UTEP went toe-to-toe with defending Conference USA West Division champion North Texas on Saturday in the Sun Bowl, but the Mean Green escaped with a 27-24 victory.
Down 27-24, the Miners (0-6, 0-2 C-USA) got the ball back with 2:45 to go. Following a roughing the passer call on the Mean Green, UTEP had a first down at its own 31-yard line and a chance to win. But the drive stalled after that, as David Lucero couldn’t corral Metz’s long pass on fourth and 17.
The Mean Green (5-1, 1-1 C-USA) ran out the clock and averted a major upset.
“We’ve just got to make more plays and eliminate turnovers,” UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. “That’s the big thing for us right now, is the turnovers, and we’ve got to win the turnover game. And honestly we didn’t do that. So we’ve got to continue to work to do that and we’ll be a lot better off. We had two picks and they had none. So we’ve got to play a more clean football game. We had a bunch of kids making good plays and doing a lot of nice stuff. I was proud of the way the guys fought tonight and proud of their effort.
“I’m really happy with what they did out there. We were in the game with 17 of the guys in our two deep [at the beginning of the season] that didn’t play tonight. So the guys that we’ve got out there are fighting their tails off right now.”
The game was tied at 10 after the teams traded blows in the first half. North Texas appeared to take control in the third quarter, as a 29-yard field goal by Cole Hedlund and an 11-yard TD pass from Mason Fine to Rico Bussey instituted a 20-10 lead. But the Miners just kept on coming.
Metz’s one-yard TD run ended a 12-play, 90-yard drive, and the Miners were within three (20-17) with 10:43 to go.
A 75-yard drive by the Mean Green, capped by a 20-yard rushing score by Nic Smith, pushed the UNT lead back to 10 (27-17) with 5:46 left. But UTEP wasn’t done.
It took the Miners only 41 seconds to get right back into it, as Metz found Keynan Foster for a 67-yard touchdown reception.
The defense forced a three-and-out, giving the offense one final opportunity.
North Texas punted four times, but only once in the second half when it scored on its first three drives. The Miners did not punt in the second half, and a 53-yard missed field goal that was blocked by the Mean Green late in the third quarter loomed large.
Still, the Miners inch closer and closer to a victory with their third straight game that they had a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
“It was close, it was right there,” Dimel said. “It goes down to a lot of plays when you have a close game like that. But we were right there again. David made a great effort and almost pulled it in. It was a really, really tough catch. He had it for a second and it would’ve been a heck of a play if he had made it.”
Ryan Metz threw for 313 yards – the most by a UTEP quarterback since 2013 – and Warren Redix also had a career day with seven receptions for 131 yards.
“I think Metzie did a really good job of finding open receivers and doing some things,” Dimel said. “We were trying to match our personnel to what guys do best, and Metz can throw the football.
“We didn’t even think Warren was going to play, and he really had a great week and sucked it up. He was a game time decision and did a really nice job. All the receivers stepped up and made some plays today. I was excited about that.”
A.J. Hotchkins was the star on defense with 14 tackles.
Fine finished 23-of-34 passing for 294 yards for North Texas. Bussey snared eight catches for 117 yards.
“We’re really close,” Dimel said. “It’s right there for us, every game. The last four games, we just continue to get better. We’ve overcome a ton of adversity with what we’re doing. We have a lot of guys out and injured and being able to compete against the conference [division] champions last year, and having the game go down to the last plays of the game is a great tribute to what the guys are doing, how they’re staying with the 1-0 mentality and battling their tails off.”
The Miners will enter their bye week and return to action on Oct. 20 at LA Tech. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. MT and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.
Gallery by Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta – Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post