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Big plays bury Miners

SAUL LOEB/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Senior cornerback Gary Love forces a fumble by UTEP's Jahmal Fanner on an Arizona punt during the first quarter of Saturday's game at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats forced three turnovers during the game.
By Brett Fera
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, September 2, 2003

After eight months of offseason speculation, a predicted tenth-place conference finish and three weeks of pre-season preparation, it was another number that the Arizona football team used Friday night to silence its critics ¸ four.

That was the number of plays it took the UA offense to light up the scoreboard and jump out to an early lead over the visiting Miners of Texas-El Paso, with the Wildcats never looking back.

Following months of anticipation as to who would get the start at quarterback for the Wildcats, sophomore Nic Costa drove the UA offensive attack 80 yards in four plays on the opening drive, capped by a 41-yard touchdown pass from Costa to a streaking Ricky Williams, giving Arizona the early 7-0 lead.

"I came up to the line and I didn't know what I was going to see," Costa said. "That was the first time we'd run that formation."

Costa got the offense off and running in style, rolling out on the first play from scrimmage and pushing his way upfield for a 27-yard pickup on the ground.

"It was just good to get out there. I didn't have a lot of nerves," said Costa, who finished with three carries for 33 yards and one touchdown. "I took the first snap and they really didn't cover me, so I was like, ╬Hey, I can use my speed and get going.' I think I might have been able to score if I hadn't been pulled down by my facemask."

Costa and fellow quarterback Ryan O'Hara paced the Wildcat offense with a balanced attack both through the air and on the ground, something the UA didn't see last season after it finished last in the nation in rushing yards per game.

Sophomore tailback Michael Bell, the team's leading rusher last season, teamed up in the backfield with Clarence Farmer, who saw his first action since missing most of last year with a knee injury, and true freshman Chris Henry.

Farmer, the Pac-10's leading rusher in 2001, left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. Yesterday, Mackovic diagnosed the senior tailback as questionable for next week's home contest with No. 13 Louisiana State.

KEVIN B. KLAUS/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Arizona sophomore runningback Michael Bell breaks free from a UTEP defender during the Wildcats' 42-7 victory over the Miners Saturday night. Bell carried the ball 13 times for 119 yards and a touchdown, including a 53-yard breakaway in the second half.

Bell carried the load for the new-look Cats, grinding out 119 yards and one score on just 13 carries, including a long of 53 yards in the second half. Arizona's 217 yards rushing was its best output on the ground in almost two years, since it ran for 258 against Oregon in October 2001.

"The running backs made some great plays," Mackovic said. "Mike Bell had some nice runs, and it is good to see that he is more confident in his running ability."

Seeing a more balanced offense this season should mean less chances for the receivers to touch the ball, but that doesn't bother senior wideout Lance Relford.

"That's a big plus for any team, having the personnel to be able to run the ball and pass the ball." said Relford, who finished the day with 88 yards on three catches, including a 79-yard scoring strike from O'Hara midway through the second quarter. "It makes the defense stay honest."

Relford said he saw no difference between having either Costa or O'Hara in the game at any given time.

"We just do our thing. We run our routes and try to get open," Relford said. "It was great to have both of those guys play tonight, and just to get the cobwebs out. It was just a lot of fun tonight."

The Wildcat defense also came up big at times, holding the Miner offense to just 275 yards while forcing three turnovers. Sophomore safety Lamon Means picked off UTEP quarterback Orlando Cruz in the second, returning it 32 yards into Miner territory.

Senior cornerback Gary Love also forced a fumble on a UA punt, giving Arizona the ball back on the UTEP 21 yard-line.

Costa said despite the team's dominating win on Saturday, they can't take anything for granted with a solid LSU team coming to town next weekend.

"We haven't really done anything yet," Costa said. "We won a football game, but for where we want to go, we want to win a lot of football games and get to a bowl game. I think the guys are going to work a little harder knowing that, ╬OK, we have a game behind us. We played really well. We're excited. We're ready to go. We can beat these guys. We can do this.'"

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