One could make the case that UTEP played their best game of the season Saturday night at the Sun Bowl. In the end, several miscues and three missed field goals cost the Miners as they fell to defending C-USA champion Western Kentucky 15-14 and dropped to 0-6 on the season.
“The kids played hard. They gave great effort,” interim head coach Mike Price said, “No one quit. I was real proud of the guys and really upset that they didn’t [achieve] the goal of winning, because I felt like we deserved to win that game. “
After a WKU punt, the Miners were able to drive the ball up the middle with a short field. But a fumbled exchange between Greenlee and running back Quardraiz Wadley killed off UTEP’s drive and a missed 34-yard field goal by Brady Viles field goal kept the game scoreless.
It would remain that way until the early stages of the second quarter, when a well-executed bootleg from Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White resulted in a touchdown. As WKU came out in a swinging gate formation on the extra point, backup quarterback Drew Eckels found Deon Yelder who broke a tackle and found his way in for two points to make it 8-0.
“We were in the right spot but we just didn’t make the play,” said UTEP linebacker Alvin Jones on the two-point try, “We knew what was coming and we just didn’t do it.”
The Miners responded methodically with a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a 15-yard Greenlee pass to Kavika Johnson to open the scoring for UTEP. After Wadley left with a knee injury in the second quarter, Kevin Dove came in to propel that first scoring drive.
The defense came to life, holding the Hilltoppers to a three-and-out and it looked like the Miners would get a break on special teams with a punt return touchdown by Terry Juniel.
The play was called back due to a holding penalty but the Miners overcame the setback, as Greenlee ran the ball in for a five-yard score to give the Miners their first lead at home of the season on a quick three-play drive. A late Western Kentucky drive stalled out on a missed field goal to give the Miners their first lead heading into the locker room. After their best performance of the season, there was hope on the UTEP sideline.
“This was our best performance by far,” said UTEP junior defensive back Nik Needham, “It just hurts to lose by one point.”
“We brought the fight tonight” said quarterback Zack Greenlee who finished with 176 total yards and two total touchdowns, “Our defense played a hell of a game and I’m proud even though we came up short. We just have to bring it again next week just like we did tonight.”
After the Miners stalled out on their first drive of the second half, Western Kentucky picked up the tempo and responded with a 13-play, 80-yard drive capped off by another White touchdown to make it 15-14.
As they had done all night, the Miners had their chances and moved the ball. However, it was a game that the Miners couldn’t cash in on the opportunities when given the chance. Viles missed another 47-yard field goal late in the third quarter to keep the game at 15-14.
The UTEP defense did all they could to give their offense a chance, giving up a season low 282 yards on the night thanks in part from efforts by Alvin Jones (12 tackles), defensive back Nik Needham (five pass breakups) and others that culminated on UTEP’s final offensive possession.
UTEP took over with 5:03 remaining at their own 39-yard line and moved the ball efficiently inside the WKU 25. But after the Miners bogged down on offense, it was up to Viles again to give the Miners the lead. His 41-yard try sailed low and left and the Hilltoppers were able to run out the clock and secure the win.
“We kind of blew it ourselves,” Price said on the events throughout the game, “We had two penalties before the ball was snapped, two penalties after the ball was snapped. We need to eliminate those.”
In the end, those missed opportunities came back to bite the Miners, who now must regroup and prepare for a road trip to Southern Miss.
“I’m proud of the kids,” Price said. “It’s the seniors’ team. I want them to win for themselves, and we will. If we keep playing like this, we’ll win. It’s just a matter of time.”
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