UTEP football survive a tough Wildcat challenge at home

UTEP+senior+running+back+Josh+Fields+scores+on+a+5-yard+touchdown+run+versus+Abilene+Christian+Saturday+Sept.+20.

Courtesy of UTEP / Ruben Ramirez

UTEP senior running back Josh Fields scores on a 5-yard touchdown run versus Abilene Christian Saturday Sept. 20.

Joshua Fields

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

Winning its second game of the young season, the Miners reached a win total that has not been achieved since 2016 with a 17-13 victory over the Abilene Christian University (ACU) Wildcats. 

The Miners offense struggled most of the game, being outgained 308-293 by the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) Wildcats. Neither team was able to build a consistent running attack with both teams averaging 2.9 yards per carry on the ground. 

Abilene Christian scored on its second possession after fumbling on its first drive. Going 56 yards on six plays, the Wildcats scored on a Jeremiah Dobbins 2 yard run to take a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter. 

For the whole first quarter, the Miners had 13 yards and one first down on three possessions totaling a little over three minutes of offense. Trailing 7-0, the Miners defense had given up 159 yards to the Wildcats after one quarter with ACU deep in UTEP territory. 

Starting the second quarter at the 34-yard line of the Miners, Abilene Christian was looking to go up by two scores. On this drive, the Miner defense started to come alive, forcing the Wildcats to punt. The Wildcats then failed on a fake field goal attempt that fooled no one on the UTEP defense. 

Taking over on its own 32, the Miners had its first sustained drive of the game. Sophomore Gavin Hardison, who started the game with only one completion in his first five attempts along with a sack, began to find his rhythm for the game. On a second and 10, Hardison hit junior tight end, Trent Thompson, on a 20-yard gain for his first reception of the year. Hardison followed that up with a 14-yard scramble and a 14-yard pass to senior Justin Garret to get the Miners inside the Wildcats 20-yard line. This play set up the first Miner score of the game, a 27-yard field goal by junior Gavin Baechle to make the score 7-3. 

The Wildcats promptly struck back with a 49-yard pass from quarterback Pete Mansell to wide receiver Taelyn Williams that put the team at the Miner 35-yard line. Two plays later, Mansell fumbled the ball that as recovered by UTEP junior corner Dennis Barnes to stop the drive. This fumble was the second of the game for the Wildcats. 

Sophomore Jacob Cowing then made the biggest offensive play of the game for the Miners with a 51yard reception that set up a 5-yard touchdown by senior running back Josh Fields. Although outplayed for most of the first half, this gave the Miners a 10-7 halftime lead over the Wildcats. 

On its first possession of the second half, the Wildcats had driven deep into Miner territory after a 35-yard pass from Mansell to tight end Remington Lutz. Senior safety Justin Prince made a key play with a tackle of Wildcat running back Tyrese White on third down and 4 yards to go. This play forced a 29-yard field goal by the Wildcats Blair Zepeda to tie the score at 10. 

With about five minutes to go in the third quarter, the Miners would go on its longest drive of the game. Early in the drive, Hardison made crucial play on fourth and one that seemed to be aided by a favorable spot. A touchdown would cap off the 13 play 75-yard drive from junior Ronald Awatt, his first as a Miner to make the score 17-10. 

After one of its best defensive series of the night forcing ACU to go three downs and out, the Miners started driving downfield once again. The Miners were quickly into Wildcat territory before stalling 1 yard short of a first down. UTEP Head Coach Dana Dimel decided to go for it on fourth and 1 yard to go for the second time in the game. Initially, the Hardison dive up the middle was ruled a first down.  

The chains were brought out for the measurement after well over a minute, the play ended up almost a full yard short of the first down turning the ball back over to the Wildcats. 

Wildcat quarterback Mansell once again made a big play on the UTEP secondary with a 43-yard pass to Lionel McConnel setting Abilene Christian up at the Miner 17-yard line. A critical sack by UTEP sophomore defensive end  Praise Amaewhule and a Wildcat penalty stalled the offensive drive. Zepeda once again connected on a field goal for the visiting Wildcats from 39 yards to tighten the score to 17-13. 

“We have been making great game day adjustments,” said Dimel. “If teams hurt us early, they don’t come back and hurt us the same way. That’s a sign of a big improvement defensively.”

With about five minutes left in the game, Fields took over with three key runs over 9 yards apiece to help run out the clock. On the drive, Fields ran six times for 44 yards, ending the game with 75 yards on 17 carries for his most productive game since his freshman season. Fields started the game and took the majority of the carries with freshman sensation Deion Hankins sitting out due to injury. 

“As a running back, that’s what you are in for, “ Fields said. “ Five minutes, you have to eat the clock and gain yards. Fourth quarter, that’s where games are won.” 

For the first time this season, the Miners did not sustain a turnover and the line gave good protection to its young quarterback.  After having only one completion in his first seven passes, Hardison hit on 14 of his next 18 passes to finish 15 of 25 for 196 yards in the air. 

“Guys made some plays when they had to make plays,” Dimel said. “Once Gavin got on track started throwing the ball well after the first quarter. What a great fourth quarter of football that was for the Miners.” 

Cowing ended the game with eight receptions for 110 yards, which is a career-high for catches. With his second 100-yard receiving game of the season, Cowing now has 19 receptions for 275 yards.  At this pace, Cowing may become the seventh Miner to surpass 1000 yards receiving. 

In the second quarter, UTEP senior linebacker Jason VanHook sustained an injury that had him taken to the locker room returning in the second half with crutches in hand.  Senior starting defensive tackle Josh Ortega did not dress for the game due to undisclosed reasons. 

Abilene Christian wide receiver Kobe Clark who set a school season record for receptions last season, was also held out of the game for undisclosed reasons. 

UTEP 2-1 goes on the road to Louisiana Monroe to play next week. Not since 2014 have the Miners started with two wins in its first three games. 

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]