Special teams falter as Miners lose heartbreaker to WKU and fall to 0-6

Adrian Broaddus, Editor-in-Chief

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Almost all the stars aligned for the Miners on Saturday evening, except for the one thing they lacked all year—a win.

UTEP fell short to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 15-14, after a hard fought, 60-minute war.

They had the most yards on the night, amassing a season-best 287 total yards, compared to WKU’s 282. They controlled the clock by over six minutes, which is something they pride themselves in doing. They also held the high-flying Hilltoppers to only 15 points—another season best.

They just couldn’t get the win they’ve been wanting all season long.

With over 2 minutes to go in the game, kicker Brady Viles came out to attempt the go-ahead field goal for the Miners after a 39-yard drive orchestrated by quarterback Zack Greenlee.

The snap looked good, the hold was nice, but the kick was wide left. It was Viles’ third field goal miss of the night.

“Feel like we deserved to win,” interim head coach Mike Price said in his first outing back with the Miners. “Real proud of the guys and proud of their effort. They played four quarters of hard football.”

The Miners started off the first half defensively sound, stopping the Hilltoppers on three consecutive drives before Western Kentucky scored on a nice, eight play, 45-yard drive capped off by quarterback Mike White’s 5-yard rushing touchdown. The Hilltoppers jumped up right after the touchdown and converted on a 2-point conversion, ultimately solidifying the win for the visitors down the stretch.

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“We knew they would do something like that,” said senior linebacker Alvin Jones, who finished the night leading the Miners with 12 total tackles on defense. “We just couldn’t execute on the play.”

The Miners responded nicely by quarterback Zack Greenlee orchestrating a 75-yard drive, which was capped off by a shot to Kavika Johnson for a 15-yard pass-and-catch for a touchdown.

On the very next punt by the Hilltoppers, Miners returner Terry Juniel took the punt back 63 yards for a touchdown but it was called back due to a holding penalty.

The Miners did not blink, and in just three plays, Greenlee ran it in for a 5-yard rushing touchdown to put Price’s squad in the lead, 14-8.

He would finish the night 12-of-22 for 124 yards, a rushing touchdown and another one through the air.

The defense was able to fend off the Western Kentucky offense for the remainder of the first half and only allowed them to convert twice on seven tries for third down conversions. The Hilltoppers finished the half with a missed field goal and the Miners, for one of the first times this season, had their heads up going into halftime.

“I’ve been here for two years now and it’s the first time I heard the fans chant ‘Miners’ when we went in at half from the El Paso crowd,” said running back Kevin Dove, who finished the game with 69 yards on the ground.

Dove had to carry the running load coming out of the half, as the Miners lost their starting running back Quadraiz Wadley to a knee injury. After the game, Price described Wadley as hurt “bad,” but also said he’s a tough guy.

Both teams traded off punt after punt until late in the third quarter. White put up a 13 play, 80-yard touchdown drive.

Then, Greenlee and the offense commanded an 11 play drive that set up a 47-yard field goal for Viles.

No good, Western Kentucky ball.

“Never easy kicking a field goal like that,” Price said. “I thought he’d make it—100 percent.”

Still, the defense kept at it—something they’ve had trouble doing in the past—and forced three consecutive punts by Western Kentucky. Linebacker Nik Needham was also a force for the Miners as he totaled a career-high five pass breakups during the game.

The only problem was the offense couldn’t get any rhythm going.

“Disappointed I couldn’t help more in the second half offense,” Price said. “I think (offensive coordinator) coach (Brian) Natkin had some great calls. I think (defensive coordinator) coach (Tom) Mason had some great calls. I mean we stopped them.”

In fact, the defense came up with a huge stop late in the fourth quarter and gave the offense the ball at the UTEP 38. With a balanced attack from Greenlee through the air and Dove rushing hard on the ground, the Miners trekked to the Hilltopper 23 yard line, setting up what could have been a go-ahead 41-yard field goal for Viles.

Even after the missed field goal, the Miners had three timeouts and a chance to get the ball back with 2:01 left on the clock. For three downs they held the game in their hand, but a missed tackle by safety Devin Cockrell on third down, resulting in a WKU first down, finished the game for the Hilltoppers.

“No moral victories,” Jones said. “I’d rather get blown out than lose by one.”

Despite the tough loss, however, they found some forward progress in their play.

“We finally put up a full game together,” Jones said. “To hold a two-time conference championship team to two touchdowns—it was good. A lot of energy. We played all four quarters.”

The Miners, still winless, dropped to 0-6, while the Hilltoppers improved to 3-2 (1-1 C-USA).

As they progress through the season, Dove sees the light at the end of the tunnel for the Miners.

“It’s not over yet,” he said. “There’s still a lot of season left. We’re not giving up on El Paso because El Paso hasn’t given up on us.”

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