By Craig Sanders
Arizona Daily Wildcat September 3, 1996
The Arizona football team displayed a variety of new offensive formations, two new quarterbacks and six different receivers in Saturday night's 23-3 win against Texas-El Paso, but it was the usual conservative offense and stifling defense that earned Arizona head coach Dick Tomey his 61st win as a Wildcat.
Tomey improved his record to 61-40-4, passing J.F. "Pop" McKale as Arizona's winningest all-time coach in front of 40,388 people at Arizona Stadium. Tomey, who did not celebrate after the win, said the milestone has not distracted him in the least.
"I haven't really thought of it at all," he said.
Tomey got this win the way he had earned most of the others. The Wildcats (1-0 overall, 0-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference), who many expected to go to the air under new offensive coordinator Homer Smith's scheme, remained as conservative as ever, running the ball 66 percent of the time. Senior tailback Gary Taylor led the charge on the ground, gaining 106 yards rushing on 21 carries, while junior Kevin Schmidtke added 46 yards on 11 carries.
Arizona controlled the game from the start, but failed to dominate the scoreboard. Its running game looked strong, its passing game was efficient, if not entirely impressive, and its defense was solid against the run. The Miners (0-1), in fact, did not have a first down in the first half, gaining only 19 yards of total offense.
But how much does that prove against a team that finished 2-10 last season and had one of the worst defenses in the nation?
"That game was pretty much inconclusive," Tomey said. "We're going to play against a lot better defenses. It was a good start, but it was not a game you could get much self-fulfillment from."
The Wildcats did have a decidedly different look to their offense. They elected to receive the opening kickoff, a rare thing in the Tomey regime, but only earned one first down on their first possession. They ran a variety of sets, including a jumbo set with two tight ends and a spread set with three wide receivers. They even ran their third offensive play out of the shotgun.
But it was the defense that really set the tone. On UTEP's first offensive series, it tested Arizona's man-to-man secondary deep. Sophomore junior college transfer Chris McAlister intercepted Leonard Lilja's pass with a leaping catch.
The defense showed it had much in common with the Desert Swarm defenses of past seasons. The line was a wall against opposing running backs, allowing 50 yards rushing on 26 carries, and only nine yards rushing on 13 carries in the first half. In fact, UTEP's leading rusher was quarterback Matt Hickl, who gained 21 yards on two bootlegs at the end of the game.
"There was no pressure on us coming in," defensive lineman Joe Salave'a said. "The pressure comes from reading all of the papers and the magazines. We just need to practice like we play, and we need to love to play the game."
The Wildcats' own offense was nothing spectacular. It totaled 109 yards through the air, seven less than UTEP. Junior quarterback Brady Batten started the game, but was occasionally replaced by backup Keith Smith. Batten finished the game 10-for-18 with one touchdown and one interception. Smith finished 3-for-5 for 24 yards.
"I really didn't know how much I was going to play, but I was ready," Smith said. "The coaches just said, 'Get in there,' and I said, 'Whatever you want, Coach.' I know Brady is still the No. 1 guy."
Arizona's offense did spread the ball around. Seven different players caught passes in the game. Junior wide receiver Rodney Williams and senior tight end Mike Metzler each caught three passes for the Wildcats, including Metzler's 17-yard touchdown reception from Batten in the second quarter. Senior Richard Dice ended with two receptions for 17 yards.
The Wildcats opened up the season's scoring early in the second quarter. After several carries up the middle of the defense, the Wildcats were stopped with a fourth-and-two at the UTEP 5-yard line. Smith got the call, rolled out and raced to the end zone for the touchdown.
Senior Matt Peyton, who handled all three kicking duties, hit his first career field goal, a 52 yarder with 8:43 remaining in the second quarter. Peyton finished 3-for-4 on field goals of 52, 49 and 33 yards.
Tomey said he was content with his team's effort.
"Overall, for a game like that, I'm real pleased," he said. "But you always need to be striving to get better, and we've got plenty of things to strive to get better for next week."