UTEP Head Football Coach Sean Kugler wanted a resilient effort from his team and he got it as the Miners defeated Florida Atlantic 27 to 17 to earn their first ConferenceUSA win of the season.
UTEP Quarterback Mack Leftwich returned as the starter for the first time since September 19th, when he left the game against New Mexico State due to a concussion. He would lead the Miners in victory this time, throwing three touchdown strikes, two of those to Tyler Batson, who scored on receptions of 75 and 30 yards.
“I’m just proud of the way the guys fought and they fought extremely hard on all faces, offense, defense and special teams,” Kugler said. “Tyler Batson drops a touchdown and what’s he do, he comes back and he scores a touchdown and makes up for it. Jaquan White drops a punt, which really could have been a game changer, a 90-yard swing, a 10-point swing and what’s he do, he comes back and he scores a touchdown.”
The Miners held a seven to three lead and awaited a punt from FAU, when a misjudged ball by White allowed the Owls to recover the ball at the UTEP three-yard line. FAU running back Greg Howell then scored to give the Owls a 10-7 lead.
The Miners trailed 17 to 14 at the half, but would regain the lead in the third quarter on Batson’s second touchdown reception.
Batson,whose first touchdown came on a 76-yard catch and run, finished the night with three receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Batson dropped another pass that could have resulted in a third score, but feels confident he’ll make the play if the opportunity presents again.
“That’s one thing you learn playing football, you have to learn to put stuff behind you like a quarterback would,” Batson said. “I knew that coach Kugler is never going to lose trust in me at all, when my number is called again just make the play.”
Leftwich would finish the night completing 20 of 39 attempts for 271 yards and three touchdowns, a performance that could have been better, if not for a couple of dropped passes.
“I just go out there and do what they ask me to do, the first couple of games they didn’t ask me to throw the ball down the field, they asked me to tonight and I just went out there and did what they asked me to do,” Leftwich said. “It was really fun, as a quarterback, anytime you get the chance to open things up a little bit, my receivers were doing a great job at making plays. They were making me look good some times, overall a pretty good night throwing and catching the ball.”
UTEP would not allow any more points to FAU, scoring 13-unanswered points in the second half. Kicker Jay Mattox would connect on field goals of 35 and 42 yards to preserve the Miners’ lead.
The Owls were threatening to retake the lead late in the third quarter, but UTEP Defensive Back Nik Needham, intercepted a Johnson pass at the goal to negate the score.
Perhaps the gutsiest call of the year was when the Miners elected to convert on a 4th and 1 in their own 45-yard line with only a seven-point lead. Jeremiah Laufasa was given the task of carrying the ball in that situation, something he asked Kugler to do. The drive would result in Mattox’s 42-yard field goal.
“I got to let these guys know I have confidence in them. I was probably thinking about it, it ain’t the best move, but sometimes you gotta go with your gut,” Kugler said. “You have to play to win and you have to show your players that you’re gonna play to win.”
The Miners also had a good night from their running backs as both Lafuasa and LaQuintus Dowell surpassed had 74 and 75 yards respectively.
“I think we utilized our bye week well, I think we got an identity of where we need to go for the rest of the year. We have some very strong opponents coming up, starting with Southern Miss, I think they’re the most improved team in Conference USA. It was good for those guys to taste a win again and a hard-earned win. It just shows those guys that they’re resilient and I am proud of them.”
UTEP improves to 3-4 in the season and 1-2 in conference play and will now prepare to take on the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, October 31st in Hattiesburg, Miss.