EL PASO, TEXAS – Southern Miss scored two touchdowns late in the second quarter to break open a close game as it opened defense of its Conference USA West Division title with a 34-7 win at UTEP on Saturday night.
The Golden Eagles (3-1, 1-0 C-USA) scored 17 points off three turnovers by the Miners (1-3, 0-1 C-USA), who struggled in all facets offensively.
Zack Greenlee and Ryan Metz combined to complete 14-of-28 passes for 113 yards and the Miners finished with 145 yards rushing, 99 of which came in the first half.
“We were inept on offense, minus one series,” UTEP coach Sean Kugler said. “Too many three and outs, two turnovers in that game, and outside the one series really didn’t run the ball efficiently or effectively. I thought defensively, as many times as they were thrown out on short fields and three and outs, I thought they competed hard the whole night. Defense really wasn’t the issue tonight. I thought they held the running back in check and got after the quarterback a little bit. Offensively, we’ve got a lot of things to fix. We’ve got to fix it quickly, whether that means we need to trim it down so we can execute and get the right people in the right spots. That will be my job to get that rectified. You can’t win that way.”
Aaron Jones was responsible for all 99 of the Miners’ first quarter yards. He finished with 127 yards on 16 carries for his third 100-yard performance in four outings.
UTEP, which dropped its third straight C-USA opener in the Sun Bowl, took a 7-3 lead on a 68-yard run by Jones with 5:37 remaining in the first quarter. The Miners trailed 10-7 with under four minutes remaining in the half before the Golden Eagles struck twice to take a 17-point lead (24-7) to the locker room.
First, Ito Smith caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Nick Mullens, then Allenzae Staggers reeled in a three-yard reception for six points.
The Golden Eagles shut out the Miners in the second half as UTEP had three drives end on downs and two on turnovers. Three of UTEP’s seven second-half drives screeched to a halt inside the Southern Miss 30-yard line.
Penalties were also a problem for the fourth straight game as the Miners were whistled six times for 57 yards. They have been called for 28 penalties totaling 249 yards in 2016 and UTEP is averaging 7.0 penalties per game, up from 5.0 in 2014 and 4.8 in 2015.
UTEP finished 1-for-11 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down Saturday.
Mullens, the preseason C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, completed 16-of-27 passes for 176 yards with three touchdowns. Smith rushed 16 times for 108 yards. The Golden Eagles lost two second-half fumbles that the Miners were unable to convert into points.
Outside of the two late first-half scores by the Golden Eagles, another major turning point came midway through the third period when
UTEP, trailing 24-7, had first and goal at the two-yard line. Jones was stuffed for no gain and, on second down, Greenlee was picked off by the Golden Eagles’ Curtis Mikell, who ran 100 yards for a TD and extended the visitors’ lead to 24 points.
UTEP had an improved performance on defense, holding the Golden Eagles to 378 yards – 140 below their season average – as Mike Sota was credited with a career-high nine tackles. The Miners were playing without standout linebacker Alvin Jones and promising freshman lineman Gene Hopkins.
“We’ll re-evaluate every position, particularly on offense,” Kugler said. “We’re not moving the ball effectively. Whether that ends up being Ryan Metz or Zack Greenlee, we’ll make that determination. I feel both of them can move the ball but it’s got to be the one that does move the ball. Zack didn’t move the team effectively tonight, [and] we went with Ryan. He showed some glimpses as well. But we’ll evaluate that and move on as we go throughout the week. We’ve got a lot of things to fix besides the quarterback position.”
The Miners will play their first C-USA road game next week at LA Tech. Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. MT on Saturday (Oct. 1). The game will be televised on the American Sports Network.