Short-Handed Miners Fall 45-43 in Season Finale Versus North Texas
The 2020 regular season is finally over for UTEP.
And after a promising start at 3-1, the coronavirus hit the program in every way imaginable.
It started with North Texas refusing to come to El Paso in late October because of the city's increase in COVID-19 cases. Two weeks prior, Southern Miss was unable to board a plane to face the Miners (10/17) due to an increase of COVID-19 cases within USM's program. The following week, Florida International canceled (11/7) in similar fashion, citing not enough scholarship players available for the Panthers. The UAB game, which was temporarily moved to Midland, was canceled a week in advance because the Blazers had their own rise of positive cases within their locker room.
Then came the nightmare that was the Rice cancellation, in which the Miners had to travel home thinking they had an outbreak of 10 positives. The players who tested positive using a rapid antigen test hours before kickoff of the Rice game ended up testing negative in El Paso on Monday after the PCR test was administered. Ten false positives leading to a cancelled game and a road trip leading to nothing. Just UTEP's luck.
To make matters worse, the UTEP-Southern Miss game on Dec. 4 had been already canceled before the Miners learned about their false positive tests.
All the madness led up to Friday against North Texas. There were two twists leading up to the game as well: (1) UTEP agreed to play the game in Denton instead of El Paso in order to get the game played and (2) four different Miner defensive backs (Broderick Harrell, Dy'vonne Inyang, Duron Lowe and Dennis Barnes) entered the transfer portal, opting out of the season before the game.
Still, head coach Dana Dimel wanted to play the Mean Green.
It would be only their third game since Oct. 10.
"The reasons we want to play is for the development of our players and also the opportunity for us to get to a .500 record and make ourselves bowl eligible," Dimel said Monday.
When UTEP-North Texas kicked off for the regular season finale, there was no sight of their starting quarterback Gavin Hardison. In fact, he didn't make the trip to Denton. Per the television broadcast, he was out due to COVID-19 contact tracing.
Dimel was forced to throw in Calvin Brownholtz as the starting quarterback against North Texas.
UTEP got off to a quick start in the opening half, as defensive end Praise Amaewhule fell on top of a fumbled North Texas snap. To capitalize on the turnover, Brownholtz raced away on a 27-yard touchdown run.
Two drives later, it was the Mean Green that converted on a Miner mishap. Brownholtz threw an interception on their third offensive possession and North Texas scored on the next play with a 46-yard pass from Austin Aune to Deonte Simpson.
Yet, the Miners responded again with an eight-play, 69-yard drive resulting in a one-yard rushing score by Deion Hankins, who was set up by an exceptional 29-yard run by Brownholtz.
Jaelon Darden, the North Texas standout receiver, scored on the next play with a 75-yard reception. They added a go-ahead field goal late in the second quarter to lead 17-14.
Things looked a bit rocky when Brownholtz tossed his second interception of the game late in the first half. However, North Texas was unable to score off the takeaway and turned the ball over on downs. Using their two-minute offense, the Miners were able to get another touchdown on the board before the half ended as Hankins capped off a 67-yard drive with a seven-yard rushing score.
The undermanned Miners went up 21-17 at the half. They led the Mean Green 22:39-7:21 in time of possession.
Out of the half, the Miners fell into their old ways by turning the ball over on two key possessions. Brownholtz had his third and fourth interceptions of the game in the third quarter, leading to 14 points by the Mean Green.
UTEP's backup gunslinger shook off his third quarter woes and hit Jacob Cowing for a 28-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the fourth quarter, cutting it to a field goal game (31-28).
North Texas found a way to separate themselves after back-to-back touchdown passes from Aune to Darden in the fourth quarter, going ahead 45-28.
Even though the Miners got a pair of late touchdowns - a Cowing 17-yard touchdown reception and a five-yard rushing touchdown by Brownholtz - their spirited comeback came a little too late and North Texas held on, 45-43.
"Really proud of the effort tonight," Dimel said. "Some of the guys that were thrown in the fire and stepped up in a big way. We were a play or two away from winning it.
Brownholtz ended the game completing 10-of-26 passes for 196 yards, two passing touchdowns, four interceptions, 114 rushing yards and two rushing scores.
Hankins rushed for 99 yards on 22 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns as well. Another Miner that scored a pair of touchdowns was Cowing, who finished with five receptions for 118 receiving yards. Defensively, Breon Hayward led the team with 16 total tackles.
North Texas QB Aune ended the game throwing for 302 passing yards and five passing touchdowns. His star receiver Darden caught eight passes for 173 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He became the program's all-time leader in receiving yards and receptions.
Now, the Miners will turn to the 2021 season and get ready for the off-season following the roller coaster season that was 2020.