As advertised, Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl matchup was contested strength on strength: UTEP’s running game vs. Utah State’s rushing defense.
In the end, despite a few blind alleys along the way, it was no contest.
Utah State, stuffing UTEP’s bread-and-butter running game for most of a pleasant December afternoon, took a 21-6 victory over the Miners.
Utah State finishes with a 10-4 record. UTEP takes a 7-6 record into the offseason.
The bowl victory was Utah State’s third in a row and gave the program an unprecedented 30 victories over the past three seasons.
“My hat’s off to our players,” Aggies coach Matt Wells said. “They earned this win. They earned 30 wins over three years, and I’m proud to be their coach.”
UTEP coach Sean Kugler lamented some mistakes not typical of his team that hurt the Miners throughout the afternoon.
“Utah State did a great job. My hat goes off to them,” Kugler said. “They’re a very good team, a very physical team. … But I think when we got down in the red zone we shot our own selves in the foot with penalties that put us behind the eight ball.
“Penalties, negative plays, drops, those type things that put you behind the chains. That’s what we’ve been relying on (avoiding) all year, and we didn’t do a great job of it today.”
Bottom line, though: Utah State’s defense dominated.
UTEP running back Aaron Jones, who entered the game averaging 5.7 yards per carry on the season, rushed 25 times for 88 yards – a 3.5-yard average. Whether on the ground or in the air, the Miners had only four plays of 10 yards or more.
The Miners possessed the ball for more than 36 of the game’s official 60 minutes, yet never scored a touchdown. They converted only five of 20 third-down opportunities.
UTEP senior quarterback Jameill Showers found wide receiver Ian Hamilton with a 53-yard pass in the first quarter, setting up a 32-yard Jay Mattox field goal that gave the Miners an early lead.
But Showers finished with just 126 yards passing and 24 yards rushing.
“We didn’t execute in this game at all in the run game,” Showers said. “They had too much penetration up front, and that was pretty much the tale of the game.”
On Utah State’s first possession after Mattox’s field goal, Aggies freshman quarterback Kent Myers scored on a 48-yard keeper to give USU a lead it would not relinquish.
“(The play) was a zone read, and our offensive line gave me great blocking and freed me up,” said Myers, who became the Aggies’ starting quarterback after the team’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3 quarterbacks were lost to injury during the season.
Myers, voted the game’s Offensive Most Valuable Player, rushed for 70 yards – actually, he rushed for 100, but lost 30 on sacks and negative runs. He passed for only 68 yards, but his 46-yard completion to slot receiver JoJo Natson set up a 3-yard Nick Vigil touchdown run that gave Utah State a 14-3 lead.
The young quarterback absorbed some huge hits, including a sack by blitzing UTEP cornerback Adrian James that forced a second-quarter fumble – recovered by the Miners’ Alvin Jones at the Utah State 24-yard line – and briefly knocked Myers out of the game.
UTEP, however, failed to cash in. On a fourth-and-4 from the Utah State 8, Miners holder Mike Ruggles bobbled a snap on a field-goal attempt.
The Miners never got that close to the Utah State goal line again.
In the fourth quarter, a 16-play, 54-yard, 6-minute, 56-second UTEP drive produced a 34-yard Mattox field goal that cut the Utah State lead to 14-6 with 3:02 left in the game.
But the Aggies countered with a four-play scoring drive that locked the game away. Running back Joe Hill set up the touchdown with a 32-yard run and got the TD from 11 yards out.
Utah State held the Miners to an average of 3.2 yards per rush, almost exactly the Aggies’ average yield during the season.
Zach Vigil, Utah State’s All-America senior linebacker, finished with nine tackles and was named the game’s Defensive Most Valuable Player.
Vigil said he and his fellow defensive players felt vindicated after having been strafed for 50 points in a regular-season-ending loss to Boise State.
“That was something we wanted to come out and prove,” he said, “that we were a good, run-stopping defense.”