There’s been an ugly, recurring theme with Sean Kugler coached UTEP teams.
A non-existent passing game, and the continued reliance of Aaron Jones persistently haunts UTEP and puts them in deep, early holes and Saturday’s 34-7 loss to Southern Miss was the ultimate example.
The Miner defense kept Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens in check for the most part, limiting him to just 176 yards through the air. But an 1-of-11 on third down conversions clip for the UTEP offense was the wrong formula as UTEP dropped their third straight Saturday night.
UTEP’s defense came out strong, holding Southern Miss to just a field goal on three of their first four drives, and Aaron Jones got the Miners on the board with the first touchdown of the evening in true Aaron Jones style.
After a 41-yard punt by Tyler Sarrazin pinned UTEP at their own 7-yard line. It took Aaron Jones just two plays, and a 68-yard touchdown sprint to put UTEP up 7-3 with 5:37 left in the first quarter.
But after a poor UTEP three-and-out following another solid defensive series by UTEP, Nick Mullens and Southern Miss would take advantage and grab the lead for good.
Mullens would engineer a 7-play, 73 yard drive finished off with a 6-yard back shoulder fade touchdown pass to D.J. Thompson who was matched up with UTEP freshman corner Justin Rogers which put Southern Miss ahead 10-7 with 6:39 left until halftime.
UTEP netted minus-3 yards on their first two second quarter drives, and saw three first half drives end with killer penalties forcing UTEP into third and unmanageable situations in all three instances.
The third proved to be the most costly after what appeared to be a UTEP first down on a seven yard Zack Greenlee to Cole Freytag completion was negated due to a pick called on Warren Redix during a key third down play.
UTEP would end up punting, and gave up a 25-yard punt return to Allenzae Staggers which would set up a score by the Golden Eagles.
One play after the return, Ito Smith took a screen pass 28-yards untouched to put the Golden Eagles ahead 17-7 with 3:57 left in the second quarter.
On UTEP’s next drive, Zack Greenlee would have a pass attempt tipped, and picked off by Curtis Mikell, setting up a back breaking Southern Miss touchdown drive.
Mullens would hit Staggers from 3-yards out capping a five play, 47-yard drive giving the Golden Eagles a commanding 24-7 lead at halftime.
Five of UTEP’s six first half drives ended in three-and-outs, as Aaron Jones had 117 of UTEP’s 120 total yards in the opening 30-minutes. UTEP put up 21 yards in the second quarter all of which were net gains from Jones.
UTEP’s defense would come up with a turnover to give UTEP some sort of life early in the second half, but disaster would strike again in the form a Southern Miss pick six.
The Miners would drive 48-yards in six plays, including a 33-yard reception by Cole Freytag off a nice play action call. But four plays later, with UTEP inside the Southern Miss five yard line, Greenlee would lazily throw up a jump ball off his back foot, and Curtis Mikell would pick off his second pass of the night.
100-yards later, Mikell would put the Golden Eagles up 31-7 midway through the third quarter as he ran the length of the Sun Bowl turf untouched.
Greenlee finished the night 7-of-15 for 62 yards and two interceptions. He was replaced by Ryan Metz who went 7-of-14 for 51-yards in mop up duties.
After the game Sean Kugler said the quarterback situation will be reevaluated after another ugly performance.
Jones finished with 127 yards on 16 carries, with the Miners lone touchdown. But the bad news is Jones was hurt on a blatant hit out of bounds in the first half, and was nursing his right foot late in the fourth quarter on the bench.
Sean Kugler said Jones status is unknown.
The Golden Eagles finished with 378 total yards, and averaged 5.7 yards per play. Ito Smith carried 16 times for 108 yards, Mullens finished with three touchdown tosses on the night.
UTEP;s offense averaged just 4.7 yards per play, turned it over three times, and the Miners were flagged six times for 57 yards which buried UTEP early and often.
The Miners have now been outscored 141-28 over the past three games, and will take their 1-3 record on the road to Ruston, Louisiana next week.