mexico Lobo fans when it comes to deciding which team to cheer for - or cheer against.

You have that ornery I-25 rival coming up from El Paso in the form of the Texas El Paso Miners. Lobo fans don't have any love lost for the Miners over the years and this season those hateful Miners came into University Stadium and put a 38-20 spanking on the Lobos.

UTEP also is the former home of Tim Hardaway, a hoops' guy who owned the Lobos like few before or after him. And remember Don "The Bear" Haskins?

Of course, the other New Mexico Bowl participate isn't going to be on many Lobo Christmas lists either. In fact, there might be no program that turns Lobos into grinches or humbugs more so than those Brigham Young Cougars of Provo, Utah.

The Cougars step into University Stadium on Saturday for the first time this season and maybe for the last time ever. The Cougars are jumping into independent waters, chasing more TV bucks, leaving the Mountain West Conference behind, and even aligning their postseason stars with another bowl game.

Yep, the Cougars are going to dip their paws in the New Mexico Bowl cash and then run away. As if Lobo fans needed any more reasons to not cheer for Cougars on Saturday!

BYU also is the former home of Danny Ainge, a hoops' guy who riled up Lobo fans like few before or after him. And remember ex-BYU hoops coach Roger Reid?

BYU was not kind to Lobos this football season either, as the Cougars threw out a 40-7 beating on the Lobos Nov. 20 on a chilly afternoon in Provo. Don't it hurt to know the Lobos might never get their chance at football revenge?

So take you pick of New Mexico enemies and draw an ironic line of loyalty for one afternoon of postseason football. Maybe you cheer for UTEP in the first half and BYU in the second half? Maybe you can just enjoy an afternoon of postseason ball and not pick a side.

The most important thing is for football fans to show up. The New Mexico Bowl puts our state on the map and that doesn't hurt the Lobos. New Mexico has a bowl game on UNM soil. It's on ESPN. That's pretty cool.

Of course, it would be cooler if the Lobos were strapping on the shoulder pads on Saturday, but it's still an interesting meeting between two of the Lobos' oldest enemies.

These teams should be hot to put on a good show, too. The Cougars, 2-5 early in the season, looked to be light years away from postseason play. They tweaked a few things here and there, added some run muscle up front, started tackling folks, and became one of the better teams in the Mountain West at the close of the season.

BYU won four of five down the stretch including a 17-16 season-ending loss at Utah. The Cougars kind of threw that game away. They led 13-0 going into the final quarter before giving up 17 points, including a last-second winning field goal by Utah.

Still, the score and the game showed how much the Cougars improved at the end and maybe how much the UTEP Miners might be in trouble on Saturday.

BYU sort of soared and powered into a spot in the New Mexico Bowl. The Cougars are on a roll and seemingly loving football. The UTEP Miners, who started off hot, kind of stumbled and limped into the bowl. UTEP has lost five of its past six games and had to pull a minor upset over SMU in El Paso in order to become bowl eligible.

The plus for the Miners is they almost blew their postseason, but didn't. They can earn further redemption on Saturday if that sigh of relief turns into some smash-mouth football.

The New Mexico Bowl is a new and peculiar twist on an old rivalry. BYU and UTEP were once in the Western Athletic Conference along with New Mexico. The two schools haven't met in 12 years and now they get after it on Lobo turf.

Strange days.

BYU has won 20 of the past 22 games with UTEP. If the Cougars can get some fire back into their running game, they might make it 21 of 23. BYU ran for only 65 yards against Utah, but the Utes have a special front line and a solid defense. UTEP? Not so much.

BYU is making its sixth-straight bowl game under Bronco Mendenhall, who used to coach for the Lobos (1998-2002). In some way, it makes perfect sense that a former Lobo coach is coaching a traditional Lobo enemy against another traditional enemy in a game played on UNM grass..

It also seems fitting that BYU starts a freshman quarterback in Jake Heaps. The Lobos had to throw two freshmen QBs into action this year at University Stadium.

Heaps is heaps good. He holds the school records for a freshman in passing yards, pass attempts, pass completions, games started and games won. He is three touchdown passes away from breaking Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer's school freshman record of 13 touchdown throws.

UTEP has a good arm, too. Miner QB Trevor Vittatoe is one TD pass away from passing former BYU quarterback Max Hall for 18th all-time in NCAA history. Vittatoe has tossed for 2,511 yards and 19 TDs. His favorite target is Kris Adams, who has 44 catches for 917 yards and 11 scores. Like BYU, UTEP needs to splash in a ground game. It's important.

So, there you have the New Mexico Bowl in a simplified nutshell. You have a Lobo enemy who started cold and finished hot playing a Lobo enemy who started hot and finished cold. You have them playing for the first time in 12 years on Lobo grass and one of them is coached by a former Lobo coach.

Strange days, indeed.

No matter which team you decide to cheer for on Saturday, remember when the game ends -- and if you are a Lobo -- you probably should skip the drive home to Provo or El Paso and stay in Albuquerque.

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.