The Miners played keep-away with the football, fed it to star running back Aaron Jones early and often and ultimately rolled to a 38-22 victory over the Aggies at the Sun Bowl.
Jones rushed 31 times for 249 yards (both career highs) and two long touchdowns as UTEP won its eighth straight in the Battle of I-10 in front of an announced crowd of 30,119.
The Miners built a 24-3 lead at halftime, then fought off a spirited comeback try by the Aggies in the second half.
NMSU finally found its offense and briefly threatened to make it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter. Trailing 38-22, NMSU drove inside UTEP’s 30, but the drive stalled and UTEP used Jones to effectively put the win away.
“Not where you want to be,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said of his team’s early deficit. “Playing from behind against a physical team with a great back’s tough. Jones is a special player.”
It was a disappointing if not necessarily surprising outing for the Aggies, who were without star running back Larry Rose III and linebacker Derek Ibekwe, last season’s leading tackler. Both underwent surgery last month to repair sports hernias.
Without Rose, NMSU’s offense was unable to sustain much of anything until midway through the third quarter. That left the Aggies’ defense on the field entirely too long against the grinding Miners, who finished with 37 minutes, 24 seconds of possession time to 22:36 for NMSU.
The Aggies were plagued by their own dropped passes early, which helped create the halftime hole.
“We came out slow and we didn’t come out sharp,” said wideout Royce Caldwell, who finished with three grabs for 57 yards but was guilty of a drop or two. “We didn’t run the right routes at times and we just didn’t catch the ball, big factors in that first half.”
“I thought our defense played pretty well in the first half,” he said. “We just didn’t help them out offensively.”
Both teams had a number of third-and-long situations in the first half, but UTEP proved much more adept at converting them. Jones went 18 yards on a third-and-14 play to set up one Miners score, and Quadraiz Watley later rambled for 29 yards on third-and-22 situation, setting up another TD. Both runs came on draw plays
“Our defense just didn’t get stops on third down,” said linebacker Rodney Butler, who finished with team-best 15 tackles. “I thought we played hard and had a chip on our shoulder, but we definitely could have played better.”
Both teams came out with new uniform styles. The blue-clad Miners had large orange pick emblems on their helmets, while the Aggies sported crossed pistols on one side of their crimson helmets.
Fashion statements aside, UTEP looked like the superior team for the first two quarters. Jones gave the Miners the lead for good with a 37-yard TD run on his team’s second possession, breaking a tackle and gliding into the end zone for a 7-0 UTEP lead.
NMSU answered with an impressive drive of its own and appeared to have tied the game on Tyler Rogers’ 1-yard TD pass to O.J. Clark. But a replay showed Clark was out of bounds on the catch, and the Aggies settled for a field goal to trail 7-3.
UTEP then took control in the second quarter, outscoring the visitors 17-0. Miners quarterback Zack Greenlee hit Cole Freytag for a 46-yard touchdown and later hit Warren Redix for a 3-yard score. The latter came with nine seconds left in the first half and gave UTEP its comfortable 24-3 lead.
Rogers got the Aggies’ offense moving in the second half, leading 99- and 75-yard scoring drives. Rogers rushed for a career-best 63 yards and one touchdown, but finished 17-of-41 passing for 206 yards.
NMSU did not turn the ball over but definitely hurt its own cause in other ways.
“Tyler did a good job taking care of the ball and extending plays with his legs,” Rogers said. “The dropped passes sure didn’t help, and UTEP’s third-down conversions (11 of 17) really killed us. I saw some good things tonight and our guys definitely fought even after we got behind. We’ve got things to clean up before next week, though, that’s for sure.”
New Mexico St. 3 0 13 6—22
UTEP 7 17 7 7—38
TEP—Jones 37 run (Mattox kick), 10:26.
NMS—FG Davidson 18, 06:57.
TEP—FG Mattox 23, 11:19.
TEP—Freytag 46 yd pass from Greenlee (Mattox kick), 07:42.
TEP—Redix 3 yd pass from Greenlee (Mattox kick), :14.
NMS—T.Rogers 4 run (Davidson kick), 03:57.
TEP—Plinke 11 ydpass from Greenlee (Mattox kick), 01:18.
NMS—Huntley 1 run (kick failed), :02.
TEP—Aa.Jones 75 run (Mattox kick), 15:00.
NMS—Owens 51 fumble return (pass failed), 12:33.
First downs 19 27
Rushes-yards 30-139 49-289
Passing 206 229
Comp-Att-Int 17-41-0 15-28-0
Return Yards 35 130
Punts-Avg. 7-48.3 5-43.8
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 3-1
Penalties-Yards 7-40 7-49
Time of Possession 22:36 37:24
RUSHING—New Mexico St., Rogers 9-63, Huntley 12-53, Caldwell 3-15, Hall 6-8. UTEP, Jones 31-249, Wadley 10-37, K.Johnson 3-15, Redix 1-3, Juniel 1-(minus 3), Greenlee 2-(minus 9).
PASSING—New Mexico St., Rogers 17-41-0-206. UTEP, Greenlee 15-28-0-229, Johnson 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING—New Mexico St., Scott 5-68, Clark 4-41, Caldwell 3-57, Huntley 2-7, Taylor 1-16, Aganon 1-14, Boone 1-3. UTEP, Freytag 4-95, Jones 3-43, White 2-36, Johnson 2-26, Juniel 2-15, Plinke 1-11, Redix 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.