Case Cookus completed 19-of-26 passes for 211 yards, and connected with Emmanuel Butler for a couple of scores as Northern Arizona spoiled UTEP’s 2018 home opener with a 30-10 victory in the Sun Bowl on Saturday.
Butler reeled in six catches for 138 yards for the Lumberjacks (1-0), who are coming off a seven-win campaign in 2017.
Junior college transfer Kai Locksley saw the bulk of the action at quarterback for the Miners (0-1) and was the team’s leading passer (120 yards) and rusher (50 yards). His 18 carries were the most by a UTEP signal-caller in six years.
With Derron Gatewood and Greg Long both out with injuries, the Miners started two freshmen in the offensive line in LG Bobby DeHaro and LT Zuri Henry. UTEP tallied 229 yards of offense (127 passing, 102 rushing).
UTEP fell behind 17-0 late in the second quarter after the Lumberjacks turned a couple of Miner turnovers into a touchdown and a field goal. UTEP got back in the game by scoring 10 points in the final 2:42 of the half.
Quardraiz Wadley had a big second quarter for UTEP with 32 yards rushing and 26 receiving. His career-long 32-yard scoring run concluded a four-play, 75-yard drive and pulled the Miners within 10 at 17-7.
Jason Filley connected on a 24-yard field goal in the final seconds of the half to make it a seven-point game heading to the locker room.
But Northern Arizona put it away with a couple of touchdowns in the third period.
“I thought, most importantly, the turnovers were a big issue for us early in the game,” UTEP first-year head coach Dana Dimel said. “They set the tone a little bit, the two turnovers, one on the first drive and the fumble. Both of those kind of set the momentum for the game as it went forward. I thought overall, some of the first-game mechanics have got to get better. It was the first time all of us were together. There are some things we’ve got to improve on. We’ve got to minimize our penalties. We had 10 penalties for the game. To me, that definitely something we’ve got to work on and reduce those. And we had three turnovers. To me, as you start working for progress with the football team it’s all about the unforced errors.”
The Lumberjacks finished with 318 yards as the UTEP defense turned in a promising effort behind transfer linebacker A.J. Hotchkins, who registered 13 tackles.
“Statistically, I thought overall our defense played a good football game,” Dimel said. “They gave up the momentum, the play of the game was the touchdown to go to 17 points. We were in good coverage position, just an unfortunate play for us as a football team that got them to 17 and then the third down conversion at the start of the third quarter was a big play in the ballgame as well. But besides those plays, overall the defense played well enough to win. We knew coming in that these guys had a good offensive football team. They did enough things to help us win a football game today.
“Offensively, we didn’t run the ball as well as I’d like to see us run the ball. I think we can do a better job of being more consistent in our run game. Again, we’re meshing our offensive line together.”
The special teams star for UTEP was senior Terry Juniel with 124 all-purpose yards, including 96 on kickoff returns.
“The main thing I drew from [Saturday’s game], we didn’t play near as well as I would like us to play. That goes without saying,” Dimel said. “But I liked the way the kids fought. I’m pleased with that part of it. I told them in the locker room, ‘This isn’t going to define us. This is just the beginning.’ And now you’re going to be measured on how much you improve week to week.”
The Miners will play their first road game of the season and seek their first victory under Dimel at UNLV next Saturday (Sept. 8). The game will be televised on AT&T Sportsnet beginning at 7 p.m. MT.
Gallery by Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta, Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post