Saturday, October 2, 1999
UTEP play for
The two programs have struggled
in recent years, but a resurgence has
given both WAC title aspirations
1999 season special
By Paul Arnett
Texas-El Paso and Hawaii have met many times over the years without first place in the Western Athletic Conference ever being much of an issue.
But with the departure of the Mountain West Conference schools and the resurgence of two programs relegated to the league cellar this last half-decade, tonight's game at Aloha Stadium takes on a whole new meaning.
Like UH head coach June Jones, UTEP counterpart Charlie Bailey has the Miners believing in themselves. Four times this decade, UTEP finished with two victories or fewer, leaving Bailey fighting an uphill battle.
"At times, we've had a hard time getting recruits to take us seriously because of problems in the past," Bailey said. "But we're beginning to see a change in that attitude in recent years."
UTEP won seven games combined in 1997 and 1998, and were close in several others. Last year, the Miners lost four games by only 22 points, proving Bailey is close to turning the corner.
The Miners enter their conference campaign tonight with a 2-2 mark. And while they haven't won in Honolulu since 1991, over the years UTEP has played well here.
"We look at this game as the biggest test since SC," Jones said. The Rainbows lost their opener, 62-7, against the Trojans, but have since rallied to win their last three games. "UTEP has a good football team. We need to keep improving in order to remain competitive."
Bailey believes the Rainbows have already made vast improvements, particularly quarterback Dan Robinson. The senior has passed for 1,166 yards and eight touchdowns, including a long of 80 yards to Attrice Brooks.
He is first in the league in passing yards (291.5 per game) and second in passing efficiency (a 121.9 rating) to Fresno State quarterback Billy Volek.
"You look at him on film and it doesn't look like the same guy," Bailey said. "I attribute that to June and his ability to coach quarterbacks.
"This offense is a good one. It makes you pay for your mistakes in the secondary. If Robinson stands back there and has a lot of time to throw, then we're in trouble because somebody is going to break free."
Bailey is counting on defensive end Brian Young, linebacker Rob Weathers and defensive backs Nick Salinas and Crance Clemons to counter the high-powered offensive attack.
Young leads the team in tackles with 44, including eight for losses. The All-WAC performer has three quarterback sacks, seven hurries and one fumble recovery.
Weathers isn't that far off the pace with 39 tackles and two pass breakups. How well the defense performs will be a key to how the Miners fare tonight.
"They look pretty good on defense," Jones said. "They've also played two tough teams (Oregon and Kansas State) on the road, so I don't think playing here will be much of a factor."
Bailey isn't quite so sure. Because most of the Miners have never been to Hawaii -- plus the distance, time change and the inherent distractions of Waikiki --he believes playing here can prove difficult.
That's one reason the Miners didn't arrive until yesterday afternoon. They will spend tomorrow night in Hawaii and enjoy what the islands have to offer then. But for now, tonight's game is the main course.
"We came here to win a football game and to get off to a good start in the WAC," Bailey said. "Hawaii is a much-improved football team. It's not going to be an easy night for us by any means."
Tailback Paul Smith will try to ease Bailey's concerns. So will quarterbacks Rocky Perez and Jay Stuckey, and prime targets Brian Natkin and Lee Mays.
All five of these guys have helped the Miners improve offensively. Smith has rushed for 488 yards and five touchdowns, Mays has caught 18 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns and Stuckey is rapidly improving under center. He threw three touchdown passes in last week's win over previously unbeaten New Mexico State.
"We believe we have a chance to compete for this thing," Bailey said of the WAC race. "I'm sure Hawaii feels the same way."
When: 6:05 p.m. today
UH vs. UTEP
Where: Aloha Stadium
TV: 9 p.m. on KFVE
Radio: Live on KCCN (1420 AM)
RealAudio: Live Internet broadcast
Tickets: $3-10 UH students; $10 students and seniors; $15 end zone; $17 sideline. Call 484-1122 or 1-800-291-3999.