This wasn’t a game, it was a 60-minute dare.
Seven times, either San Diego State or Texas El Paso gambled on fourth down plays and went for the first down rather than punt or kick field goals.
SDSU blocked a UTEP punt in the second quarter; UTEP answered with one at a crucial time in the fourth.
You drive, we can drive farther. You stare, we can stare longer.
And you will blink first.
In a game the Aztecs desperately needed in order to cling to their 1991 football lives, they stuck with the Miners and struck for a 28-21 victory.
“I’ll tell you what, I can’t say enough about this team,” SDSU Coach Al Luginbill said. “We’ve had everything go wrong. I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of the way, but they’re going to fight their tails off.”
No team has won the Western Athletic Conference title with two defeats. The Aztecs (5-2, 3-1) won their third consecutive game, surviving a mediocre first half and then rising to almost every challenge in the second.
"(UTEP) is the best football team we have played in our conference at this stage, and that includes Air Force,” Luginbill said.
With at least two bowls--the Freedom and the Copper--showing some interest, the Aztecs are off to their best start since 1979.
Whatever else they may have been missing Saturday, the Aztecs had fight.
“That’s what I think we’ve never had before,” quarterback David Lowery said. “Fight. We don’t want to lose these close games. We’ve lost enough in the last couple of years.
“It’s like the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ song from Rocky. We’ve got it, man.”
Challenges? Freshman Wayne Pittman, subbing for injured freshman sensation Marshall Faulk, broke loose for 149 yards on 28 carries. He had 89 yards by the half, despite missing a large chunk of the second quarter with a lower back strain.
“I knew I was coming back,” Pittman said. “I was hurting and stuff, but I can play hurt. I can’t play injured, but I can play hurt.”
He accomplished that behind an offensive line without 360-pound guard Carlson Leomiti. Redshirt freshman Louie Zumstein stepped in and blasted away at whomever happened to be in his way.
You’ve seen players who say hello to their mothers when the television cameras catch them on the bench during a game? In his post-game television interview, Luginbill said hello to Faulk and Leomiti, both of whom remained in San Diego this weekend.
And those weren’t the only injuries. Starting cornerback Gary Taylor watched in street clothes, and his replacement, senior Zac Stokes, was also out. But yet another freshman, Eric Sutton, stepped up and manned the position.
“All I know is we came in here underhanded and our kids played their tails off,” Luginbill said. “I don’t know about this being a slugfest or whatever else, but we came up big when we had to. We had a couple of breakdowns by our young people in the first half, but I’m really proud of our young kids in the secondary.
“I know we got beat in instances in those spots, but we came up with bigger plays than (UTEP) did.”
Challenges? Lowery, who replaced Cree Morris after the season’s fourth game, is now 3-0 as a starter. He completed 21 of 34 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns Saturday. He completed 13 of 20 passes in the second half--and seven of eight for 70 yards during one 80-yard touchdown drive.
There was Patrick Rowe’s 102 receiving yards--the first time this season the preseason All-American has surpassed 100.
There was Robert Griffith’s blocked punt to set up a first-half touchdown--Luginbill said earlier this week that the SDSU special teams were going to make plays to help win games in the season’s second half.
And then there was an SDSU defensive stand after a blocked punt in the fourth quarter that might have won the Aztecs the ballgame.
It happened with 6:41 left in the game and the Aztecs leading, 28-21. And it was the kind of freaky situation that can kill teams.
SDSU’s punted once, but it was called back because of an illegal procedure penalty. So Jason Savorn attempted another punt, but UTEP’s Otha West smothered the ball and then fell on it.
And the Miners took over at the SDSU 24.
It took one play for quarterback Mike Perez to complete a 16-yard pass to Kevin Caldwell. Miner ball at the Aztec eight-yard line with 6:25 left.
David Miles gained three yards on first down, but that was as far as UTEP would get. Second down was an incomplete pass, a reverse on third down was stopped at the line of scrimmage by Terrill Steen and Perez passed too far in front of Caldwell, who was cutting across the end zone from right to left, on fourth down.
The Aztecs took over with 5:22 left and ran out the clock.
It was the second of two big defensive stands in the half. Earlier, on the first play of the fourth quarter and with SDSU ahead, 28-21, UTEP gambled by going for it on fourth and three from the SDSU 35. Andy Coviello dropped Miles after a gain of one.
But it wasn’t always that decisive. SDSU got off to a rocky start before finally getting untracked. Keith Williams, making his 1991 SDSU debut as a punt returner, fumbled his first attempt after UTEP was forced to punt after its first possession of the game.
Williams called for a fair catch, no Miner was within five yards of him . . . and he dropped it.
The Miners recovered at their own 44 but were forced to punt four plays later.
When SDSU finally got the ball, Pittman settled in like a veteran. During SDSU’s first possession, Pittman carried three consecutive times for 11, 12 and 16 yards. That helped the Aztecs move to the UTEP five, but Lowery was stopped on a roll to his left on fourth and one.
The Aztecs finally scored with 48 seconds left in the first quarter to go ahead, 7-0, when Pittman went five yards.
And they increased the lead a few minutes later when Griffith blocked Ed Bunn’s punt and Chad Provensal fell on it at the UTEP 16. Three plays later, Pittman scored again, this time from the four.
But the Aztecs couldn’t take control. UTEP finally scored on a bizarre 50-yard run that should have been stopped near the line of scrimmage. The Miners had the ball at the 50 when Perez started a dash up the middle. He would have been stopped after about 12 yards, but he pitched to running back Kenny Brown, who wasn’t bothered through the final 38 yards.
SDSU still seemed to be in control, especially when, two possessions later, Lowery and Darnay Scott hooked up on a 45-yard touchdown pass play. That made it 21-7.
But, with less than a minute remaining before halftime, the SDSU defense allowed UTEP to drive 53 yards to close the gap to 21-14. The touchdown came on a seven-yard pass from Perez to Ansel Littlejohn.
That wouldn’t be the last time the SDSU defense suffered a breakdown. On UTEP’s second possession of the third quarter, Perez scampered 27 yards and, four plays later, Perez passed 32 yards to Bishop for another touchdown.
A game that the Aztecs should have been leading by a large margin was suddenly tied, 21-21.
Which gave the Aztecs plenty of time to think . . . of missed tackles . . . of blown coverages . . . and of a failure to take charge.
But Lowery brought them back. In one of the most impressive SDSU drives of the season, SDSU took the ball after UTEP’s touchdown and went 80 yards in 15 plays to go ahead, 28-21.
Lowery diced the Miner defense with ease. He completed seven of eight passes on the drive for 70 yards. Four of his completions, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to Larry Maxey, came on third down.