For most of the season, the Utah offense has taken a back seat to the outstanding Ute defense, which has ranked as one of the best in the nation. Saturday afternoon before a sellout crowd at Rice Stadium, the Ute offense finally cranked into high gear as the Utes steamrolled past the UTEP Miners 52-7.
In moving to 8-0 for only the second time in school history, the 11th-ranked Utes rolled up 628 yards of total offense, the fifth-best ever for a Ute team.The convincing Ute victory, along with losses to higher-ranked teams Michigan and Arizona and a tie by Texas A&M, should vault the Utes into the Top 10 in this week's rankings.
"This was our best offensive performance of the season," said a happy Ute coach Ron McBride. "The kids refocused themselves after the Colorado State game. Our execution was excellent."
Quarterback Mike McCoy, running back Charlie Brown and wide receiver Deron Claiborne were the offensive heroes before a Homecoming crowd of 32,620. The Utes raced out to a 38-7 halftime lead, tacked on 14 more in the third quarter before letting the reserves get some valuable game experience in a scoreless final quarter.
Brown, who earlier this year worked his way out of the doghouse, came up with the best game of his career, running for 143 yards and four touchdowns. Three of his TDs and all but 11 of those yards came in the first half.
McCoy had probably his best overall game of the season, completing 25-of-36 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Even the hard-to-please McCoy couldn't find much to complain about in this game.
"Our offense finally got going today," he said. "The offensive line did a great job and the receivers made the big plays. And Charlie Brown was huge. That's the way our offense should work."
Two of McCoy's touchdowns went to Claiborne, who had caught 82 passes over two seasons before Saturday, but only two for touchdowns. He equaled his career total Saturday with a 62-yard reception from McCoy late in the first half and a 9-yarder in the third quarter. He had seven catches on the day as did Curtis Marsh, who also caught a touchdown pass.
Coming into Saturday's game the Utes were worried about the Miners' ability to come back as they had in a victory over Hawaii and a near-win over BYU last week. So the Utes' game plan was to get the Miners down in a hurry and not let up.
The Utes wasted little time putting seven points on the board, moving 80 yards in nine plays after the opening kickoff. McCoy hit Marsh from 16 yards out on the fade route to the right corner, a play that has been a Ute staple all season.
UTEP came right back, moving from its own 20 to the Utah 20. However, on a fourth-down field goal try, a high snap went through the fingers of holder Corey Tucker and the Utes took over. Utah moved down and scored on a 25-yard field goal by Dan Pulsipher.
On the first play of the second quarter, Brown scooted up the middle on a 28-yard touchdown run to make it 17-0. Then, after one of Ernest Boyd's two interceptions on the day, the Utes captialized with Brown going around left end for a 3-yard score.
UTEP then came up with its only scoring drive of the afternoon as J.J. Rowlett caught three long passes from Shawn Gray, the last one a 17-yard diving grab just inside the flag.
When McCoy made one of his only bad decisions of the day, throwing an interception to David Terrell at the UTEP 30, it looked like the Miners might climb back into the contest. But on the very next play, Kareem Leary came up with his sixth interception of the year for the Utes.
Utah added two more scores before halftime, a 43-yard scamper by Brown off the left side with 3:02 left and the 62-yarder from McCoy to Claiborne, down the right sideline with 1:59 left.
On the latter play, McCoy called on audible, as he did on all three of his touchdown passes, when he saw the Miner linebackers ready to blitz and Claiborne left one-on-one.
"That's just Mike - he's a brain out there," said Claiborne. "He's an excellent quarterback."
"We knew they had the possibility of blitzing," said McCoy, shrugging off his audible calls. The Miners never did sack McCoy in the game.
On the first drive of the second half, the Ute offense stagnated for the only time all day as McCoy threw three straight incompletions, forcing Utah's only punt of the day.
But the next two drives went 75 and 70 yards, respectively, as Brown tied a Utah record with his fourth rushing touchdown of the day from one yard out and the McCoy-to-Claiborne touch pass in the left corner of the end zone from 9 yards out.
Ute second- and third-teamers got plenty of action in the final quarter and sophomore running back Tai Lepule opened a few eyes in his first action of the year, rushing for 52 yards on eight carries.
"You can call that just a good, ol' butt whipping" said UTEP coach Charlie Bailey. "They've got an outstanding football team because they're physical, they're strong and they're real quick."
GAME NOTES: Luther Ellis left the game late in the first half with a hyperextended elbow and was kept out of the game as a precaution. "He could have played in the second half," said McBride. . . . The Ute defense played well, holding the Miners to 288 total yards and the WAC's second-leading rusher Toraino Singleton to only 57 yards. . . . Starting linebacker Jeff Kirkman and backup linebacker Nick Petronis led Utah with nine tackles apiece. . . . Safety Harold Lusk went down in a heap early in the third quarter, but it turned out to be a mild sprained ankle and he came back to play. . . . One Ute goal was to cut down on penalties and they did, getting only five for 50 yards, after 14 the week before. . . . The Utes are on the road for two weeks, playing New Mexico in Albuquerque Saturday and Air Force in Colorado Springs the following Saturday.