Four Plays that Swung UTEP’s 24-13 Loss to MTSU
In disappointing fashion, the UTEP football squad dropped an important conference matchup against Middle Tennessee, 24-13, Saturday night at the Sun Bowl.
In front of just 10,727 fans on homecoming night, the Miners gave up 378 yards of total offense to MTSU, while only scoring 13 points in a game filled with missed opportunities for the home team.
The Miners (4-5, 2-3 C-USA) are now in a situation where they must win two of their final three games in order to become bowl eligible for back-to-back seasons, with Rice, Florida International and UTSA remaining on their schedule.
Let's look at the four plays that swung the game in the 24-13 loss:
Trent Thompson dropped TD pass
Both teams were tied going into the half, 10-10, thanks to a late first half drive by UTEP that was finished by a four-yard passing touchdown from Gavin Hardison to wideout Tyrin Smith. The home team entered the locker room with momentum and the ball out of the half.
But on UTEP's first play in the third quarter, Hardison threw a bomb intended for tight end Trent Thompson off a well-executed play action fake and the ball went in and out of his hands. Thompson, who is normally as reliable as it gets in the passing game, had 75 yards of daylight in front of him and could've easily scored a touchdown.
The Miners could've led 17-10 at that point and stole all momentum. Instead, two drives later, Hardison threw an interception to Blue Raider corner Jakobe Thomas. The turnover set up an easy six-play, 36-yard touchdown drive for the Blue Raiders, including a fourth down conversion. MTSU quarterback Chase Cunningham threw his second touchdown pass of the game to cap off the drive, giving them the 17-10 edge over UTEP.
4th and 10 at the MTSU 34
After allowing the MTSU touchdown, the UTEP offense was determined to score and tie things up. They put together a solid 11-play, 62-yard drive that went all the way to the MTSU 25. The Miners elected to go for it on fourth and long—due to a sack on third down—and failed to convert on a quarterback scramble by Hardison.
If the Miners decided to kick a long Gavin Baechle field goal, they would've been down 17-13 at the time, which was the beginning of the fourth quarter. As hot as Baechle's been, I probably would've kicked a field goal instead of going for it on fourth and long.
Phantom offensive pass interference
The Miner defense did its part in holding the Blue Raiders near the 50 on the next drive. UTEP drove the ball from its own 11 yard line deep into Middle Tennessee territory. Hardison hit Smith in stride for what should have been a 15-yard touchdown.
Instead, the refs called a late offensive pass interference on Rey Flores, claiming the senior picked a Blue Raider defender on the play. The call arguably shifted the entire game since the Miners had to settle for a 47-yard Baechle field goal on the drive.
Miner head coach Dana Dimel refuted the call after the game.
“They thought it was a pick. It was a crucial missed call. It was a very costly mistake," Dimel said to the broadcast.
Smith had a career game in this one, even without the late score. He hauled in 10 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Blown coverage on 75-yard touchdown
Following the field goal drive, Cunningham hit his top target Jaylin Lane for a 75-yard touchdown pass on first down from scrimmage. The touchdown gave the Blue Raiders a two-score lead, 24-13, and sucked the life out of UTEP.
Defensive back Ilijah Johnson was on the coverage against Lane and struggled against the pass-heavy Blue Raiders. MTSU put up 265 passing yards on UTEP, while Lane finished with 147 receiving yards and a touchdown. Cunningham went 21-of-27 for 265 yards and three touchdowns against UTEP.
The offense stalled on the next possession near midfield and instead of going for it on fourth down, the Miners punted it away. MTSU was able to run out the clock and won the game, 24-13.
Despite the late mishap by the defense, they held their ground for most of the night. Linebacker Cal Wallerstedt led the defense with 14 total tackles, including two sacks.