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Laufasa brothers make most of UTEP experience

UTEP running back Jeremiah Laufasa won’t have a chance to carry the ball on Saturday at University Stadium, but he’ll never forget the two times he has. Laufasa, a junior who has been out for the season since tearing his left ACL with damage to the meniscus in Week 3 against New Mexico State, has actually rushed the ball in two games on Branch Field in the past year.

J. LAUFASA: Played in NM Bowl a year ago

J. LAUFASA: Played in NM Bowl a year ago

D. LAUFASA: Inspired by his brother, teammate

D. LAUFASA: Inspired by his brother, teammate

One turned into one of the worst football moments of his life.

“Being in the same stadium, it definitely brought back some bad feelings,” Laufasa said of the Miners’ game against New Mexico in this year’s season opener. “The coaches had talked to me beforehand, and they were excited about getting me a fresh start in that stadium. My first carry, it was kind of a relief. Obviously, the last play of Washington State career wasn’t a great one and I didn’t really get a chance to redeem myself.”

A year ago, Laufasa – then a sophomore walk-on at Washington State – carried the ball for the first and only time in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl with less than two minutes left and his team nursing a 45-37 lead against Colorado State.

The Cougars, who had given up a TD with 2:52 remaining to allow the Rams a glimmer of hope, still looked to have it won after picking up a first down on a third-and-6 play from its own 22, then getting a replay reversal of an apparent lost fumble by quarterback Connor Halliday on the next play.

But on second-and-10 and the clock running with CSU out of timeouts, Cougars’ coach Mike Leach sent Laufasa into the game for his only carry. Laufasa fumbled it away, and this time there was no reversal.

CSU scored and got a 2-point conversion to tie it 45-45 with 33 seconds left. Then Washington State fumbled away the ensuing kickoff. Three snaps later, the Rams’ Jared Roberts booted a 41-yard field goal as time expired and Colorado State had a remarkable 48-45 victory.

After the season, Laufasa transferred to UTEP, where his younger brother, Darrin, was a fullback and his older brother, Corey, was the Miners’ strength and conditioning coach. The Miners petitioned the NCAA for a “compassion waiver,” which they were granted, allowing Jeremiah to play this season without having to sit out a season as a redshirt transfer.

And as fate would have it, Jeremiah was right back at University Stadium for that season opener.

Laufasa had just one carry against the Lobos, gaining 3 yards. UTEP won 31-24.

“Getting a win on that field, even though it wasn’t against the same team, gave me little bit of closure,” he told the Journal this week. “If felt good. Hopefully, we can do the same against a quality opponent this weekend.”

The Miners (7-5) face Utah State (9-4) in Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium.

Jeremiah had nine rushes for 65 yards and a TD and caught one pass for a 30-yard score this season before getting injured. Darrin, a sophomore, started all 12 games at fullback, where he was mostly used as a blocker. He had 41 yards and a TD on the ground and caught four passes for 11 yards and a score.

For both brothers – born in American Samoa – the season was a big-time learning experience because of Jeremiah’s injury.

“It’s been extremely hard; I’d never missed a game or practice in my life,” said Jeremiah, who shares a house in El Paso with both of his siblings. “When you’re practicing, you see the injured guys on the sideline riding the bike, but you don’t realize what they’re going through. It’s a horrible feeling not being able to help your team. It’s frustrating. It motivates me to come back as fast as possible. I want to help.”

Darrin said watching his brother get carried off the field after being injured on a rushing attempt against the Aggies “was difficult. But all that hard work he’s put in has been kind of a motivation for me. Every time that I would kind of start slacking at practice, or if I ever felt sorry for myself, I would think how much my brother would kill to be out here. He’s grinding every day to get back, and I’m excited about being able to play together next year.”

Both of the Laufasas said they are also excited about representing the Miners – who haven’t won a bowl game since 1967 – and American Samoa – an unincorporated territory of the United States in the south Pacific Ocean with a population of around 55,000.

“Oh yeah. I think about that all the time,” Jeremiah said. “Growing up, Polynesian kids and Samoans you don’t really get the opportunity to get off the islands. So when we saw guys like (the NFL’s) Troy Polamalu, we really got inspired.

“Our culture is really strong supporting each other. And when you see guys from American Samoa playing in the NFL, or like (Oregon quarterback) Marcus Mariota, who is Polynesian, win the Heisman, we know now how much it inspires the young kids. We want to do whatever we can to show them they can get off the island and do big things.”

BOISE BOYS: UTEP coach Sean Kugler, who has turned the Miners around in just two years, has an impressive coaching résumé, having been an assistant with three NFL teams from 2001-12 before taking over his alma mater starting the 2013 season.

The only year Kugler wasn’t in the NFL during that stretch of NFL teams – which were the Lions, Bills and Steelers – came when he spent 2006 as assistant head coach/offensive line coach of Boise State. That season, the Broncos registered one of the most dramatic wins in college football history, upsetting Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl to cap a 12-0 season.

Boise State won on a Statue of Liberty trick play for the 2-point conversion in overtime.

“It was one of those games, even though you’re on sidelines, that you know is something special,” Kugler said. “Everything was so electric; we were the underdog team. It was very rewarding as a coach.”

And the 2-pointer?

“I didn’t want to run that play. I wanted to run power, run right at them,” Kugler says. “But everybody executed. It was a great call.”

Kugler has made some great calls this season as the No. 1 man. The Miners were 3-9 the year before he took over and 2-10 last season. But they were the fifth most improved team (plus 5) in the nation this year.

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