UDLAP football team from Mexico shows mettle in U.S. exhibition

UDLAP marches into San Diego (0:37)

The Universidad de las Américas Puebla football team makes a spirited entrance prior to its game against the University of San Diego. (0:37)

SAN DIEGO -- The team's best offensive linemen dropped his helmet to the floor during halftime Saturday evening, threw down his shoulder pads and let his pants slide to the floor, whatever it took for his body to breathe.

Nearby, a group of linebackers and their position coach gathered around a trainer's table, sharing insights about the opposing tight end, but few ideas on how to stop him.

The head coach then brought his players together in the middle of the room, and they sunk to one knee. Down by 28 points, he urged them to keep playing hard and win the second half. Just as he stepped back to adjourn the meeting, the players emphatically pounded their chests before starting the long walk back to the field.

The scene was typical of hundreds of halftime interactions and pep talks that took place last weekend on college campuses across America, only this one had a unique international layer.

The University de las Americas Puebla football team crossed the border to take on the University of San Diego Toreros in an exhibition game Saturday evening -- 16 days before the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans bring the NFL to Mexico City for the first Monday Night Football game outside the U.S.

The Aztecas eventually lost to San Diego 49-25 putting a blemish on their undefeated season back home. Coaches and players from both sides learned a lot about the other, and all agreed they benefited from the experience, even if it just means learning from mistakes.

"It's a good way to measure the level we have over there, and the level over here," said UDLAP wide receiver Robin Israel Gonzalez Carmona, who delivered the play of the night when he scored on a 99-yard touchdown reception in the game's closing minutes.

There were plenty of other highlights inside 6,000-seat Torero Stadium, where Jim Harbaugh began his head coaching career and turned the program around from 2004 to 2006 before moving on to Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and now Michigan.

On the opening series of the game, San Diego faced a third down near midfield when UDLAP safety Osvaldo Zumalacarregui Taboada blitzed into the backfield and delivered a jaw-rattling sack on quarterback Anthony Lawrence.

Suddenly, the Toreros were tightening their chinstraps.

"They came out and hit," Lawrence said. "They were really physical."

Thanks to a leaping touchdown catch by Jean Claude Madin Cerezo, the Aztecas managed to keep the score tied 7-7 heading into the second quarter. After a rough stretch of 28 unanswered points, the Aztecas responded to the pleas of head coach Eric Fisher at halftime and outscored the Toreros 10-0 in the third quarter. UDLAP got a safety on an errant snap by the San Diego punt team, and later scored on a sliding touchdown grab by Jose Humberto Noriega Montiel, who finished with 12 catches for 96 yards.

Through it all, the team from Mexico never slowed down. That's what San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey said he'll remember most about UDLAP, a private university located in Cholula, Puebla, about 80 miles east of Mexico City.

"They were much better than our players thought they were going to be," said Lindsey, whose team is 7-1 this season in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. "They really fought. I really had great admiration for them. They never quit."

The Aztecas never stopped having fun, either, and their fans never stopped cheering. After his 99-yard touchdown, Gonzalez Carmona looked up from the water cooler, blew kisses to the crowd and took a bow to acknowledge their glee.

Gonzalez Carmona said crossing the border to play a U.S. college team is the perfect barometer for Mexican players and exposes weaknesses that usually don't arise against weaker opponents at home. UDLAP is 9-0 this season against teams in its conference, and most of the wins have been one-sided. He added that the differences between the Aztecas and the Toreros weren't those of size, speed or athletic ability, but rather discipline and detail.

"They didn't make mistakes and we did," he said.

Indeed, that was the most frustrating part of the game for Fisher, a Kansas City, Missouri, native who began coaching overseas with the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe in 2003. He arrived in Mexico City the following year as the athletic director and coach of the American School Foundation, a K-12 private school, and has been in his current position at UDLAP since 2009, amassing a 69-16 record.

"We haven't been hit in the mouth like that for a while," Fisher said after Saturday's game.

Like most college coaches, Fisher wants players who are physically strong and mentally tough and who can remember playbooks and recognize opposing defenses. If he can't find them in Mexico, he knows where to find them north of the border.

Two of his players, Milton Earls and Jordan Brooks, are from the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista.

The idea of playing college football in Mexico never occurred to Earls and Brooks as recently as a couple of years ago.

Neither player was heavily recruited out of high school, so they planned to continue playing at the junior-college level. Shortly after their senior seasons, however, they were invited to participate in an all-star game between San Diego-area seniors and the under-19 national team from Mexico.

UDLAP had recruiters at the game. Afterward, they invited Earls and Brooks on a recruiting trip.

"We were kind of iffy about it at first, because it was playing football in another country, but when we went out there to visit, we had a blast," Earls said. "They offered us full-ride scholarships the same day we went out."

Outside of the usual adjustments college athletes face as freshmen, the biggest challenges for Earls and Jordan have been the language barrier and elevation. UDLAP's home stadium sits at 7,000 feet, about 1,600 feet higher than the University of Colorado's. The Aztecas played near sea level Saturday night, but they climbed way up in competition.

The Aztecas acquitted themselves well against stout competition, and chances are they will be even more prepared next time.