McConnell Magic in Miami! UTEP Snaps 4-Game Losing Streak at FIU, 27-14
A quarterback making his first career start and winning on the road. Flexing in front of the Lamborghini on "Vice Night" at Florida International. UTEP's first win in the state of Florida.
Yes, the Miners are still just 2-5 overall on the season, but their 27-14 win at FIU on Wednesday night is a win that could give the team more hope than they've had over the past four losses.
Now UTEP (2-5, 1-2 CUSA) will prepare for the 100th edition of the Battle of I-10, as they host NM State (4-3, 2-1 CUSA) next Wednesday at the Sun Bowl on national television (ESPN 2).
Quarterback Cade McConnell started against FIU ahead of backup Kevin Hurley and in place of the injured Gavin Hardison, who has been out since the UNLV loss with an elbow injury. McConnell impressed in his first official Division I start, completing 11-of-17 passes for 262 passing yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. It was the most passing yards in a single game for any UTEP quarterback this season.
Wide receiver Kelly Akharaiyi had a career night of his own, catching eight passes for a whopping 223 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a breakaway 80-yard receiving score on the night. His performance tied UTEP legend Johnny Lee Higgins for the 5th most receiving yards in a single game throughout program history (223, 2006 vs. NM State).
"It's so surreal," McConnell said about the game on MinerTalk. "The only thing I've wanted to do growing up is play division I football and I got the chance to start tonight and we got a win. There's nothing but happiness in the locker room. It was a good top to bottom win and it felt really good to get it."
The Miners led 21-0 in the first 12 minutes of the game. It started off with an opening game touchdown drive capped off by a one-yard rushing touchdown by running back Deion Hankins, who ended the game with 19 carries for 62 rushing yards. On UTEP's first play on their second drive, McConnell hit Akharaiyi in stride for the 80-yard touchdown. Then, to go 3-for-3 on their first three drives of the game, McConnell led a quick 48-second drive that lasted three plays, covered 72 yards and ended in—you guessed it—a 23-yard touchdown reception by Akharaiyi.
It felt like a dream watching UTEP outgain FIU 256-79 in total yards of offense in the first quarter, leading 21-0. The dream-like feeling faded away in the second quarter when the Miners turned a bit passive in their approach on offense and allowed the Panthers to score on a 94-yard touchdown drive. Still, the Miners went into halftime with a 24-7 lead thanks to a late first half 38-yard field goal by kicker Buzz Flabiano.
The defense saw stars shine in the second half when the Miner offense fell a bit flat. After the defense allowed an FIU opening third quarter touchdown score—a drive that was sparked by a third and 15 Panther conversion—the special teams fell for a Panther onside kick. FIU recovered, down 24-14, and was stumped by the UTEP defense at the Miner 46 thanks to a second down sack by Maurice Westmoreland (3.5 tackles for loss in the game, 2.5 sacks) and a fourth down tackle by linebacker Tyrice Knight.
FIU's next four drives ended in a punt, punt, interception and fumble, respectively. Credit Miner cornerback Torey Richardson with an interception in the fourth quarter off FIU quarterback Keon Jenkins. Credit Flabiano for making a 20-yard field goal to extend the Miners' lead to 27-13, while also missing two others from 33 and 42 yards out.
And credit edge rusher Praise Amaewhule for not only becoming the program's all-time leading sack record holder (21.5), but also strip-sacking Jenkins for the game-sealing turnover on the defense.
The Miners hung on to win, 27-14, for their first victory in CUSA play.
UTEP's defense racked up six sacks in the win and stopped FIU on 2-of-11 third down conversions. Third string free safety Tyler Williams, making his second career start in place of the injured Mckel Broussard and Oscar Moore, led the team in total tackles with nine.
The offense generated 441 yards of total offense. Running back Torrance Burgess Jr., who officially leads the Miners in rushing at 452 yards this season, was atop the rushers against FIU with 86 yards on 20 carries.
The Miner defensive impact players—Amaewhule, Westmoreland, Richardson and Knight—stepped up when UTEP needed them the most. A backup quarterback won on the road and offered a spark when they needed it the most.
They won on the heels of the team reeling going into the matchup with a 1-5 record. Fellow defensive players—all of whom have contributed over the past two seasons for the program—have elected to either quit the program or take a redshirt year, such as cornerbacks Ilijah Johnson and Trez Moore (formally Letrez Shelton), defensive tackle Tevita Tafuna, defensive end Bryton Thompson and backup linebacker Nate Dyman.
Some look at the season as a wash at 2-5 with an uphill battle ahead for the Miners to try and reach a bowl game knowing they have a tough stretch of Western Kentucky (Nov. 4), at Middle Tennessee (Nov. 18) and Liberty (Nov. 25) to close out the season. Not to mention the war that will be their Wednesday night matchup against NM State, which is playing solid football right now after winning three of their last four games. Sam Houston State (0-6) feels like a matchup that the Miners should win, even if it's on the road on Oct. 25.
Others might find purpose in the Miners winning games like they did against FIU, especially after adversity has punched the team in the gut for the first six weeks. Head coach Dana Dimel had high expectations for this team. The veterans of the group—those who want to be there—showed on Wednesday that this team has some fight left in them.
Either way, onto NM State week.
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Gallery Credit: Zay Galindo