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KICKOFF: BYU VS. UTEP

If there's one thing safe to say about tonight's BYU-UTEP game, it's this: The Cougar quarterback - John Walsh or Steve Clements - might just as well show up with a bull's-eye on his chest.

The Miners know that both BYU quarterbacks are virtually untested at the major-college level. And, knowing that, they have no doubt planned to test that inexperience."We expect them to mix-up their defenses and blitz a lot," said Byron Rex, BYU's senior tight end. "If I was a coach, that's what I'd do."

To counter those blitzes, the Cougs are expected to run more than usual. With Jamal Willis, Kalin Hall and Hema Heimuli in the backfield, BYU may have its most talented running-back group ever. And the timing couldn't have been better.

"I think we're going to run the ball quite a bit to start off the year, to take the pressure off the quarterback," said wide receiver Eric Drage.

"If they have the idea they're going to bring everything, let 'em bring it," said offensive tackle Eli Herring. "We'll just shove the ball up the middle, and if they close that off we'll run Jamal on the outside."

BYU's defenders, meanwhile, expect the Miners will try to test the Cougar secondary, which fields only one returning starter.

"Teams will look to pass on us from the get-go," said linebacker Todd Herget. "It's not a matter of question."

"I'm looking forward to them trying to pass on us," said senior safety Brad Clark. "You only have to get one or two picks to slow down that kind of game plan."

Because both teams can answer a lot of questions with this game, it has more significance than the typical season-opener. For the Miners, it's a chance to prove they are legitimate contenders for a WAC title, something they've maintained since last year's season of respectability. It's obvious that fans aren't entirely buying that line, because by late Thursday only 34,000 of 50,000 tickets had been sold. And that after the Miners invested in a TV and billboard advertising blitz with the theme, "Miners, A Meaner Breed."

If they don't show some sign of delivering on that promise, they could lose their fans for the rest of the season.

For the Cougars, whose main goal every year is to win the WAC, this game is already crucial. The conference schedule-makers gave BYU a killer challenge, with road games against UTEP, Hawaii, Wyoming, Air Force and Utah. A loss to open the season wouldn't finish them, but it would certainly put them in a hole.

"It's unfortunate we have to open with a schedule like this," said nose guard Lenny Gomes. "It's a make-it or break-it type of deal."

Any way you look at it, it's a much different situation than BYU was faced with last year. The Cougars opened the '91 season with a proven quarterback but a lot of inexperience at other positions. This year, it's the quarterbacks who may have to be shepherded along for a few games.

"This year the quarterbacks are probably going to make more mistakes than we do," Drage said. "We'll just have to be patient."

The big difference, though, is that the Cougars don't have non-conference games to find themselves.

"We don't have the luxury of losing our first three games," Drage said.

The game starts at 7 p.m. and will be televised live on Channel 5.