EL PASO, Texas -- For just over a half of play, Florida International fought the good fight.
But a series of mistakes, misplays and just plain bad luck in a decisive third quarter all conspired to help spell a 33-10 defeat to host UTEP in a battle of 1-8 teams Saturday night at the Sun Bowl.
UTEP tilback Nathan Jeffery had 25 carries for 130 yards and two touchdowns, starting for injured freshman Aaron Jones, while backup quarterback Blaire Sullivan added eight carries for 104 yards to lead an offense that rushed for 327 total yards.
Trailing by only 10 points heading into the third quarter, the Golden Panthers got just the break they needed when Corey White recovered UTEP Jim Jones’ fumbled punt return, advancing the loose ball 36 yards to the Miner four in front of a crowd of 29,822. But upon further review, Jones was ruled down prior to the ball coming loose. FIU running back Silas Spearman’s fumble in his own end zone for a safety and UTEP star receiver Jordan Leslie’s 64-yard touchdown catch with FIU six-foot freshman corner Wilkensen Myrtil hanging all over him followed shortly after, removing all doubt on the final decision.
“We've just got to stay together as a team,” first-year head coach Ron Turner said upon heading back to Miami to prepare for its final home date next Saturday versus 7-3 Marshall. “Keep fighting, keep fighting and keep getting better.”
UTEP (2-8, 1-5 in Conference USA) attacked the FIU (1-9, 1-5) run defense early and often, rushing on 17 of its first 18 snaps en route to a quick 10-0 edge just over nine minutes into the contest. Miner starting quarterback Mack Leftwich, a true freshman playing in just his second career game, rolled right on the one non-run, finding running back Josh Bell in the right flat for a key fourth-and-1 pickup, setting up Autrey Golden‘s 4-yard touchdown run to break the scoring ice at the 8:40 mark. Back-up UTEP quarterback Blaire Sullivan 56-yard tote down the left sidelines set up a 34-yard Jay Mattox field goal to push the lead to two scores.
“They kept running it, but not internally,” said FIU defensive tackle isame Faciane, who who plugged that middle with a season-best 12 tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage. “They kept running to the outside.”
But, a defensive holding penalty that handed FIU its first first down of the evening sparked the offense late in that quarter. Lamar Caldwell followed with an 8-yard run off guard to move the sticks a play before 6-4 sophomore receiver Dominique Rhymes won a jump ball along the right sidelines for a 32-yard gainer. It was Caldwell who would cap the seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, finding sophomore T.J. Louder all alone in the right corner of the end zone with the 16-yard halfback option pass to get within 10-7 at the 45 second mark of the first.
A Golden 60-yard kickoff return got UTEP back deep in FIU territory early in the second quarter, but 5-foot-9 Golden Panther cornerback Randy Harvey’s end zone tip away from 6-5 Miner receiver Ian Hamilton -- and UTEP kicker Mattox missing his first of two errant chip shot field goal attempts -- kept the margin at three.
“We just couldn't keep it going,” Turner said. “Turnovers and things like that. We just couldn't do it.”
That was until the Miners closed the first 30 minutes with a nine-play, 65-yard drive. Another Sullivan 35-yard run left got the Miners close enough for tailback Nathan Jeffery to do the honors, cracking across on fourth-and-goal from the one with 41 seconds left to hand UTEP a 17-7 advantage at the break.
Lamarq Caldwell led FIU’s offense with 20 carries for 95 yards.