ALBUQUERQUE Jake Heaps is BYUs bowl-winning quarterback, and thats 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 nations 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 touchdown 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. Thats something a lot of first-year quarterbacks dont have the opportunity to do.
Heaps showed some toughness, too. He disclosed in the postgame interview room that he has had a broken rib since BYUs 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 footballs bowl season, Mendenhalls team showed just how far BYU came by dominating the Miners (6-7).
Im just really proud of our team. In all facets of the game, we have improved, Heaps said. Its 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 BYUs 29 bowl games. For most of the day, he looked like a polished veteran and showed why he was one of the nations 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 didnt 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 games 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 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 Detmers 22-year-old BYU freshman record for most passing touchdowns in a season. Heaps, who finished with 15 touchdown passes on the year, was 25 of 34 with one interception and was selected the games 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 were capable of on offense.
BYU also got two interceptions and one of the teams four sacks from Andrew Rich, voted the most valuable defensive player.
Afterward, Rich said Heaps worked hard to lead BYUs younger players.
From my standpoint, he earned it. He worked and worked and worked, Rich said. And our team worked and worked and worked. It wasnt something magical, where he just started throwing touchdown passes. He worked his butt off.