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.
"We didn't demonstrate enough patience that night," Edwards recalled. "It was one of those games where we didn't play well and we got beat."
The Miners took a 20-10 halftime lead and held on the rest of the way.
"BYU had the ball to start the second half," Teicher said. "The Cougars drove all the way down field and scored on their first possession of the second half without throwing a single pass. That was highly unusual given BYU's proclivity for throwing the football.
"The next time they got it, you figured they might stay with the same tactics, but they went to the air against a defense that clearly was giving them the run."
In the wake of UTEP's stunning victory over BYU, rumors surfaced that the Miners had tapped the phone lines connecting Cougar coaches on the sidelines with the coaches in the press box, and that UTEP knew what plays were being called before they happened. It was an accusation that angered UTEP officials.
"First of all, there's no way to tap our phones even if we wanted to," then-UTEP athletic director Bill Cords said at the time. "They're tamper-free. There's a conduit that runs up under the stands to the press box. You'd have to dig it up to break into it.
"… Everyone knows what BYU's going to do anyway. It's just that you can't stop it. It's like trying to steal signals from a catcher in baseball. By the time you do, the ball is across the plate."
After the embarrassing loss at UTEP, BYU crushed Wyoming and Utah State the next two weeks by the combined score of 103-0. The Cougars went on to knock off No. 4 Air Force to tie for the WAC championship. BYU lost to Ohio State, 10-7, in the Citrus Bowl, but it finished with an 11-3 record and No. 16 national ranking.
Twenty-five years later, the Cougars would like to forget that night in El Paso — when UTEP registered one of the biggest, and most improbable, upsets in college football history.
New Mexico Bowl
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
Dec. 18, noon
University Stadium, Albuquerque
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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