If this were last year, San Diego State would have won this football game.
Last year, the Aztecs made a habit of winning the close games. Seven of their eight victories a year ago were by seven points or fewer. That was what made them a championship team.
This is another year and clearly a team headed in a different direction.
The Aztecs blew a 14-point second-quarter lead, then rallied, only to allow a costly turnover that led to the winning touchdown as Texas El Paso defeated the Aztecs, 34-33, before a crowd of 20,744 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium Saturday night.
Harold Collins, a senior wide receiver who attended Palomar College, caught the winning touchdown on a 24-yard pass play from quarterback Pat Hegarty with 2:19 to play. The catch came two plays after Doug Morgan, a sophomore linebacker, recovered a fumble by SDSU quarterback Todd Santos at the SDSU 26.
The victory kept the Miners in a tie with Wyoming for first place in the Western Athletic Conference at 3-0, and it raised their overall record to 4-1, matching their best start since 1965. It was the Miners' first victory in seven tries in San Diego and marked the first time they are off to a 3-0 start in the WAC.
The Aztecs lost for the fourth time in a row and dropped to 1-3 in the WAC and 1-5 overall. Not since the 1980 team started 1-8 on the way to a 4-8 finish have the Aztecs started so poorly.
It appeared that the Aztecs would win this game until things fell apart for them in the final three minutes.
The Aztecs were leading, 33-28, with three minutes left when Santos started to scramble from his 46-yard line. He first headed up field, then went all the way to left sideline, dodging two UTEP players, before reversing field.
He was hit by Morgan and Jeb Moseley and fumbled. The ball rolled backward and Morgan recovered.
"It was a tough break at the end," SDSU Coach Denny Stolz said. "That decided the ballgame. Todd should have protected the ball better. When you make plays scrambling, there is a tendency to try to do more. They caught up with him this time."
After John Harvey carried for a two-yard gain, Hegarty hooked up with Collins.
" It was a play we've scored on before," UTEP Coach Bob Stoll said. "They had a blitz on. Actually we were trying to hit Luther Jones out of the backfield, but they played man coverage in the post. Hegarty made nice throw; Collins made nice catch. Any time you play that (a blitz), it's all or nothing."
The turnover at the end overshadowed the best game by a SDSU running back this season as Paul Hewitt gained 149 yards on 31 carries and scored three touchdowns. Hewitt scored on runs of 12 and 1 yards and on a 12-yard touchdown pass.
Santos completed 21 of 37 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. It was the second game in a row he failed to throw for at least 200 yards. He must average 259 yards in the Aztecs' last six games to break the NCAA Division I-A career passing mark of 10,623 yards set by Kevin Sweeney of Fresno State.
The Miners quickly took control in the second half behind the running of John Harvey, a junior tailback from Spring Valley, N.Y.
Harvey, who entered the game as the school's all-time touchdown leader with 26, added two in the first 6:39 of the second half. Harvey scored on runs of 28 and 4 yards. But UTEP failed on both two-point conversion attempts and led, 25-24, with 8:21 left in the third quarter.
The Aztecs countered with what had been a sleeping weapon--the foot of Tyler Ackerson, a junior transfer from Southwestern College. Ackerson had been hailed as the answer to SDSU's kicking problems, but until Saturday night, he hadn't had much of a chance, having attempted just three field goals and made two.
But he made a 32-yarder in the second quarter and added a 33-yarder in the third quarter to put the Aztecs on top, 27-25, with 5:20 left.
The lead was quickly erased, however, when his UTEP counterpart, Hugo Castellanos, connected on a career-best 51-yarder with 2:12 remaining in the period. It was his third field goal of the game.
The lead was short-lived, however. The Aztecs marched right back to take a 33-28 lead on Hewitt's 1-yard run with 12:44 to play.
The first half featured two elements of the Aztecs' game that have been almost nonexistent through their previous five games--a running game and defense, or at least flashes of defense.
The Aztecs gained 148 yards rushing in the first half, well above their average of 88.8 yards per game. Hewitt gained 90 yards in 15 carries in the half.
The defense set up the Aztecs' first two touchdowns.
The first score came five plays after Morey Paul, a freshman linebacker from Oceanside High School, recovered a snap fumbled by UTEP quarterback Pat Hegarty at the Miner 36.
Hewitt carried on the next four plays, gaining 30 yards to the UTEP 6 before Santos found tight end Kerry Reed-Martin open at the goal line for a six-yard scoring pass.
After the teams exchanged punts, Hegarty again set up the Aztecs when he attempted to throw across the field to wide receiver Barry Parker. Cornerback Clarence Nunn stepped in front of Parker for the interception, returning the ball two yards to the UTEP 28.
After Santos completed a 12-yard pass to fullback Troy Reed, Hewitt went to work again. He gained four yards to the UTEP 12 before taking a handoff from Santos, crashing through two UTEP defenders and into the end zone for the Aztecs' second touchdown.
Hewitt finished the first quarter with 62 yards in 10 carries. Hewitt started at tailback, although on Friday, Stolz said that Tommy Booker, a freshman from Vista High School, would start for the second week at tailback.
Booker did play briefly in the second quarter before he sprained his left ankle. He had 25 yards in 6 carries. The Aztecs also lost Patrick Rowe, their other Parade All-American recruit, with a sprained right ankle. Rowe, a freshman from Lincoln High, left the game after gaining nine yards on an end-around early in second quarter.
The Miners had trouble getting started, mainly because of poor field position thanks to strong kick coverage and the punting of Wayne Ross. UTEP started its first four drives at its 15, 15, 16 and 13.
The Miners did manage to turn its worst field position into a 44-yard field goal by Hugo Castellanos with two minutes left in the first quarter. The Aztecs answered with a 32-yard field goal by Ackerson to put the Aztecs ahead, 14-3, with 10:43 left in the half as the teams began to trade scores.
UTEP drove for its first touchdown behind the passing of Hegarty, who was 3 for 3 for 59 yards on the drive, and the running of tailback John Harvey, who scored from the three to bring the Miners to within 17-10 with 7:34 left in the half.
Hewitt scored his second touchdown on the next drive on a 12-yard pass play from Santos. Again, Hewitt rolled over two UTEP defenders to reach the end zone and put the Aztecs back on top by two touchdowns.
Then the Aztecs' kickoff coverage that had been so effective broke down. Ricki Lopez, a 5-7, 150-pound freshman from Phoenix, caught Ackerson's kick at the UTEP one and returned it 73 yards to the SDSU 26 before he was run out of bounds by strong safety Harold Hicks.
The Miners had a first down at the SDSU 14 but had to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Castellanos to draw to within 24-13 with 1:06 left in the half.
Derek Santifer, who had not played because of disciplinary reasons since the Air Force game Sept. 19, was used on special teams and as a reserve linebacker. . . . Jeryl Williams, reserve cornerback, left the game after spraining his left wrist in the first half. . . . The Aztecs are at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for the next two weekends, playing Stanford Saturday and Cal State Long Beach in the homecoming game Oct. 24. . . . The Aztecs do not play their next Western Athletic Conference game until Oct. 31 at Hawaii.
NCAA ALL-TIME CAREER PASSING LEADERS
Name School Years Yards 1. Kevin Sweeney Fresno State 1982-86 10,623 2. Doug Flutie Boston College 1981-84 10,579 3. Brian McClure Bowling Green 1982-85 10,280 4. Ben Bennett Duke 1980-83 9,614 5. Jim McMahon Brigham Young 77-78, 80-81 9,536 6. John Elway Stanford 1979-82 9,349 7. Chuck Long Iowa 1981-85 9,210 8. Mark Herrmann Purdue 1977-80 9,188 9. Todd Santos SDSU 1984- 9,070 10. Joe Adams Tennessee State 1977-80 8,649