RENO - Even though it may have been blurry, the University of Nevada football team saw a vision on Saturday afternoon and it involved an orange helmet. Quarterback Rocky Perez threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more as the University of Texas-El Paso scored 28 first quarter points en route to a 45-22 win over the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium.
Perez was 20 of 23 for 323 yards as the senior recorded his first 300-plus yard game in his career. Also for the first time in his career, UTEP running back Chris Porter had over a 100 yards rushing in a game. He finished with 118 yards on 22 carries against a Wolf Pack rush defense that ranks 112 out of 114 Division I-A teams.
With its win over Nevada, UTEP (7-2, 6-0) is guaranteed its first winning season since 1988, when the Miners finished 10-3. In 1998, they went 3-8, and in 1999 5-7, and are now bowl eligible. Nevada coach Chris Tormey uses UTEP as the example that the Wolf Pack program should try and duplicate.
"I told the team after the game that there's a team that four years ago was 2-9," Tormey said. "Then they went 4-7, 3-8, and 5-7. So I think our guys can see that there isn't much separation. We're going to be there."
UTEP scored on its opening drive for the seventh time in eight games after tight end and All-America candidate Brett Natkin caught a 3-yard TD pass from Perez to put the Miners up 7-0.
On Nevada's next possession, quarterback Brett Staninger's pass was intercepted by sophomore D.J. Walker, his fifth of the season and ninth career INT. On the Miners next play, Perez connected with Lee Mays for a 43-yard TD pass as UTEP led 14-0. Mays finished with 9 catches for 156 yards.
Staninger, who was filling in for the injured David Neill, was intercepted again, this time by Trey Merkens, who returned the ball to the Nevada 1. Perez punched in his first of two rushing touchdowns in the quarter to help UTEP jump out to a 28-0 lead. Perez's other TD run followed a Staninger fumble recovered by the Miners. In the first quarter, Perez completed all seven of his passes for 116 yards.
"If we were at full strength and played to our ability in the first quarter, it would've been a different game," Tormey said. "Brett (a former walk on) got off to a rocky start and then played well after the first quarter."
In the second quarter, Staninger threw a 16-yard TD pass to another walk on, T.W. Cunningham, a Lowry High grad, which brought the Wolf Pack to within 28-7. But on its last drive of the half, UTEP went 90 yards on nine plays, capped off by Javier Sanchez's 1-yard TD run that gave the Miners a 35-7 half-time lead.
In the third quarter, Nevada Jesse Twist's scored on a 2-yard TD run and Mike Phillips kicked a 20-yard FG as the Wolf Pack trailed 38-16 heading into the fourth quarter.
Staninger hooked up with Nate Burleson for a 31-yard TD pass less than a minute into the fourth as Nevada trailed 38-22 after missing its second straight 2-point conversion.
"I try to get in the end zone every time I catch it," said Burleson, who finished with nine catches for 140 yards. "The first quarter was tough because all season we've been coming from behind. But as the game went on, I felt like I had them (UTEP) in the palm of my hand."
That's as close as Nevada got as Sanchez scored his second rushing touchdown of the game with 14 seconds left in the game that finished the scoring at 45-22. Staninger completed 21 of 47 passes for 258 yards.
"Coach told us that UTEP didn't happen overnight," said free safety Ronnie Hardiman. "We're going to get there."
Nevada (1-8, 0-6) has now lost its sixth straight game, its longest losing streak since 1964, when the Wolf Pack lost their first nine games of the season.