SAN DIEGO — 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.