Alex McGough threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns as FIU improved to 2-0 under interim head coach Ron Cooper with a 35-21 victory over UTEP on Saturday in the Sun Bowl.
Trailing 7-3 heading into the second quarter, the Panthers (2-4, 2-0 C-USA) scored the next 17 points to send the Miners (1-5, 0-3 C-USA) to their fifth consecutive loss.
“We missed some tackles in the second half. It was clear to see,” UTEP coach Sean Kugler said after his team gave up 499 yards (258 rushing, 241 passing). “We had them wrapped up in the backfield a few times, especially third downs, third and two, third and three, we didn’t finish the tackles and didn’t finish plays.”
McGough threw touchdown passes to A.J. Branisel (one yard) and Thomas Owens (eight yards) during the 17-point spurt. Owens had a big game with 125 yards on seven catches and two scores.
UTEP made it a one possession game (20-14) when Aaron Jones plowed one yard into the end zone with 5:41 remaining in the third quarter. But FIU answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive and a 23-yard touchdown pass from McGough to Owens. The Panthers converted a third and six and third and 11 during the drive. They were 8-for-15 on third down conversions on the night while UTEP was 4-for-14.
FIU put the game away on a nine-yard TD run by Alex Gardner early in the fourth quarter. Gardner (141 yards) and Anthony Jones (128) combined for 269 rushing yards.
The Panthers dominated time of possession with 35:54 to UTEP’s 24:06. The Miners continued to have their difficulties moving the football with 330 yards, although the 21 points were the most they have scored since the season opener.
UTEP cut its penalties down to three after averaging 6.6 in the first five games. But one was particularly costly, a holding call on Derron Gatewood that negated a 34-yard touchdown pass from Zack Greenlee to Eddie Sinegal shortly before halftime that could’ve given the Miners a 14-13 lead.
“It was a killer one,” Kugler said. “That usually results in guys not moving their feet. But it’s something that we emphasized all week. It was a cleaner [game] but again, a big penalty came in a critical situation.”
Greenlee completed 17-of-39 passes for 191 yards for UTEP. The banged-up Jones rushed eight times for 73 yards and two scores, including a 49-yard run in the first quarter. Cole Freytag and Eddie Sinegal contributed 68 and 49 yards receiving, respectively.
Alvin Jones produced a standout performance on defense with 16 tackles, a career high.
The Miners will go back to the drawing board with six games remaining.
“This has got to be fixed by myself and the staff,” Kugler said. “I assume full responsibility and I always will, and I’ll never give up on these kids. I hope they stick together and stick with each other and I hope they stick by me because I want a team of fighters and right now I acknowledge we’re not a good team. We’re 1-5. We have half a season left. There’s a lot still to play for. It’s my responsibility to get the most out of the players and I’ve got to evaluate myself because right now I’m not getting the most out of the players. That falls on me and I understand that.”
“Number one, we have to get healthy,” Kugler said. “We’ve got some guys banged up, in particular Aaron and Alvin and [Hayden] Plinke, a few other guys, Zack, [Ryan] Metz, and we need to get those guys healthy. We’ll look at ourselves schematically, whether we need to change some things, whether we need to tone down some things. We’ll look at our personnel, how can we get better. Just look at every avenue on how to get better. And not point fingers, not play the blame game and sit here and feel sorry for ourselves and where we’re at. That’s not going to help anything. We’re going to do our best to get it done and turn it around.”
The Miners enter their bye week and will prepare for an Oct. 22 matchup at UTSA.