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UTEP fans make themselves at home in NM Bowl

The Gildan New Mexico Bowl finally came up with a non-Mountain West Conference foe that brought plenty of fans to University Stadium.

It’s too bad the UTEP Miners didn’t bring their offense.

The Miners had one of the largest fan bases in the nine-year history of the bowl – estimated by coach Sean Kugler as between 8,000 to 10,000 – but the Conference USA team didn’t give it much to cheer about during Utah State’s lackluster 21-6 win Saturday.

The Miners showed little offensive spark until the final minutes of a game that featured botched chip-shot, field-goal attempts, a pile of punts and very few big plays.

This certainly wasn’t 2012, when Arizona scored two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds of the game to beat Nevada 49-48, or last year when Colorado State scored the game’s final 18 points in the last three minutes to beat Washington State 48-45.

In fact, until Utah State scored a meaningless touchdown on first down with 1:33 remaining on an 11-yard Joe Hill run – a questionable call considering UTEP was down to one timeout and it was seemingly knee-drop time – it would have been the lowest scoring game in the bowl’s history with the lowest-ever point total by the winning team.

Utah State (10-4), of the Mountain West Conference, won despite completing just five passes, going 0-for-2 on field-goal attempts and running just 52 plays.

But UTEP (7-6) was the main offensive culprit.

The Miners had only seven first downs and 195 yards until finally putting a decent drive together late in the game that produced a field goal that made it 14-6 with just 3:02 remaining.

“We shot ourselves in the foot, because we didn’t execute this game at all in the run game,” said UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers, who was 13-of-24 passing for 126 yards.

The Miners also had eight penalties for 75 yards. During Kugler’s two years as UTEP’s head coach, it matched the team’s most miscues and was its most yards penalized.

“Several of our penalties were costly today,” Kugler said.

The biggest came with about 90 seconds left in the first half and UTEP facing a second-and-1 at the USU 5, trailing 7-3. The Miners were called for holding on a running play, then came away scoreless when the holder dropped the snap on a 25-yard field-goal attempt on fourth down.

HOME ON THE ROAD: While the Mountain West squad would seemingly be the home team – considering it’s had a representative in all nine games and the game is played on the field of a MWC team – the Miners were designated the home squad Saturday, despite it being the first of a six-year agreement between C-USA and the MWC.

Just New Mexico hospitality, perhaps?

Not exactly. The home fans were located on the east side, which is the side the ESPN cameras showed during the afternoon. And the fans from nearby El Paso far outnumbered the folks from Logan, Utah.

“Our fans are outstanding,” Kugler said. “I think we filled up that whole side. They were vocal. They’ve been great all year. … We’ve got the best fans in the world.”

BUYER’S MARKET: Nobody was quite sure how many UTEP fans would show up on game day, considering the school’s Don Haskins Center was sold out for a 9 p.m. tipoff Friday night for the Miners’ 60-55 loss to No. 3 Arizona in men’s basketball. But the fans came in droves Saturday, and many probably got some pretty sweet deals.

A Journal reporter found a number of scalpers greeting UTEP fans at the stadium with tickets priced from $5 to $20 – or less. About 15 minutes prior to kickoff, a handful of fans said folks just came up and gave them tickets for free.

The announced attendance was 28,275 – the fourth largest crowd in bowl history – but officials wouldn’t say how many tickets were given out for free.

NAPIER PLAYS: Cleveland High graduate Sterling Napier, a redshirt freshman for UTEP, didn’t make the stat sheet but got in the game for at least back-to-back plays in the first half and threw a pair of blocks from his tight end position.

ALSO AT HOME: Utah State coach Matt Wells, a former assistant in the University of New Mexico football program for three years – two under Rocky Long and one under Mike Locksley – said his return to Albuquerque was all about his players.

But after the game, he said it was special for him to win here, as well.

“Yeah, it did,” Wells said when asked whether it felt good leaving that particular field with a bowl win. “After it was over, you see a lot of guys. (Lobo baseball) Coach (Ray) Birmingham coming up, some of the other boosters, first-team guys, old Lobos – the (guys from) Rocky’s era a little bit.

“But, again, it’s not about me or that, coming back to Albuquerque. It’s about all these players.”