For one afternoon at least, the University of Utah football team played equal to its early-season promise. The Utes beat the University of Texas-El Paso 37-23 Saturday in Rice Stadium to end a four-game losing streak.
The question now is can Utah produce similar performances against stiffer competition in the coming weeks. The Utes' next three games are on the road - against Air Force, San Diego State and New Mexico - followed by their season-finale against nationally ranked BYU in Salt Lake City.If the Utes, 3-4 overall, 1-3 in league play, play the way they did in the second half of Saturday's victory, they will compete well in their upcoming games. Against UTEP, the Utes made their best offensive showing of the season, producing a season-high 427 yards and 37 points despite a 45-yard, 3-point first quarter.
"Utah was much fresher at the end of the game than we were," said UTEP coach David Lee. "That (bye) week off helped them. As the game wore on you could see they were in better shape than we were."
The Utah offense, sluggish early in the game, responded immediately when quarterback Mike Richmond relieved starter Jason Woods in the second quarter. Richmond threw for 252 yards and three touchdowns in 2 1/2 quarters of play and led Utah to all but three of its points.
"Our philosophy on offense this game was to establish the pass first and then run second, and when Richmond came in we were able to do that," said Ute coach Ron McBride.
The Utes, who entered the game ranked 105th nationally in rushing, also managed to rush for 161 yards. Freshman Brad Foster gained 63 yards on 16 carries. Cliff Smith ran for 32 yards on four carries and caught nine passes for 58 yards.
"Our offensive line was much improved and enabled us to establish our running game," said McBride.
Indeed, Utah's linemen surrendered just one sack Saturday after giving up 25 in the previous six games.
McBride had just one complaint after Saturday's game: "We need to improve our offense within the 30-yard line if we want to continue to improve as a team."
The Utes reached the 32-, 10-, 20- and 16-yard lines, but each time were forced to settle for field goal attempts. Wayne Lammle made three of those four attempts.
The Utes are in good shape heading into the homestretch of the season. The injury list is short. Tackle Mike Murry, who sprained a knee against UTEP, is listed as probable for the Air Force game. Linebacker Anthony Davis, the team's leading tackler, is still not fully recovered from a sprained ankle. He was in and out of Saturday's game and finished with just four tackles.
One of Utah's reserve linebackers took charge against UTEP. Preston Christensen had seven tackles - four of them solos - one pass breakup and one sack, as Utah held UTEP to 388 yards - 133 on the ground - and produced three interceptions and one fumble recovery.