Photo by Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta – El Paso Herald-Post Chief Photographer
UTEP gained over 400 yards of total offense, true freshman running back Joshua Fields rushed for a career-high 137 yards with a touchdown and senior linebacker Alvin Jones racked up 15 more tackles to add to his career total, but LA Tech used a 28-0 first half to get past UTEP, 42-21, on ‘Senior Day Saturday’ in the Sun Bowl.
The Miners (0-11, 0-7 Conference USA) outscored the Bulldogs (5-6, 3-4 C-USA), 21-14 in the second half, but it wasn’t enough as LA Tech’s Jaqwis Dancy and Boston Scott each hit over 130 yards rushing in the contest.
Fields, a native of El Paso and a graduate of Americas High School, rushed for 97-yards in the first half on his way to his first 100-yard game in his young career.
The Miners registered a season-high 424 yards of total offense – while hitting over 300 for the first time in 2017 and most since 555 yards of total offense against North Texas during the 2016 season finale. UTEP tallied a season-high 19 first downs and threw for a season-best 261 yards on 12 completions.
With the score 28-0 in third quarter, Fields got the Miners on the board when he found the end zone on an 11-yard rush with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. On the drive, junior Ryan Metz hooked up with Andress High School teammate sophomore Eddie Sinegal on passes of 18, 13 and seven yards. Another key play was a LA Tech offsides penalty on a fourth-and-3 that kept the drive going.
“I think Ryan [Metz] and [Eddie] Sinegal had a real good flow going with the play selection and knew what they were trying to do against us defensively and called the plays accordingly,” interim head coach Mike Price said. “We were able to run the football and that was really good to see. Then we executed and made some spectacular catches and runs with the ball, that was fun to see. I think that was the only difference. I don’t think our offense played a heck of a lot better in the second half than the first half, but we scored. We were able to run the ball in the first half and making those really spectacular catches and stuff. They guy competed the whole game, sixty minutes, which I mean, come on fellas we haven’t won a game all year. I don’t know if you guys have ever been in sports on a team or anything like that that’s gone through that, I haven’t. It’s real difficult to stick in there and stay in there and so I’m proud of the players for that. They stuck in there and they made a game of it in the second half and it could have been worse.”
The touchdown was his second of Field’s young career and the first second-half offensive touchdown since Mark Torrez went six yards for a score during the third quarter against Arizona on Sept. 15.
With just over a minute left in the third, senior Tyler Batson made the score 28-14 after a catch-and-run down the sideline that went for a career-long 83 yards from Metz, who also got credit for a career-long pass completion. The drive went 87 yards on only three plays.
LA Tech answered though when it drove 75 yards on 13 plays that ended with a J’Mar Smith to Teddy Veal nine-yard touchdown toss that made the score 35-14.
In the back-and-forth second half, the Miners made it another 14-point game when Metz threw his second score of the contest – a 33-yard pass to junior Kavika Johnson. Metz, on the play, was about to get sack, but rolled out of it to his right and found Johnson on the catch-and-run, while breaking a pair tackles in the process on his way to pay dirt with just over nine minutes remaining in the contest.
But LA Tech chewed up over six minutes of the clock on a 69-yard scoring drive on 11 plays that resulted with a Smith nine-yard scoring dash to make the score 42-21 and out of reach for the Miners.
The Bulldogs’ Amik Robertson intercepted a Metz pass with just over two minutes remaining in the game that sealed the win.
Back to the first half, the UTEP defense got the crowd of 16,597 excited as it opened the first quarter with two fumble recoveries on the Bulldogs’ first two possessions. Junior Kahani Smith recovered the first after senior Lawrence Montegut forced the fumble from Rhashid Bonnette. The second recovery came from senior Dante Lovilotte when sophomore Justin Rogers forced the ball out of Kam McKnight’s hands.
The Miners, however, couldn’t capitalize on the forced fumbles.
“It was 28-0 at the half, and that happened so fast,” Price said. “We were in that game at seven-zip there and all of a sudden three touchdowns in six minutes, bang, bang, bang, an interception and being down twenty-eight to nothing was a difficult situation for our players. We had three scoring opportunities; three drives in the first half. We missed a fumble, we missed a field goal then we got stopped on downs. We were down there, where we moved the ball in a situation where we had a chance to get at lease a couple of touchdowns, which would have made it a little bit different. I don’t know if it would have changed what they [LA Tech] did in those six minutes, but it certainty would have put us a lot closer, fourteen to twenty-one at that point. Even in the third quarter I felt like, ‘Hey, maybe the defense will get a pick and run one in’ but they did a good job of really running the football in the fourth quarter and really kind of took us out of the game.”
LA Tech, after forcing a three-and-out on UTEP’s second possession, went 80 yards on 12 plays, capped by a Scott 23-yard scoring pass from Smith. The Bulldogs converted three third downs on the drive to keep the ball moving.
Kickoff returner junior Terry Juniel put his squad in great position after returning the kickoff 53 yards (second longest of his career) to the LA Tech 44-yard line. The Miners had a chance to get on the board with their third possession, but three penalties and a missed 38-yard field goal attempt kept them scoreless. The original field goal attempt was going to be a 33-yard attempt by junior walk-on Jason Filley before a five-yard false start penalty by senior offensive lineman Logan Tuley-Tillman moved the ball back.
The Miners had another chance of getting on the board in the first half on their fourth possession. Senior Zack Greenlee had a ‘free play’ after a defensive offsides and found senior wide receiver Nesly Ovincy on a 41-yard reception – his first of the season – to the LA Tech 35-yard line. Fields followed with a 21-yard gain to the opponent 14-yard line, but then fumbled the ball on his ensuing possession.
LA Tech then took a 14-0 lead after recovering the fumble at its own 15 and responded with a five-play, 85-yard drive that resulted in a Jaqwis Dancy 54-yard touchdown with just over six minutes left in the first half.
UTEP’s first-half offensive woes continued on its fifth possession. After Fields gained 26 yards to the Bulldogs’ 36-yard line, Metz threw a pick-six to DaMarion King, who took it back 71 yards for a score and a 21-0 lead with just over three minutes left in the half.
After another UTEP three-and-out, the Bulldogs then took a 28-0 lead in the final two minutes of the first half on six-play, 72-yard scoring drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown rush with 30 seconds remaining in the half.
Batson led the way with 94 yards on a pair of receptions, while Sinegal led the squad with five receptions for a season-high 69 yards. Johnson hauled in a pair of passes for 48 yards.
Metz, who replaced the starter Greenlee, threw for a season-high 202 yards on 9-of-17 passing and two touchdowns. Greenlee completed three passes for 59 yards.
Jones, along with his 15 stops, added half a sack with a tackle for loss and a pass breakup. Lovilotte registered eight tackles, while Smith and senior Devin Cockrell recorded seven tackles each. Senior Sky Logan was credited with half a sack and sophomore Kalaii Griffin registered his first career sack.
“We made some really great individual plays in this game and showed some explosiveness for the first time since I’ve been here so that was good. There’s no give-up on this team. Nobody gave up, I didn’t see anybody give-up, really moping.” Price said. “We just made some stupid mistakes, too many penalties and too many errors. I said the team that makes the least amount of mistakes wins the game and we certainty had our share of mistakes, penalties, interceptions, and then not capitalizing in the first half in the red zone when we had the opportunity to.”
The Bulldogs rushed for 343 yards and three scores led by Dancy’s 135 yards. Veal led the way in receptions (six) and yards (66), while Scott added a receiving score. Smith threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns. Dae’Von Washington led the LA Tech defense with eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
UTEP will conclude the 2017 campaign when it travels to Birmingham, Ala., to take on UAB. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. MT/Noon CT at Legion Field.
The Miners and Blazers will meet for the first time in since 2010. UAB leads the all-time series 3-1.
Photos by Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post