Can UTEP Right the Ship? Miners Get Gut-Check Win Over Rice
Stylish? UTEP? Only if you call beat up Dickies and scuffed work boots stylish.
Keep your hands down, hipsters. Notice I said beat up and scuffed, which isn't the same thing as "pre-distressed." Doesn't count if you bought them from a thrift shop, either, unless your reason for doing so is more Merle than Macklemore.
No, bless 'em, but UTEP is, in so many ways, a team with a limited wardrobe.
It's also a team that doesn't let words like "limited", "beat up" and "scuffed" keep defining them, either. It's a team that showed heart and guts Friday night in a mostly-empty Sun Bowl, and showed it against a team known for the same qualities.
At the end of a game full of body blows, the Miners beat the Rice Owls, 27-24, with a 16-play, 73-yard-drive that took almost half the fourth quarter, capped by a 24-yard-Jay Mattox field goal with just 48 seconds left.
The game-winning drive wasn't butter, it was brutal. UTEP's offensive line blew hole-after-hole through the Owls' defense, holes senior RB Jeremiah Laufasa kept filling with middle runs -- ten to be exact, for 52 of his 92 yards on the night.
Rice could not stop the Miners from playing their one-note symphony all the way down the field. An Owls team that had exhausted both its defense and its timeouts was left to resort to an unanswered Hail Mary on the last play of the game.
Despite two fumbled punt returns, a fumbled kick-off return and just a plain old fumble, UTEP kept finding a way to answer the bell.
The game-winning drive was made possible after Nick Usher blocked Rice kicker Hayden Tobola's 38-yard field goal attempt.
There was QB Mack Leftwich, throwing for 231 yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers. He and tight end Hayden Plinke have developed a real connection. Most of Plinke's 85 yards were big, necessary catches over the middle where the linebackers roam.
Speaking of connections, Leftwich also found a big one with Jaquan White, who caught a 58-yard touchdown bomb for UTEP's first score.
And what makes the whole thing so spectacular is that the Miners are so unspectacular.
UTEP plays for ball control, not big plays. Injuries have ravaged the roster creating a Frankenstein's monster of a depth chart. A young secondary was thrown into the fire at the beginning of the season and was burned frequently.
Yet here they are, lunch pails and hard hats in hand, now at 4-5 and still with hopes of a bowl game.
After the game, Miners' head coach Sean Kugler was so proud you get the feeling that, if he could skirt NCAA rules and the legal drinking age, he'd buy his team a beer.
"This is probably my most satisfying win as a head coach," said Kugler. "Because I know where our team's at and I know how hard they fought. Very rewarding."
Style? It wouldn't matter what the Miners wore Friday night -- nothing can conceal heart.