That's why some pigskin pundits have pointed to Texas' first road trip of 2008 as a potential ambush. The Longhorns are paying their first visit to the Sun Bowl since rallying past Mack Brown's North Carolina club 14 years ago. It's also Texas' first-ever regular season appearance in El Paso, prompting the citizenry to snap-up tickets (including standing-room-only) and circling September 6 as a red letter date on the local calendars.
In short, Saturday is the biggest day in UTEP football history.
That's why the Miners have been priming for Texas since spring football, Brown said. In fact, UTEP's 42-17 loss at Buffalo last week was so unexpectedly lopsided that head coach Mike Price was asked the inevitable question: was his team looking ahead to Texas?
"I just hope Texas isn't as good as Buffalo," he quipped.
Neither Buffalo nor UTEP will be confused with any of the five nationally-ranked teams that suffered season-opening losses over the Labor Day weekend, but the common thread in each setback was turnovers and special teams breakdowns, Brown noted. It's a factor that becomes more pronounced when a young team takes to the road for the first time, he added.
"We've made a huge emphasis of that," Brown said. "Mistakes in the kicking game and turnovers get you beat a lot quicker on the road than it does at home because you can catch up faster. Our guys understand there's urgency there. I feel like our guys have had more of a sense of urgency on the road than they do at home."
Recent history excluded: Texas' last two road games saw the team forced to rally from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit at Oklahoma State before falling at Texas A&M. But this is a Longhorn squad that has since developed some fire in the belly, starting with the Holiday Bowl win and and continuing in Saturday's 52-10 thumping of Florida Atlantic. No small part of El Paso's excitement is the fact that local Burnt Orange denizens can catch their favorite team in their own backyard. The Sun Bowl should be Horn-friendly relative to most road games, but Brown knows his club must maintain its passion and poise to repel what is expected to be UTEP's most spirited effort in recent memory.
Brown has enjoyed tremendous success on the road in venues more hostile than the Sun Bowl, but his youthful club must act like it's been there before.
"I've never taken an airplane to play a football game," freshman starting safety Blake Gideon marveled this week.
Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, they've never played a football game like this. Period.
Sophomore QB Trevor Vittatoe threw for 3,101 yards and 25 TDs last season; he trailed only Oklahoma's Sam Bradford for most passing yards amongst FBS freshman signal-callers. But it was a rocky start for Vittatoe at Buffalo, tossing three INTs while completing 20-of-37 for 199 yards.
Vittatoe operates behind a veteran offensive line that averages 299 pounds; the unit returns its center and left side intact.
"It's going to be exciting going up against a strong offensive line," said senior DT Aaron Lewis, pressed into action this week following Lamaar Houston's DWI arrest. "It will be challenging. They do a lot more man-protection, one-on-one. For us, it's more getting off blocks and making plays."
However, there is little experience in the backfield and scant depth at receiver. Oregon transfer Terrell Jackson will get the lion's share of the totes Saturday. The diminutive RB (5-9, 195), after sitting out last season, rushed for 67 yards on 18 carries in his Miner debut. He also has good hands, notching four receptions in the season-opener.
Vittatoe will look to junior WR Jeff Morturi, who recorded a TD catch in 10-straight games last season. He was also good for 891 yards on 65 catches. The 2007 All-Conference USA pick accounted for 38 yards on five receptions at Buffalo, while senior TE Jamar Hunt led the way with 86 yards on six grabs.
Texas-El Paso's defense ranked No. 117 nationally last season (a whopping 504.8 ypg). Coach Mike Price sought to shore things up with a new coordinator, two new defensive assistants and the 3-3-5 scheme it unveiled Saturday at Buffalo. The result was 484 yards of total offense and three long TD passes. That's why Brown expects some defensive changes this Saturday, but he fully expects UTEP to continue to bring the house.
"Their base defense is to blitz 75 percent of the time," Mack Brown said. "They're all over the place. Since they gave up some big plays (at Buffalo), we'll have to see if they play more zone or blitz less. We'll have to make some adjustments in the first quarter in this game like we did in our first game and come in and do exactly what they did last week."
The Miner defense took a hit during spring football when its leading tackler, outside linebacker Braxton Amy, was lost to a season-ending ACL injury. Otherwise, UTEP returns seven starters from a very bad defense.