Middle Tennessee and UTEP played like two teams battling for an automatic bowl berth in the regular-season finale for both teams at the Sun Bowl Saturday night.
In the end, an untimely turnover in the waning minutes left Middle Tennessee (6-6, 5-3) playing the waiting game following a 24-21 setback against the Miners (7-5, 5-3).
C-USA has five automatic bowl tie-ins and five league members with seven wins. Three additional teams are bowl eligible with six wins. MT and UTEP were virtually playing for one of the automatic spots.
Trailing 24-21 with less than two minutes remaining, MT appeared to be driving toward a game-tying or winning score; however, disaster struck on a second-and-goal play from the 7 with 1:31 remaining. Quarterback Austin Grammer’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Jameel Erving to thwart the scoring attempt.
The final quarter was filled with twists and turn as the lead was exchanged between the two teams.
MT rushed for 259 yards and had 358 yards total offense. Grammer led the ground attack with 106 yards on 12 carries. Shane Tucker added 101 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns.
Grammer was 9-of-16 for 99 yards passing with one interception.
Aaron Jones led UTEP’s ground attack with 147 yards on 29 carries and one touchdown.
After a tight first half that saw MT grab a 14-10 lead at intermission ball control and time of possession was a prevalent theme in the third quarter. Both teams had long, time-consuming drives to open the second half but UTEP’s ended with points and MT’s did not.
The Blue Raiders received the ball to open the third quarter and drove 57 yards to the UTEP 18 before the drive stalled and Cody Clark’s field goal attempt was short.
UTEP began its opening drive of the second half at its 18 with 8:51 remaining. It put together an impressive 13-play drive and regained the lead when Aaron Jones scored from the 7 to put his team in front, 17-14, with 1:05 remaining in the fame.
Grammer’s dual-threat ability has benefitted the Blue Raiders this season and that was the case once again at UTEP. Facing third-and-5 from the 47 on the ensuing drive, Grammer rushed 37 yards to the 10 to keep the drive alive. He capped the nine-play, 71-yard drive with a 3-yard scamper. Clark’s extra point put the Blue Raiders ahead 21-17 with 11:44 remaining.
The Miners would not go quietly. Quarterback Jameill Showers capped a 12-play drive with a 5-yard rushing touchdown to shift the lead back in their favor, 24-21, with 6:19 remaining.
It proved to be the winning margin.
Defense for both teams played well and controlled the first half.
MT owned a 14-10 lead at intermission following Tucker’s second touchdown of the half. Tucker capped a six-play drive with a 1-yard plunge. Cody Clark’s point after gave the Blue Raiders a 14-10 lead with 3:34 remaining in the half.
The Blue Raiders jumped out in front 7-0 when Tucker capped a short scoring drive with a 4-yard touchdown less than four minutes into the game.
UTEP came back with 10 unanswered points. The Miners got a 34-yard field goal from Jay Mattox to pull to within 7-3 with 5:53 remaining in the first quarter. UTEP extended the lead to 10-7 when quarterback Jameill Showers found Aaron Jones for a 72-yard touchdown on a big third-down conversion with 14:06 remaining in the half.
The score remained 10-7 until late in the half when Parker hit paydirt for the second time.