UTEP came oh-so-close to knocking off two-time defending Conference USA champion WKU. But the Miners missed three field goals, and the Hilltoppers escaped with a 15-14 victory on Saturday night in the Sun Bowl.
UTEP (0-6, 0-2 C-USA) turned in its best defensive effort of the season, holding high-powered WKU (3-2, 1-1 C-USA) to 282 yards of offense, including 208 passing. UTEP actually gained five more yards (287) than the Hilltoppers despite playing the last three quarters without running back Quardraiz Wadley, who suffered an apparent knee injury. Wadley finished with 39 yards on seven carries.
“I was real proud of the effort. We played four quarters hard,” said interim head coach Mike Price, who made his return to the sideline after coaching his last game at UTEP in 2012. “The punt return for a touchdown [by Terry Juniel in the second quarter] was a spectacular play called back. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t help the team more in the second half offensively to get touchdowns instead of field goals.”
WKU scored the game’s first touchdown early in the second quarter on a five-yard run by Mike White. The Hilltoppers went for the two-point conversion and got it, as Drew Eckels connected with Deon Yelder in the end zone. That ended up looming large in a one-point game.
UTEP cut it to 8-7 on a 15-yard TD pass from Zack Greenlee to Kavika Johnson, and the Miners took the lead when Greenlee scampered five yards into the end zone shortly before halftime.
UTEP couldn’t capitalize on getting the ball to start the third quarter and the Hilltoppers took advantage, moving 80 yards on 13 plays and surging ahead 15-14 on a one-yard run by White.
That turned out to be the final score of the game, although the Miners had their chances. They moved deep into Hilltopper territory twice in the second half, but Brady Viles missed a 47-yard field goal late in the third quarter, and a 41-yard field goal with 2:01 to go. Earlier in the game, he misfired on a 34-yard attempt.
“It’s not an easy job kicking that field goal, believe me,” Price said. “Being the father of a field goal kicker, I know.”
UTEP still had three timeouts, but on third and five at the WKU 28-yard line, White found Yelder for an 11-yard completion and a first down that ended the Miners’ comeback chances.
White completed 24-of-37 passes for 208 yards. Greenlee completed 12-of-22 passes for 124 yards for the Miners, but did more damage with his legs. He rushed eight times for 46 yards.
In Wadley’s absence, the Miners got rushing production from Greenlee and Kevin Dove, who gained 69 yards on 15 attempts.
Neither team committed a turnover.
Alvin Jones tallied 12 tackles, a sack and 2.5 tackles for losses for UTEP, while Michael Lewis chipped in with a pass break-up and quarterback hurry. The Miners were credited with eight tackles for losses in all.
UTEP controlled the clock for 33:02 and had over nine minutes of possession time in both the second and third quarters.
“Our line blocked well,” Price said. “I’m very pleased with Zack’s performance on offense. Obviously Alvin Jones played just great. Our whole defense played hard. The kids played hard. They gave great effort. No one quit. I was real proud of the guys and really upset that they didn’t [achieve] the goal of winning, because I felt like we deserved to win that game. We kind of blew it ourselves. We had two penalties before the ball was snapped, two penalties after the ball was snapped. We need to eliminate those.”
The Miners will reach the midway point of the season next Saturday when they play at Southern Miss. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. MT in Hattiesburg and the game will be televised on STADIUM.
Gallery by Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer El Paso Herald-Post