This is the game San Diego State shouldn't lose if it hopes to win the Western Athletic Conference.
The Aztecs, who have never been 3-0 in the WAC, seek their third straight conference victory when they play Texas El Paso today. The Miners are 0-3, 2-5.
A victory would guarantee SDSU of at least a first-place tie in the WAC with five games remaining. Wyoming, the conference's only other 2-0 team, is at home against Brigham Young today.
Aztec Coach Denny Stolz didn't particularly favor opening with three WAC road games, but winning on the road has changed his mind. After defeating New Mexico three weeks ago, Stolz said that starting on the road with victories was quite pleasing. After this week, SDSU plays four of its last five games at home.
All week, Stolz has tried to downplay what bearing tonight's game might have on the remainder of the season.
"If we win this week, we'll be 3-0 on the road and in first place," Stolz said. "How favorable that is might be your idea, but not particularly mine. If we go 3-0 on the road, I'm happy. We'll go from there."
The Aztecs have won six straight and 10 of 11 overall against UTEP.
However, the one loss is enough to make SDSU think twice about looking past this game. The Aztecs lost their first WAC game at El Paso in 1978, 31-24.
The Miners have suffered more than a decade of doom. Their last winning season was 1970, when they finished 6-4. Since going 4-7 in 1974, they haven't won more than two games in a season. Their record since 1974 is 17-116, highlighted by a 23-16 upset of Brigham Young last year.
Bob Stull, UTEP's first-year coach, seems to have renewed team enthusiasm. At least they have come close to winning.
Air Force had to kick a 42-yard field goal with one second remaining to defeat UTEP, 23-21. The Miners missed a 37-yard field goal into a crosswind in the final minute of last week's 24-22 loss to New Mexico.
"We'll count moral victories if they count in my contract," Stull said. "Otherwise, moral victories don't count. We need real ones."
UTEP opened by defeating Northern Michigan (64-29), losing to Air Force and beating New Mexico State (47-33). The Miners have since lost four straight.
"One of the biggest problems in getting the attitude turned around is getting players to believe in themselves in tight situations," Stull said. "It's not a bad attitude. What I'm talking about is the type of mentality to find ways to win close games and not make the mistakes we do in close games."
UTEP is vulnerable in the secondary, starting three freshmen. Stolz, who never divulges his game plan, would not comment on whether the Aztecs will pass extensively.
The Miners have become a noted passing attack led by quarterback Sammy Garza, who is seventh nationally in total offense and 17th in passing efficiency. UTEP is second in the WAC in passing yardage and fourth in total offense.
SDSU's defense has allowed 64 points and 960 total yards in WAC victories against Utah (37-30) and New Mexico (38-34). Quarterbacks Larry Egger of Utah and Billy Rucker of New Mexico were sidelined with injuries after against SDSU.
"Everybody in this league has a good quarterback," Stolz said. "Unfortunately, they play against us, then disappear in a week or so. This kid at El Paso is a very good football player. Anytime you have a quality quarterback, it means your offense has some pop."
SDSU depends on halfback Chris Hardy, who has rushed for 343 yards in five games. Last season, Hardy rushed for 1,150 yards.
Hardy rushed 19 times for 223 yards and a touchdown in last year's 34-6 victory over UTEP. He rushed 13 times for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 51-2 victory over the Miners in 1984.
"Maybe they come at the wrong time," Hardy said. "Maybe they are in the same situation as last year because I'm due to have a big game. Maybe this is the same spot as the last two years against them. I hope so."
Maybe UTEP is due to win a close game, which wouldn't do the Aztecs any favors.
"We're not worried about what we do to other people as much as we're worried about what we do to ourselves," Stull said. "We're trying to win for us, not to spoil anybody's chances. We've lost two games by four points, so we hope to win one by two points."
Aztec Notes Todd Santos didn't practice Friday but he should start at quarterback tonight, Coach Denny Stolz said. Santos, who broke his right wrist three weeks ago, was held out of practice for some rest, Stolz said. "If he warms up as we anticipate (tonight), he'll go," Stolz said. "I'm happy with his progress. I've also been in this game long enough to know that, coming off an injury, he'll be more suspect than before." . . . Stolz, a first-year coach, contrasting his program with that of UTEP first-year Coach Bob Stull: "He has to build that thing up. This program was in better shape than his. They haven't won many ballgames this year but they've played well." . . . Earlier this year, UTEP quarterback Sammy Garza discussed what it's like playing four years for the Miners. "It's kind of hard," Garza said. "You lose a lot of games. The one thing you do know is if you go to UTEP and don't ever quit, you ain't ever going to quit in anything you do. I guess that's what I've learned." . . . UTEP's only San Diego County player is Steve Casper, a reserve offensive tackle from Torrey Pines High School. . . . Tonight is UTEP's homecoming game. The Miners haven't won a homecoming game since defeating New Mexico State in 1977, 23-21.