EL PASO — Without a penalty here and a blown opportunity there, San Diego State could have blown the game open Saturday night. But winning difficult is better than not winning at all.
The Aztecs overcame numerous mistakes in defeating Texas El Paso, 15-10, to take sole possession of first place in the Western Athletic Conference.
SDSU is 3-0 in the WAC, all of its victories coming by seven points or less. Wyoming, the conference's only other undefeated team before Saturday, lost to Brigham Young, 34-22.
If there's any question why winning doesn't come easily for SDSU, consider what the Aztecs did to themselves against UTEP:
--They had a touchdown and field goal nullified by penalties.
--They scored just six points off first-half drives to UTEP's 17, 11 and 8.
--They had pass completions to the Miners' 25 and 24 nullified by penalties.
--They had 13 penalties for 100 yards.
"We self-destructed on offense," Coach Denny Stolz said. "We had penalty after penalty after penalty. It was unbelievable. I've never coached a game where I've had that many yards called back. The only thing we could have done worse would be to turn the ball over. Thank God, we didn't do that."
SDSU fumbled once at UTEP's goal line. But tight end Robert Awalt recovered the ball for a touchdown.
There were several strong areas for SDSU.
The defense was exceptional. Quarterback Todd Santos, playing with a broken right wrist, played well. Chris Hardy rushed 33 times for 145 yards. Kevin Rahill made three of four field-goal attempts.
And there was SDSU's last drive. After UTEP kicked a field goal with 5:29 remaining, the Aztecs controlled the ball for the final 13 plays.
"I just told everybody we had to keep the ball from UTEP," Santos said. "We hung in tough and did an outstanding job on one drive."
Santos, who broke his throwing wrist three weeks ago, completed 16 of 25 passes for 183 yards. He said the wrist was a little sore at times but didn't really bother him.
"I thought Todd played a great game having a hurt wrist," Awalt said. "He didn't baby it. He played with a lot of poise."
For the second straight game since allowing 690 yards at New Mexico, SDSU's defense was poised. UTEP quarterback Sammy Garza, who had been averaging 275 passing yards a game, passed for 164.
The Aztecs put a lot of pressure on Garza, often forcing him to throw sooner than he would have desired.
"I think that's how we ought to be playing," said Tim McConnell, SDSU's defensive coordinator. "We didn't do anything revolutionary or innovative. The kids up front are good players, and they played well tonight. If the quarterback has somebody in his face, you'll play good defense."
Levi Esene led a defensive line that sacked Garza four times. Esene had 2 1/2 sacks, Mike Hooper had one and Duane Pettitt had one-half.
Linebacker Randy Kirk was involved on a team-leading nine tackles. And strong safety Steve Lauter had a 44-yard interception return that led to SDSU's only touchdown.
"Give credit to the defensive backs and linebackers for staying with their receivers," Esene said. "They gave us a lot of time to get to the quarterback."
On the Aztecs' first drive, Hardy had a 44-yard touchdown run nullified when receiver Alfred Jackson was called for clipping at the 10. The drive concluded when Rahill kicked a 34-yard field goal.
SDSU drove to UTEP's 11 later in the quarter, only to fail on a third-and-three pass. Rahill kicked a 28-yard field goal.
Early in the second quarter, Santos slipped while retreating to pass on third and goal from the eight. Rahill kicked a 32-yard field goal that was nullified by a holding penalty. He then missed from 37 yards.
Finally, SDSU created a break late in the half. Kirk tipped a Garza pass that was intercepted by Lauter, who returned the ball 44 yards to UTEP's 18. On third and goal at the two, Awalt recovered Hardy's fumble in the end zone.
UTEP scored a touchdown on its first possession of the second half, driving 43 yards after SDSU was penalized for a late hit on the kickoff return.
Rahill kicked a 39-yard field goal with 2:59 left in the third quarter, providing SDSU a 15-7 lead. UTEP's Hugo Castellanos kicked a 34-yard field goal with 5:29 remaining.
Hardy made a key play on SDSU's final drive, catching a nine-yard pass from Santos on third and seven at the 50 with two minutes remaining. Hardy, the game's leading rusher, has rushed for 498 yards the past three years against UTEP.
"The past two years inspired me to have another good game," Hardy said. "The middle of the season is always my time of year. Hopefully, it'll be the same way in 1986. I think I'm due."
The Aztecs, 4-2 overall, may be due for a complete team game. They were offensive-oriented the first four games and defensive-oriented the last two.
"One of these days, the offense and defense will come together," Lauter said. "Then, we'll be unstoppable."