Aaron Jones rushed for 301 yards, the second-top total in UTEP football history, as the Miners closed out the 2016 season with a 52-24 drubbing of North Texas on Saturday afternoon in the Sun Bowl.
Jones ran for 1,773 yards in 2016, a UTEP single-season record and the fifth-most in Conference USA history.
Jones finished with 24 carries and four touchdowns on Saturday, while joining West Virginia’s Justin Crawford, Texas D’Onta Foreman and Utah’s Joe Williams as the only players in the FBS to gain 300 yards in a game this year.
The 301 rushing yards are the most by a UTEP player since All-American Fred Wendt compiled 326 yards against New Mexico State on Nov. 25, 1948.
Jones had scoring runs of 83, 48, 58 and three yards and ended the season with 17 rushing touchdowns, a number that ranks third on the all-time UTEP list.
The Miners ended the campaign with a 4-8 record and a 2-6 mark in Conference USA play, while thwarting the Mean Green’s pursuit of bowl eligibility. North Texas finished 5-7, 3-5 in league action.
“I thought the kids really played UTEP Miner football today and they went out and honored the season for the seniors the right way,” UTEP coach Sean Kugler said. “We know the season didn’t go the way that we wanted, but we did have one more game and you saw the end result when a bunch of kids get together and play for each other. They really were adamant about not letting that team celebrate a chance to go to a bowl game on our 50 (yard-line).”
North Texas led just once, at 7-3 on a 14-yard rushing touchdown by Willy Ivery. After that the Miners scored 28 straight points, and although the Mean Green would creep within 14 (31-17) at halftime, UTEP put it away with a couple more trips to the end zone in the third period.
The 52 points matched UTEP’s high under Kugler and were the most for the Miners in a regulation game since the 2009 season finale versus Marshall.
The Miners piled up 555 yards of offense, including 384 on the ground, while holding North Texas to 304 yards in their best all-around performance of the season.
“They [the offensive line] were physical,” Kugler said. “They take a lot of pride in Aaron Jones and getting him the single-season rushing record in a big way. He got 301 yards. They were excited about that. They did an outstanding job. They were embarrassed by the performance last week [at Rice] and that’s what I love about this team. They have bad days, they can make mistakes, but they bounce back and they bounce back in a big way because they’ve got pride about them.”
Ryan Metz turned in another efficient effort at quarterback for UTEP, completing 12-of-17 passes for 171 yards. Hayden Plinke, one of 20 seniors playing their final game for the Miners, snagged three catches for a game-high 84 yards.
North Texas’ Alec Morris completed 23-of-42 passes for 190 yards, and Ivery rushed 13 times for 98 yards.
The UTEP defense registered three tackles for losses and seven pass break-ups led by Alvin Jones, who was credited with a game-high 12 stops. The defense got into the scoring act in the second quarter when free safety Dashone Smith blocked Eric Keena’s punt and Brandon Moss scooped it up for a touchdown. That made the score 31-7.
It was 31-17 early in the third quarter, and North Texas appeared to make a big play when Fred Scott picked off Metz’s pass and returned it to the Miner 18-yard line. But a face mask penalty on the Mean Green gave UTEP a first down at its own 42-yard line and on the very next play, Jones busted free for the 58-yard TD and a commanding 21-point lead.
“Some of those have gone the other way,” Kugler said. “We took advantage of opportunities. What I really like tonight is the offense fed off the defense. The defense was getting three and outs and the offense fed off of that, and the defense was feeding off the offense. The offense was putting together long drives or popping big runs and they were coming out and stuffing North Texas.”
Now talk will turn to the 2017 season, where the Miners will face a non-conference schedule that includes Arizona at home and Army, Oklahoma and NM State on the road.
“I told you when I took the job that I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy job. I knew there were going to be ups and downs, steps forward and back,” Kugler said. “These kids are heading in the right direction. We’ve got a lot of really talented kids coming back. I feel really good about the foundation of this team heading into the future. I think these kids saw it tonight, what they can do when they put it all together and tonight, man they put it all together. That was a hell of a win.”
Check out photos of the game courtesy Andres Acosta