The euphoria is over on the border. The optimism that surrounded Texas-El Paso football the past two seasons has faded like a flower on the west Texas desert. UTEP is back to losing again.
The Miners meet Utah Saturday night in the Sun Bowl in a game that pits two 1-4 teams.With the departure of Coach Bob Stull to Missouri, UTEP rested its future in the hands of rookie Coach David Lee, who was hired from an assistant's position at Arkansas last winter.
Lee took over a program high on optimism. UTEP was coming off two straight winning seasons, after 16 losing ones. The Miners had made their first bowl appearance in 21 years.
But now they are back in familiar territory. They opened the season with a 23-14 loss to Tulsa. The following week they knew they were in trouble when they lost at home to Lamar, 21-19. After that came their only victory as they edged lowly New Mexico State - the team with the nation's longest losing streak - 29-27. The win was a tentative one, at best. UTEP avoided ending in a tie by stopping a two-point conversion attempt on the last play of the game.
That was followed by a 43-26 loss to Air Force and a 39-7 defeat at the hands of Arkansas.
The impact of the losses is being felt already. This week at a press conference, UTEP atheltic director Brad Hovious made a plea for support from the community. He said ticket sales had fallen behind projections after just two home games.
The problems UTEP are having are virtually identical to Utah's: defense and blocking. The Miners have allowed a staggering 36 quarterback sacks - twice the number of times Utah's Scott Mitchell has been brought down. In last week's loss to Arkansas alone, quarterback Howard Gasser was sacked 11 times.
"Some of that was my fault," said Gasser. "I didn't get rid of the ball quick enough. The Arkansas secondary was really doing a good job."
Of course, UTEP didn't come into the season without concerns. The Miners lost such talent as tight end Arnie Adkison, quarterback Pat Hegarty, kicker Chris Jacke, starting offensive linemen Robert Pufahl and Sean Kugler and all-WAC running back John Harvey. That left them to patch up with what was left.
"The biggest loss of all was (dropping) Mankato State and Weber State off the schedule," joked Lee before the season.
However, nobody's laughing now. Starting kicker Dominick Cefalone, a junior college transfer, missed a 27-yard field goal that cost the Miners a win. He has been replaced by freshman Jason Gillespie. The already inexperienced offensive line took another hit this week when it was announced that Steve Casper, the teams only returning starting lineman, would have an appendectomy. The surgery will keep him out three weeks or longer.
UTEP's defense is allowing 481.4 yards a game and ranks just below Utah in the national stats. Utah ranks 101st nationally and UTEP 102nd in total defense.
As is the case with Utah, the Miners have fallen behind early and resorted to passing profusely, trying to get back in the games. UTEP is averaging 35 passes a game.