At first glance, it appeared to be a perfect weekend for the BYU football team. The Cougars beat UTEP to improve to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the WAC. Jamal Willis became the all-time BYU rushing leader and the team moved up in the national polls to No. 17 and No. 20 in the CNN/USA Today and the Associated Press rankings respectively.
Plus, the Cougars received a gift from archrival Utah. The Utes' win over Colorado State gave the Cougs control of their own destiny as far as winning at least a piece of the league crown is concerned. If BYU wins its final two WAC games - at home against San Diego State and at Utah - it will add another league title to its collection regardless of what any other teams do.Yet, Saturday night's 34-28 victory in El Paso's Sun Bowl was nothing to get too excited about for BYU.
It's clear UTEP is somewhat improved this year - the Miners have already won one WAC game after going 0-8 in '93. Still, UTEP is a perennial loser that was blown away by Air Force (47-7) and Colorado State (47-9) earlier this season. UTEP was viewing the game as a moral victory of sorts.
"I'm proud of our team," Miner coach Charlie Bailey said. "They didn't quit and they came back in the fourth quarter. The played an entire football game and fought their tails off."
BYU had the Miners on the ropes, leading 34-14 entering the fourth quarter, but couldn't land the knockout punch and the fight ended up going the distance. After the Miners pulled to within six points with 2:17 to play, it took an onside kick recovery and a third-down pass conversion, both by senior receiver Bryce Doman, to hold the Miners off.
A letdown after emotional road wins at Fresno State and Notre Dame could be the reason for BYU's lackluster game. "You can't stay high week to week," BYU coach LaVell Edwards said.
But the ability of the Miners to throw deep on the Cougar secondary has to be a concern - especially since BYU's two remaining conference games are against teams (SDSU and Utah) with strong passing games.
UTEP quarterback Shawn Gray completed just 10 passes in 23 attempts, but each completion went for an average of 22.7 yards and three were for touchdowns. Receiver J.J. Rowlett caught six passes for 170 yards - 28.3 yards per catch.
The BYU secondary has been decimated by injuries this season which may account, in part, for the long passes UTEP was able to complete. Cornerback Dermmell Reed was slowed by an ankle injury and didn't start. Safeties Jack Damuni (shoulder), Cory Cook (knee), Lane Hale (neck stinger) and Jamie Cook (hamstring) have also missed game time due to injury. Walk-ons Hale and Eddie Sampson have gone from not being on the depth chart to starting games this year.
Penalties were another major Cougar problem Saturday. BYU was flagged a season-high 14 times for 130 yards.
BYU will renew an old rivalry this weekend when Arizona State comes to Provo for the first time since bolting the WAC for the Pac-10 in 1976. The ASU game is the first of three consecutive home contests for the Cougars before the season finale at Utah which may decide the WAC championship Nov. 19.
BYU football (7-1)
13 at Hawaii 12
45 at Air Force 21
21 Colo. St. 28
49 New Mex. 47
34 Utah St. 6
32 at Fresno St. 30
21 at Notre Dame 14
34 at UTEP 28
Oct. 29 Ariz. St.
Nov. 5 NE La.
Nov. 10 San Diego St.
Nov. 19 at Utah