Devastation in the desert: North Texas beats up UTEP in sold out Sun Bowl

Courtesy of UNT Football

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EL PASO – The dream rarely matches reality. UTEP can tell you that. 

Hopes were high in a sold-out Sun Bowl as the UTEP Miners started the 2022 campaign with a home game against Conference USA foe North Texas. Dana Dimel’s squad is hoping to reach consecutive bowl games for only the second time in the 21st Century. But a one-hour lightning delay, and a physical Mean Green rushing attack, strangled hope away from the 45,971 fans in attendance. 

The Mean Green rushing attack paced North Texas as a stable of running backs that included Ayo Adeyi, Isaiah Johnson, and Oscar Adaway chipped away at the UTEP defensive front. That combined with an efficient and timely passing attack led by quarterback Austin Aune proved too much for the hometown Miners, as the Mean Green won 31-13 in El Paso. 

Weathering the storm

The lightning wasn’t the only explosive obstacle in North Texas’ way on Saturday night. The Miners’ offense is known as a boom-or-bust unit that specializes in big plays. UTEP was converting those big plays in the first half as quarterback Gavin Hardison threw for 206 yards on 13 completions in the first half. The Miners averaged 26.6 yards a completion in the first half. But that changed as the game went on and Mean Green defensive coordinator Phil Bennett adjusted. UTEP only completed two passes for 13 yards in the third quarter while North Texas outscored the Miners 14-0 over that time and put the game away. North Texas' defense caused three turnovers on downs, including a crucial stop in the red zone early in the game, an interception, and recovered a fumble. UTEP didn't score in the second half. 

Aune up 

The Mean Green quarterback hears a lot of doubt. The passing game struggled in Denton during the 2021 season with North Texas throwing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12) in 2021. Aune himself threw the same amount of touchdowns and interceptions (9) last year. But like a golfer who loves a particular course, Aune enjoys playing against the Miners. He’s 3-0 as a starter against UTEP after the win on Saturday night. He threw for 542 yards, six touchdowns, and zero interceptions while not being sacked once in his previous two starts against UTEP. He finished the game on Saturday with 236 yards for three touchdowns and no interceptions on 16 of 28 passing. He wasn’t sacked one time by the Miners. The Mean Green are a bowl team with a chance to be the surprise of C-USA if Aune plays at this level in every conference game. Nine of Aune's 26 career touchdown passes are against UTEP. 

Disappointment in the desert 

Week 0 games rarely carry the weight of this matchup between UTEP and North Texas, and the pressure was squarely on the home team. The Miners haven’t sold out the Sun Bowl since Texas was in El Paso in 2008, and let’s face it, that was the Longhorns selling out the stadium. The last sell out for a conference game was back in 2005. The Miners scraped and clawed to get more than 40,000 fans into the stadium, but the disappointing loss might keep the Miners from realizing that same dream again for some time. There was buzz surrounding UTEP entering the season because of the seven-win 2021, and time might prove that this loss isn’t that devastating on the field because the program can reach six wins, but this loss feels devastating for the momentum built over the last 12 months. The Miners offense missed big-play wide receivers Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett, and the defense missed linebacker Breon Hayward. 

Game Ball - North Texas tight end Jake Roberts 

The 6-5, 250-pound sophomore from Oklahoma was Aune's security blanket on third down and in the red zone during the win over UTEP. Roberts caught four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown as Aune spreaded the wealth in the passing game. Roberts provides the Miners with a unique weapon on offense. He's a throwback who is big enough to stay on the field with his hand in the dirt as a blocker and athletic enough to get in space and hurt linebackers and safeties in coverage. He was at his best when Aune needed a play to extend a play. His second-half touchdown reception was the final nail in UTEP's coffin. Roberts is poised for a big season. 

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