Southern Miss got off to a fast start with 16 first quarter points, more than enough for a stout Golden Eagle defense to protect in a 39-7 victory over UTEP on Saturday afternoon in the Sun Bowl.
“Obviously the start wasn’t what we wanted it to be,” UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. “We went in with the direct focus of eliminating turnovers, because I really felt like our defense matched up well against these guys and could hold their own if we didn’t put them in bad situations early in the ballgame. But we had too many costly turnovers, three more interceptions in the game and then the fumble there to start the second half. We’ve got to eliminate those things, we’ve got to be more disciplined with our decision making.”
For the third straight game, the Miners turned it over on their opening possession as Brandon Jones’ interception led to a 41-yard return for a touchdown by Rachuan Mitchell.
That was the first of four turnovers by UTEP, leading to 23 points for the Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss converted two Miner turnovers into nine first-half points in building a 19-0 lead at the break.
The Miners couldn’t get going offensively in the first half, tallying 77 yards and five first downs. Jones made his first career start and was operating behind the Miners’ 10th different offensive line combination in 12 games, as Gamaliel Barboza made his first career start at left guard.
Southern Miss converted a couple more Miner miscues into 14 points in the second half.
UTEP was only able to mount two sustained drives offensively. The first, in the second quarter, produced 54 yards on 12 plays and ended with a 39-yard missed field goal by Jason Filley. The second came at the end of the game, as the Miners moved 58 yards on three plays in 20 seconds and avoided the shutout with a 41-yard TD pass from Jones to Erik Brown.
The UTEP defense was solid for the most part, yielding 378 yards, with 162 coming on two touchdown drives.
A Southern Miss defensive unit that entered the game rated ninth nationally in yards allowed was nearly impenetrable, as the Miners finished with 187 yards and 12 first downs.
Jones completed 11-of-23 passes for 114 yards and rushed 14 times for 29 yards.
“Brandon had some really good games, he did not have a good game today,” Dimel said. “That was disappointing but he showed some good things. Down the stretch here, we had seven offensive linemen healthy for this ballgame. We’re playing guys who haven’t played all year up front. And that makes us more one dimensional in what we do and we can’t establish the run game.”
Southern Miss gained 252 of its yards on the ground, as Trivenskey Mosley ran for 107 yards on 14 carries.
Jamar Smith led the Miners with 11 tackles, and Kahani Smith chipped in with 10. A.J. Hotchkins was credited with nine stops and, with 126 on the season, tied FIU’s Sage Lewis for the Conference USA lead.
The Miners will get some reinforcements back on offense in 2019 and will have to replace some playmakers on defense. They’ll look to build on the progress made in year one under Dimel, when they were competitive in nearly every C-USA game before running out of gas (and bodies) down the stretch.
“I think they’ve really learned how to compete and to stay in ballgames and battle, and be that type of a football team that battles and has pride in what they do,” Dimel said. “So I’ve been very happy with the progress and the buy-in that they’ve had. I brought the guys up on the field at the end of the game and wanted to talk to them about that and what the seniors have done for this program, and how proud I am that they’ve been able to contribute and of where they’ve taken us. Obviously, it’s a development process for us. We had our ups and downs this year. We showed some stretches where we played really good football. Even when we were beat up and battered, we played some really good football. We have taken some steps, but in the end injuries just got to be insurmountable for our football team.”
The Miners concluded the 2018 season with a 1-11 record (1-7 C-USA), while the Golden Eagles became bowl eligible at 6-5 overall and 5-3 in league play.
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While the initial information was provided by either UTEP or UTEP Athletics, it has been reviewed and copy-checked by a Herald-Post editor. In some cases, the text has been reformatted for better readability.