Jake Heaps is BYU's bowl-winning quarterback, and that's no easy feat for a freshman.
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.
While he was one of the nation's top recruits a year ago, Heaps has come a long way from earlier this season when he was sharing snaps with Riley Nelson, who later was injured, and struggling to throw TD passes for the first time in his life.
"But as a group, as an offense, we really stepped it up. We really improved," Heaps said.
Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted he mismanaged the team when Heaps was splitting time with Nelson, whose injury allowed Heaps a chance to develop.
"He has a very bright future and he continues to learn to lead our team," Mendenhall said. "He continues to learn what it means to be the quarterback at BYU and now he knows what it feels like to win a bowl game. That's something a lot of first-year quarterbacks don't have the opportunity to do."
Heaps showed some toughness, too. He disclosed in the interview room that he has had a broken rib since BYU's last game, a 17-16 loss to Utah on Nov. 27.
"Not because I got sacked," Heaps said. "Because I was being a knucklehead out there, running around."
The victory capped a triumphant turnaround for the Cougars (7-6), whose 1-4 start included a rare loss to instate rival Utah State. At that point, Mendenhall told his team it would be a remarkable feat to reach a bowl game and win it.
Mission accomplished after 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 came by dominating the Miners (6-7).
"I'm just really proud of our team. In all facets of the game, we have improved," Heaps said. "It's so rewarding, looking back on this game and the way our season has gone. It has just been a very special season."
Hoffman 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 of those incompletions on drops.
"He was composed," UTEP coach Mike Price said. "He didn't play like a freshman. He played like a veteran. He threw the ball in there very accurately and was tough. He commanded their offense."
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 TD run by Bryan Kariya. Heaps threw a 9-yard strike to Luke Ashworth, a 31-yard pass to Hoffman 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 TD passes on the year, was 25 of 34 with one interception and was selected the game's most valuable offensive player.
"Our offense had to regroup," Heaps said. "We kind of had to start over when I got named the starter because now it was focused around what my strengths were. And this last game, we showed what we're capable of on offense."
BYU also got two interceptions and one of the team's four sacks from Andrew Rich, voted the most valuable defensive player.
Afterward, Rich said Heaps has worked hard to lead BYU's younger players and the older players noticed.
"From my standpoint, he earned it. He worked and worked and worked," Rich said. "And our team worked and worked and worked. It wasn't something magical, where he just started throwing touchdown passes. He worked his butt off."
UTEP's season went in the opposite direction compared to BYU, 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 so he could play in the postseason, threw three TD 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.
"We had opportunities and didn't make plays," said Vittatoe, who was 14 of 29 for 245 yards with two interceptions. "It would have been nice to me if we could have won this game, since it was our one and only opportunity at a bowl game."
(This version CORRECTS BYU 52, UTEP 24. New approach. Corrects to Hoffman in paragraphs 12 and 16)