Royce Caldwell scored the go-ahead touchdown on a long pass play late in the third quarter, and NM State held on for a 27-20 victory over UTEP on Saturday in the Sun Bowl.
On a third-and-five play near midfield, Aggie quarterback Josh Adkins hooked up with Caldwell for the 53-yard score with 2:46 remaining in the period, breaking a 17-17 deadlock.
The Miners (0-4) closed the gap to 24-20 on a 34-yard field goal by Jason Filley with 8:20 to go in the final period.
UTEP held the Aggies (1-4) to a field goal and got the ball back with 3:24 remaining, but Kai Locksley’s desperation pass on fourth and long was intercepted by NMSU’s Austin Perkins to seal the outcome.
“A lot of positives,” UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. “You look at the game and how it played out. The way we ran the football, the way we controlled the line of scrimmage, the way we executed statistically, if you looked at the game we won the statistics but that doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to win points, and that’s the thing we didn’t do.”
UTEP racked up 64 rushing attempts, its most in a game since 1997, as Quardraiz Wadley picked up his second career 100-yard night with 111 yards on 20 carries.
Locksley added 27 carries for 64 yards as UTEP gained 235 yards on the ground. But the Miners were caught running backwards a little too often, as the Aggies registered eight sacks.
The game got off to a rough start for the Miners as Mitchell Crawford’s punt on the first possession of the game was blocked by the Aggies’ Christian Gibson and returned 19 yards for a TD by Izaiah Lottie.
UTEP responded nicely with a nine-play, 75-yard drive, as Locksley ran into the end zone from one yard out to knot the game at 7.
After the teams exchanged field goals, things took a turn for the worse for UTEP late in the second half. First, driving for the go-ahead score, the Miners coughed up the football inside the red zone. Then, after UTEP’s A.J. Hotchkins sacked Adkins and Jamar Smith recovered his fumble near midfield, Locksley was sacked himself by Cedric Wilcots II, fumbled and Malik Demby returned the miscue 55 yards for a 17-10 NMSU lead.
“Too many mistakes,” Dimel said. “It starts off with a blocked punt to start a game. When you get a punt blocked, I think the percentage of winning, they’ve done surveys on that, I think the chance of winning is 18 percent. We get a punt blocked, and then we had the turnover there in the second quarter, and then the turnover late in the second quarter, that was big too. It took points off the board and gave them points. We gave them 14 points with the blocked punt and the turnover, and took some off the board with the fumble going in. So those obviously were costly mistakes for us.”
The second half began on a high note for the Miners as they forced a three-and-out, the Aggies punted and Locksley connected with Terry Juniel for a 76-yard touchdown pass to tie it up once again at 17.
“I thought the fight was there, and I saw some really positive body language when we tied it up at 17-17,” Dimel said. “I saw that spark that I’d like for our team to continue to develop and have throughout the games, where we can really get to that point where we’re learning how to win football games when they’re close.”
The Miners missed a chance to take their first lead when Filley’s 44-yard field goal was wide right with 4:07 left in the third quarter. A minute and a half later, the Aggies got the lead back for good.
Making his first career start, redshirt freshman Adkins completed 9-of-18 passes for 156 yards for the Aggies. Gibson rushed for 103 yards on 10 carries.
Locksley threw for 194 yards for the Miners, completing 10-of-16 passes.
UTEP piled up 429 yards of offense to NMSU’s 311 and dominated the time of possession line (40:48 to 19:12), but the Miners had three turnovers to the Aggies’ one.
Javahn Fergurson turned in a dominating performance on defense for NMSU with 17 tackles. He was one of three Aggies with double-figure stops as Leon McQuaker and Ron LaForce had 11 and 10 tackles, respectively.
Hotchkins led the Miners in tackles for the third time in four games with eight stops.
“I said every week you’ll find improvement in this football team, and tonight they [NMSU] had one of their starters back who has been out all year at the defensive end position,” Dimel said. “They’ve got a good defensive football team and we played pretty well against them offensively. We just need to finish better.”
UTEP will kick off Conference USA play at UTSA next Saturday (Sept. 29) at 5 p.m. MT. The game can be seen on ESPN+.
Gallery by Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta, Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post