Just a week after that brilliant win over nationally ranked Kansas, the 24th-ranked Utah football team nearly laid a giant egg against UTEP Saturday night at the Sun Bowl.
Trailing by 10 points with under 10 minutes left, the Utes scored 17 unanwered points in a six-minute span to take an unlikely 34-27 victory."Our kids find ways to make plays," said Utah coach Ron McBride. "They have a will to win, but we shouldn't have been in that situation. That was the best UTEP team we've seen."
Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala came up big in the second half for the Utes, rushing for 238
yards, including 191 in the second half. It was his career high and the second-best rushing day in Ute history behind Eddie Johnson's 248-yard day in 1984.
"Chris took just over," said McBride. "In the fourth quarter he was an absolute maniac The guy hates to lose. I think he had the mindset that no one could stop him."
"We needed this win and we had to find a way to win," said Fuamatu-Ma'afala. "The line was opening the holes for me tonight."
With the win, the Utes improved to 5-1 and 3-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, while UTEP fell to 2-3 and 0-2.
The Utes appeared dead and buried with 9:28 left in the game after UTEP's Michael Hicks recovered a errant snap on a Ute punt in the end zone to make it 27-17.
But the Utes didn't panic and came back with a 38-yard field goal by Dan Pulsipher and a pair of touchdown runs by Fuamatu-Ma'afala. First, the big Hawaiian rambled 24 yards to tie the score. The after he scampered 61 yards to the 9-yard line, Fuamatu-Ma'afala scored the game-winner from three yards out.
The victory was secured when Dave Richards intercepted a pass with 2:38 left and from there the Utes ran out the clock.
"I got up on a table and started screaming at them. We had to wake up the offense, " said McBride afer an abysmal first half in which they trailed 6-3.
It must have worked because the Utes finally woke up in the second half. They took second-half kickoff and marched 69 yards in seven plays to take the lead on an 18-yard pass from Fouts to Kevin Dyson, who caught the ball between two defenders just over the end line. But Dyson celebrated a little too much and was assessed a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.That proved costly because the Miners got great field position on the ensuing kickoff and started from their own 42. Two long passes and a personal foul penalty aided the Miners who scored on a 3-yard run by Matt Hickl to go ahead 13-10.
Utah had a great chance to re-take the lead after a punt and a personal foul penalty on the Miners gave them great field position at the UTEP 27. However the Utes came up empty when they missed a 43-yard field goal.
Late in the third quarter, the Utes got another chance and this time converted, moving 68 yards in seven plays with Fuamatu-Ma'afala going the final four yards. The big plays were a 15- yard "pass" to Fuamatu-Ma'afala where Fouts threw a two-handed shovel pass as he was being tackled and a 32-yard pass down the sidelines to Kevin Dyson on third down.
But the Ute defense couldn't hold as the Miners came back to take the lead at 20-17 with a methodical 14-play drive. The touchdown play came on 6-yard pass from Hickl to Clifford Johnston on 4th and 1. The Miners faked the Utes out with a dive over the middle and Hickl found Johnston wide open in the end zone. The drive was kept alive by 15-yard pass on third down by Hickl to Cedric Johnson when Hickl flung a pass while falling down that Johnson dove to catch.
Then the Miners went up 27-17 when a bad snap over the head of punter Chris Hunter and was recovered by Hicks for a touchdown when Hunter's attempt to kick it through the end zone for a safety, failed. But like the Utes earlier in the game, the Miners celebrated too much and was very costly to them
The penalty helped give the Utes good field position inside Miner territory and the Utes moved to the 5-yard line before a pair of stupid plays pushed them back. First Fouts lost 12 yards on a broken play and then Fouts ran over the line on a pass attempt and was called for an illegal pass. The Utes had to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Pulsipher.
But on UTEP's first play after the kickoff Joseph Polk fumbled the ball high in the air after a hard hit by Robert Love with Chris Godfrey recovering at the 24. On Utah's first play, Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran untouched for the score.
The Miners had to punt without getting a first down on their next possession and on Utah's first play, Fuamatu-Ma'afala got loose on his 61-yard jaunt.
The Miners had taken a 6-3 halftime lead as their defense, ranked 18th in the nation, dominated the Ute offense. As potent as the Utes were a week earlier in their 45-42 win over Kansas, they were simply inept against the Miners, gaining just 90 total yards with six first downs.
The Utes couldn't do anything as the Miners shut down Fuamatu-Ma'afala inside and defended Fouts well when he tried to pass. Fouts wasn't sharp early as he threw high a few times
while his most reliable receiver, Rocky Henry dropped a couple of wide-open passes.
After Polk ran 35 yards on the first play of the game, the Miners moved all the way to the Utah 16 before stalling and settling for a 33-yard field goal by Jon Olsen.
Utah picked up only one first down in the first quarter and on their first play of the second quarter, Fouts' pass was intercepted by Joe Ricillo and returned to the Ute 49. That led to another Olsen field goal, this one from 37 yards out, making it 6-0 for the Miners.
The Utes finally put together a semblance of a drive in the final two minutes, moving from their own 10 to the Miner 33 where Dan Pulsipher kicked a 50-yard field goal with two seconds left. Two plays earlier, it looked like Fouts had been intercepted in the end zone, but the officials ruled that Rocky Henry had been interfered with, negating the pickoff.
GAME NOTES: The Utes get a bye this week before getting back into action Oct. 19 against TCU at home . . . UTEP plays at TCU this week . . . Pulsipher's first-half field goal was his second-longest, behind a 52-yarder on the same field last year . . . Tight end C.J. Johnson left the game after the second play of the second half in an ambulance with a broken leg. Fouts played most of the game with a bruised arm . . . The last time UTEP defeated a nationally-ranked team was 1985 when it upset BYU . . . UTEP has won only three WAC games in the last three years . . . Utah was missing four defensive linemen who had started this year - Jeff Kaufusi, Ryan Akina, Chad Kauhaahaa and Pene Talamaivao . . . Utah now leads the all-time series with UTEP 23-8.