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IMPROVING Y. READY TO PLAY UP-AND-DOWN UTEP MINERS

SHARE IMPROVING Y. READY TO PLAY UP-AND-DOWN UTEP MINERS

In the LaVell Edwards era, only three WAC teams have come to Cougar Stadium and left victorious - and UTEP isn't one of them.

Ten trips in 19 years, and the closest UTEP has gotten to the at-home version of the Cougars was 31-27 in 1988, the year the Miners went 10-2, played in the Independence Bowl and watched coach Bob Stull leave before the team lost a whole bunch of seniors and sank back into mediocrity.This season the Miners have played respectably, compiling a 3-2-1 record that includes a heartbreakingly close loss to Colorado State, a defeat at the hands of nationally ranked Baylor and a tie with Wyoming in Laramie.

The wins, however, were against New Mexico and New Mexico State, arguably the two worst Division I teams on this planet, and Northwestern Louisiana, a Division I-AA school. And they won those games by an average of just 10 points.

While those results seem somewhat contradictory, they accurately point out what kind of team UTEP has this season - a strong defense that can keep it in just about any game and a struggling offense.

BYU, on the other hand, at least the version of BYU that has been on display in Cougar Stadium the past two weeks, has an offense that is finally starting to mesh and a defense that is stronger than most people expected. In other words, it's a BYU team that is starting to look like a BYU team, and that probably means trouble for the Miners at noon today in Cougar Stadium.

"Utah State was the best we have played all year long as far as a total team effort," Edwards said. "It was definitely our best defensive game of the season. Our first-team defense dominated the game from the start. That's two games that they haven't been scored on, and they're taking a lot of pride in that."

Edwards said his team's plan is to take the run away from UTEP, forcing the Miners to pass - something they have not done much this season. The Cougars have done well against the run the last two games, stifling Air Force's wishbone attack and Aggie running back Roger Grant.

On offense, it's likely the Cougs hope to establish their rejuvenated running attack - rejuvenated by the fact that they are no longer playing Top 25 teams. Also, look for Detmer to throw to his backs a lot. Against UTEP last year, 19 of Detmer's 33 completions were to running backs, and last week his No. 1 passing target was fullback Peter Tuipulotu.

The Cougar offense should be aided by the return of wide receiver Micah Matsuzaki, who missed the last two games with a hamstring problem. Also expected back is freshman running back Jamal Willis, who missed much of the second half against Utah State with leg cramps.

One change in the Cougar squad that might go unnoticed will be the absence of three offensive linemen who left the team this week. Junior Jon Garber started last week but was pulled after four plays when he missed a block on a sweep. Senior Mao Pili and junior David Vimahi also left, but Edwards said Vimahi might be back when he gets some academic problems worked out.

It's not the first time this year that BYU lost offensive lineman. Before the season began, junior John Ashman and senior Kyle Harris quit the team.

UTEP changed offenses last season after a season-ending injury to passing quarterback Howard Gasser, but Lee says the overall package won't be much different from what BYU saw in last year's 30-10 Cougar victory.

"We'll hope our players are bigger, stronger, faster, quicker and can compete with them now," Lee said.

GAME NOTES: When's the last time this happened: Six games into the season, BYU has not had a WAC offensive player of the week . . . Representatives of the Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl, Freedom Bowl and Copper Bowl will be in attendance today . . . The game will be televised live on Channel 5 and replayed on Channel 11 at 9 p.m. Saturday and 10 p.m. Monday.