EL PASO — Two police motorcycles, a police SUV and four buses pulled into the El Paso Airport Marriott parking lot at 5 p.m. Friday. The escorts weren’t scheduled to depart for Sun Bowl Stadium for 45 minutes.
On the sixth floor, Rich Rodriguez and his wife, Rita, were ready. They boarded the lead bus 15 minutes early, as if the week’s theme was LET’S GO in capital letters.
By 5:40, the director of Arizona’s football operations, Mike Parrish, nodded to the waiting policemen. Everyone was in place early; let’s go.
Not only did the Wildcats beat rush-hour traffic to the Sun Bowl, they finished their business before halftime — whomp! whomp! whomp! whomp! — taking a 28-0 lead and putting an end to a prognosis negative that engulfed RichRod’s team after last week’s loss to Houston.
Arizona was almost flawless in the first half, and frankly, given the opponent, it should’ve been. Quarterback Brandon Dawkins completed 12 of 13 passes, and ran for 76 yards. Damage: four touchdowns. The rest of the game was garbage time, or in Arizona’s case, time to relax before the sword-swallowing Pac-12 schedule begins next week.
By game’s end, Dawkins had been involved in six touchdowns.
“Was it six?” he asked outside the locker room. “It was fun.”
Had it been any other way, had not Arizona won with such ease, 63-16, the coming Pac-12 attractions would’ve been viewed as a series of horror movies.
Now, taken individually, Utah, Colorado and UCLA don’t seem unbeatable. Imposing, yes, but rolling over UTEP so thoroughly has a redemptive power.
“They know how much bigger and better it’s going to get next week,” RichRod said.
The lead-up to Friday’s game was among the most unconventional in UA history. The Wildcats eschewed a plane trip and took a bus to El Paso. Early Thursday afternoon, they pulled over at an Interstate 10 rest stop outside of Lordsburg, New Mexico, and ate a catered lunch amid assorted desert critters on the side of the road.
It was hot Thursday, 97 in El Paso and close to that at the I-10 rest stop, but that was nothing compared to the heat the Wildcats felt after losing to Houston.
After studying film of UTEP’s first two games, lopsided losses to Oklahoma and Rice — yes, Rice — Arizona’s coaches surely knew that anything shy of 50 points would be a bad sign. El Paso has been good to Pac-12 teams, very, very, good.
Since Arizona joined the Pac-12 in 1978, UTEP is 0-13 against Pac-12 teams. Total score: 514-176. You schedule UTEP for a reason: to take a breath and heal your psyche before Big Boy football commences.
The only difference is that no Pac-12 team had played in El Paso (in a regular-season game) since 1998, and, after the Miners drew just 22,133 fans last night — the actual in-house attendance was probably closer to 18,000 — you know why.
You can’t make money playing in El Paso, but you can make hay. And this is one time Arizona needed to make hay.
One thing that went unsaid as Dawkins and RichRod’s quarterback rotation was put under a week-long microscope, is that UTEP’s quarterback situation is considerably worse. Starting QB Ryan Metz is injured an unable to play, so the Miners started former Fresno State quarterback Zack Greenlee, who entered the game with a 47 percent career completion percentage.
When Greenlee struggled, UTEP inserted a receiver, Kavika Johnson, at quarterback. He lost a fumbled on his first play, which Arizona converted into a touchdown and a 21-0 lead. The Miners then inserted freshman Mark Torrez at quarterback.
UTEP’s troubles made Arizona’s quarterback situation seemed blessed.
“You could tell Brandon was really serious,” said RichRod.
About the only thing that seemed to bother Dawkins was a giant grasshopper that lingered near an interview area outside the UA’s locker room. He hesitated before taking his position.
The grasshopper was more daunting than the Miners, who just don’t have the Jimmies and Joes to compete with a Pac-12 team. According to Rivals.com, UTEP’s game-day roster had just a single 3-star recruit, redshirt freshman defensive end Keith Sullivan, who doesn’t even start.
As Arizona expanded its lead to 56-16, the Miners had just 17 total rushing yards; Dawkins alone had 143 at that point. UTEP was unable to establish anything.
The night was so free of worry that during a timeout with 10:10 remaining, RichRod stood next to a huddle of offensive players awaiting for play to resume. The song “Cupid Shuffle” by Cupid played over the PA system.
In the huddle, reserve offensive linemen Michael Eletise and Alex Kosinski began to dance.
Maybe the Wildcats should schedule a game in El Paso next year, too.