Mark A. Philbrick, BYU
PROVO — This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the biggest, and most improbable, upsets in college football history.
It's an anniversary that legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards would rather not commemorate.
On Oct. 26, 1985, the then-No. 7 ranked Cougars — the defending national champions — fell to lowly, previously winless UTEP, 23-16, in El Paso.
Nobody, at least outside of El Paso, probably would have brought up this anniversary, except for the fact that BYU and UTEP, former Western Athletic Conference rivals, are set to meet in the New Mexico Bowl next Saturday.
Asked what he remembers about the night the Miners pulled off that major shocker, Edwards said, "Not a whole lot, except the fact I was upset. At that point, we had only lost one game, and there was some talk that we might be going to the Cotton Bowl or somewhere. That's about all I can remember about it.
"I remember we had a hard time stopping them. I don't even remember the score. It was a case where we just didn't play well. We weren't as prepared mentally as we should have been."
Just how stunning was UTEP's victory? BYU was a 35-point favorite. Consider the Miners had won only 14 games over the previous 11 seasons while the Cougars had won 13 games in 1984 alone. BYU had also won 30 of its previous 31 games, including 25 conference contests in a row over a span covering four years. And just five years earlier, the Cougars had smashed UTEP, 83-7.
"It was a huge surprise," remembers Jon Teicher, the longtime radio voice of UTEP football and basketball, who called that '85 game. "The week before, UTEP played a game at Kent State and got absolutely trounced. They gave up over 50 points. People figured UTEP was in for a winless season. Then to pull that off against a program the caliber of BYU was a complete surprise. … I remember it like it was yesterday."
For former BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco, who led the Cougars to the 1984 national championship, that setback to UTEP marked his only conference loss in two years as a starter. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did tell the Deseret News in 1997 about that game, "It's always been a sore spot in my career. That was a team we should have beat."
After the game, UTEP fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. Yet Teicher doesn't consider that victory one of the biggest in school history. The Miners went on to post a 1-10 record in '85, and coach Bill Yung and the rest of the coaching staff were fired at the end of the season.
"Well, I think it's one of the more interesting wins," Teicher said. "I don't think it's one of the biggest because it was the only game UTEP won that year. It was against the defending national champs, so there was some significance to it, but as far as being a big victory, it was great for that team and the suffering UTEP fans. But in terms of important wins, not really.
"Obviously, it was fun. It's not often you knock off the defending national champs, particularly for a program that was struggling like UTEP was."
So how did the Miners accomplish the amazing upset?
UTEP's defensive strategy involved rushing only two and dropping nine into coverage. It worked, as Bosco completed only 15-of-34 passes for a career-low 151 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. One of those interceptions was returned by Miner defensive back Danny Taylor 100 yards for a touchdown.
"That was the first play that gave everyone a sense that UTEP might pull it off," Teicher said.
The Cougars had success running the ball, as Lakei Heimuli rushed 30 times for 154 yards and a TD, and as a team, BYU gained 298 yards on the ground. But turnovers doomed the Cougars.
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