New Mexico Bowl: Can shorthanded BYU compete with confident SMU?

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SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai throws to receiver Roderick Daniels Jr. during game against Cincinnati Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Dallas. Mordecai is the real deal and could present problems for the BYU secondary when they meet in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday.

Brandon Wade, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — After a regular season filled with a few unexpected wins and a few unexpected losses, the BYU Cougars play their final game as a college football independent here Saturday, taking on another 7-5 team, the SMU Mustangs, at University Stadium.

Fittingly, BYU enters the 17th annual New Mexico Bowl, the 40th bowl game in its history, with plenty of questions on both sides of the ball. Kickoff is at 5:30 p.m. and will air nationally on ABC.

“Even I don’t know who is going to be taking the first snaps.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on the Cougars’ quarterback situation after acknowledging that starter Jaren Hall is not likely to play

Heck, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in Friday’s formal news conference that he’s not sure how the game will unfold, let alone who will be his starting quarterback.

“Even I don’t know who is going to be taking the first snaps,” Sitake said, when asked which backup quarterback — Cade Fennegan, Nick Billoups or Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters — will fill in for injured starter Jaren Hall, who is with the team but has a right ankle injury and is not expected to play.

Sitake said he told offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick to play whichever quarterback is able to play with poise, confidence and swagger. None of the three has taken a snap this season; QB2 Jacob Conover got a few snaps, but he announced his transfer to Arizona State after the regular season ended.

“One of those guys will be out there,” Sitake said. “Maybe all three.”

Presumably not at the same time, although Roderick is known for pulling out all the stops in bowl games, and he’s obviously been forced to be creative lately, as Hall missed last year’s bowl game as well, a 31-28 loss to UAB.

Meanwhile, SMU has no such issues at quarterback, as Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai pronounced himself “feeling great and ready to play” at the news conference at Isleta Resort & Casino, a 15-minute drive from University Stadium.

“The competitive nature will always be there, no matter what we are doing, especially when you get to play a school like BYU that has played against a lot of great Power Five schools,” Mordecai said, when asked how much a win would mean to the Mustangs.

Sitting alongside Mordecai and head coach Rhett Lashlee, senior linebacker Jimmy Phillips Jr. was more succinct.

“When you get a chance to play a team out of state, out of conference, it is always special,” Phillips Jr. said. “We want to win this game. We will win this game.”

So the scene is set on what will be a frigid night in the Land of Enchantment as the programs that staged the memorable 1980 Holiday Bowl, a 46-45 BYU win, battle for one of the better bowl trophies out there, a hand-painted piece of pottery produced by a local artist. 

Lashlee said he showed his team a four-minute highlight tape of the 1980 Holiday Bowl, which BYU refers to as the “Miracle Bowl.” The programs have met only two other times, BYU winning 31-3 in 1996 and 19-16 in 1997 when they were members of the Western Athletic Conference 

So what is at stake now?

“For us, it is a bigger game to kind of put a capstone on the independence era and finish things off strong,” said BYU defensive end Tyler Batty.

Whether the Cougars have enough horses to make that happen remains to be seen. BYU is clearly the program in flux, and not just because the quarterback who threw for 3,171 yards and 31 touchdowns, with just six interceptions, won’t be under center.

Sitake said Thursday that star receiver Puka Nacua is questionable for the game, and an already-leaky defense will be without second-leading tackler Keenan Pili, who entered the transfer portal as a graduate-transfer two weeks ago.

“We have been to bowl games before,” Sitake said, noting the unusual chippiness of bowl practices. “I think these guys are ready. … During the season they get used to practice, play, practice, play. Now it is practice, practice, finals, fight. I am pretty sure SMU is in the same situation where you are just kinda sick of playing each other. We are really excited to play the game.”

SMU will play without two of its top receivers — Rashee Rice and Dylan Goffney — but BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford said the Mustangs have a “stable of outstanding wideouts” and will still be a “huge challenge” for the Cougars’ secondary.

“It is a break for us that (Rice) is not playing,” Gilford said. “But they have plenty of other guys. Watching the backups play, it is, ‘Oh man, he is good, too.’”

Sitake said he’s watched a lot of SMU film the past three weeks, and his final assessment is this: “SMU is a really good team and much better than their record (7-5) shows.”

One of the better bowl trophies out there.

— Jay Drew (@drewjay) December 16, 2022

Oddsmakers had BYU as a slight favorite when the matchup was announced, but since Hall’s questionable status for the game has been brought to light, the line has moved considerably and now SMU is anywhere between a four- and six-point favorite.

“Our expectation is to go win the game,” Sitake said. “Let’s play our best and then (move forward). It is the players who have to make the plays. Some guys are going to have the opportunity to step up and show what they are capable of doing. I feel really comfortable with the guys that we have.”

Even if he doesn’t know which one of them will start at quarterback.

Cougars on the air

17th annual New Mexico Bowl on the air

BYU (7-5) vs. SMU (7-5)

Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m. MST

University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico


Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM

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