In the words of head coach Bob Davie, New Mexico football’s first half against UTEP on Saturday was “wobbly.”
If that’s the case, then by the end of the game it was a breakdown.
The Lobos rallied from a 24-7 halftime deficit to tie the season opener at 24 in the fourth quarter, but their comeback attempt was stopped thanks to three turnovers in the last six-and-a-half minutes. The Miners converted the second turnover, a fumbled punt return by wide receiver Dameon Gamblin, into seven points and held on for a 31-24 victory at University Stadium.
“For whatever reason, early in the game we were just tippy-toeing around, just kind of wobbly,” Davie said. “On offense we had a lot of mistakes in the first half, just things that surprise you that happened. Going in you ask if you’re going to be better on defense; the first half, definitely not.”
UNM did have one last chance to tie the game after UTEP running back Aaron Jones scored his third touchdown of the night to give the Miners a 31-24 lead. Quarterback Clayton Mitchem, who came in for starter Cole Gautsche after he hurt his hamstring at the beginning of the fourth quarter, drove the Lobos past midfield but was intercepted on third-and-19 to end the game.
Davie said Monday that Gautsche will miss next week’s home game against Arizona State. Prior to the injury, Gautsche rushed for a career-high 184 yards on 14 carriers with two touchdowns.
“It’s that much difference running the triple. It’s a big difference,” Davie said. “We had some opportunities at the end; it doesn’t change significantly. It’s just the execution in the option game isn’t as crisp.”
Offensively and defensively, the Lobos were out of sync in the first half. UNM had several bad snaps from center LaMar Bratton and seemed unable to finish off drives. The defense didn’t look much better in its new scheme as UTEP gained 326 yards, 227 on the ground, in the first half.
The Lobos’ miscues led the Miners to a commanding 24-7 halftime lead.
Jones scored the first touchdown of the game on a 12-yard burst up the middle. Gautsche answered with a quarterback keeper for 68 yards to tie the game at seven-all.
UTEP then took control of the game with 17 unanswered points. Miner quarterback Jameill Showers hit a wide-open Jarrad Shaw for a 48-yard score. After a field goal, Jones broke several tackles during a 73-yard touchdown run and the Miners led 24-7.
“Just unacceptable performance in the first half,” Davie said. “Their head coach got their guys ready to play and our head coach here didn’t get their guys ready to play. It’s that simple.”
In the third quarter the Lobos came alive. Tailback Teriyon Gipson scored on a 13-yard scamper, and then Gautsche pulled UNM within three points thanks to a 51-yard score.
The defense held UTEP out of the end zone when running back Nathan Jeffery was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from UNM’s 1-yard line. On the ensuing possession, Lobo kicker Zack Rogers tied the game in the fourth quarter with a 35-yard field goal. Gautsche injured his hamstring on a 33-yard run on that same drive.
The Lobo defense stepped up in the second half and allowed just 120 yards.
“We at least had a little fire; at least we had a little emotion. It’s frustrating to watch, but I think we can get better,” Davie said. “I think we hung in there and we played a lot of guys on defense. We played a lot of young guys.”
After the Miners were forced to punt, the Lobos looked well on their way to break the tie. However, on third-and-6 inside UTEP territory, halfback Jhurell Pressley fumbled a pitch from Mitchem and the Miners recovered.
UTEP didn’t capitalize on UNM’s mistake and its next drive stalled at midfield. On the Miners’ punt, Gamblin fumbled the ball and UTEP recovered to score two plays later, for the final score of 31-24.
“I can say that games like these definitely hurt the most just because you’re right there and you can almost taste and smell and feel the victory,” UNM’s Bratton said. “And just like any moment, it can be taken away just like that.”
As a team, the Lobos rushed 52 times for 410 yards. Pressley was UNM’s second leading rusher with 84 yards on nine carries. Gipson had 71 yards on 13 tries. Gautsche and Mitchem combined to complete five out of nine passes for just 67 yards.
UTEP’s Jones rushed for a career-high 243 yards on 22 attempts. Jeffery ran 14 times for 85 yards.
Lobo cornerback Cranston Jones suffered an elbow injury and might miss next week’s game against ASU, Davie said.