Freshman quarterback Jake Heaps threw four touchdown passes, connecting with Cody Hoffman on three scores, and finished with 264 yards passing to help BYU beat overmatched Texas-El Paso, 52-24, on Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl.
It capped a big turnaround for the Cougars (7-6), whose 1-4 start included a loss to in-state rival Utah State. At that point, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall told his team it would be a remarkable feat to reach a bowl game and win it. The Cougars won five of their last seven regular-season games to become bowl eligible. In the first game of college football's bowl season, Mendenhall's team showed just how far BYU had come by dominating the Miners (6-7).
Coffman had eight catches for 137 yards, while Joshua Quezada ran for 101 yards and J.J. DiLuigi added 98 yards on the ground to help the Cougars in their final contest before they begin play as an independent in football next season.
Heaps became the first freshman quarterback to start any of BYU's 29 bowl games. For most of the day, he looked like a polished veteran and showed why he was one of the nation's top recruits coming out of high school in the Seattle suburbs in 2009.
He completed seven of his first nine attempts, with both incompletions coming on dropped passes.
The Cougars raced to a 14-0 lead. J.D. Falslev returned the game's first punt 43 yards to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Bryan Kariya. Heaps threw a 9-yard strike to Luke Ashworth, a 31-yard pass to Coffman and made it 31-3 midway through the second quarter on a 3-yard pass to Hoffman.
On that play, Heaps also broke Ty Detmer's 22-year-old BYU freshman record for most passing TDs in a season. Heaps, who finished with 15 touchdown passes on the year, was 25 of 34 with one interception and was selected as the game's most valuable offensive player.
BYU also got two interceptions by Andrew Rich, voted the most valuable defensive player.
UTEP's season went in the opposite direction to BYU's, with the Miners losing six of seven after opening 5-1. They still reached a bowl game for the first time since 2005 but dropped to 0-5 since beating Mississippi, 14-7, in the 1967 Sun Bowl.
Trevor Vittatoe, who postponed surgery on his left ankle just so he could play in the postseason, threw three touchdown passes, all to Kris Adams on plays of 67, 37 and 49 yards. But that was the bulk of the offense for the Miners, whose 233 total yards included minus-12 yards rushing.
Vittatoe was 14 of 29 for 245 yards with two interceptions.
Northern Illinois took out its frustration on the Bulldogs (8-5). Quarterback Chandler Harnish ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, and the Huskies made interim coach Tom Matukewicz a winner in his only game in charge.
Northern Illinois earned a school-record 11th victory by settling a turbulent two-week stretch that started with a loss to Miami, Ohio in the Mid-American Conference title game, then was compounded 48 hours later by the departure of head coach Jerry Kill for Minnesota.
That left Matukewicz in charge for the Huskies. His goal was getting his players to focus for two weeks and not worry about what changes might be coming when Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is done game planning for TCU in the Rose Bowl and becomes the new head coach — with Matukewicz staying on as linebackers coach.
Goal accomplished. NIU won its first bowl game since 2004, and Matukewicz pumped his fists around his jubilant team after getting a water bucket dump in the final minute, which was followed by blowing snow as the Huskies celebrated on the field.
Harnish finished 17 of 25 for 300 yards passing and another 72 yards rushing. It helped his receivers made highlight catches — like Perez Ashford's fingertip grab on the sideline and Willie Clark's mid-route adjustment for 32-yard gain — and Fresno State's defensive line getting no pressure on Harnish.
Running back Chad Spann added 95 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 22 rushing TDs on the season and, for now, put him one ahead of Oregon's LaMichael James for most in the country.
Fresno State continued its troubling postseason trend of playing up against BCS opponents, but struggling against those from non-automatic qualifying conferences. In its last 11 bowl appearances, the Bulldogs are 4-1 against BCS teams and 0-6 against the others.
Ryan Colburn threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns, including an 11-yard strike to Jamal Hamier on Fresno State's first possession. But Colburn was sacked six times — three by Jake Coffman — and the Bulldogs offense couldn't match NIU.
Running back Robbie Rouse, who missed the Bulldogs regular season finale against Illinois after hand surgery, was held to 32 yards with a long of 21.
In its two games on Boise's blue turf this season, the Bulldogs were outscored 91-17.
After failing on fourth down at the Fresno State 31 on their opening possession, the Huskies were not stopped. They scored the next seven times they touched the ball, getting touchdown runs of 7 and 28 yards from Harnish, and a 22-yard TD pass to Kyle Skarb in the final minute of the first half to take a 23-10 lead.
Micahel Cklamovski added a career-best 51-yard field goal on the Huskies first possession of the second half to extend their lead to 26-10. After Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn fumbled at the NIU 11, the Huskies went 89 yards, capped by Spann's 28-yard dash for a 33-10 lead.
Spann added one more, an 8-yard run, early in the fourth quarter to give the Huskies a 30-point lead and set a school record. NIU was finally stopped on its final offensive drive of the night.
Fresno State's offense looked just fine in taking a 7-0 lead when Hamler dragged his toes on the sideline for 11-yard TD. But the Bulldogs offense did very little from there.
The Bulldogs had one last chance to make it a game, driving 72 yards to the Huskies 8 late in the third quarter, but on third down, Colburn was sacked and fumbled, and NIU's Tommy Davis made the recovery.
Fresno State has lost three straight bowl games.