I’ve been to a lot of football games in my day. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the air leave a stadium TWICE like it did in the Sun Bowl Saturday night.
The first time happened as I arrived to the Sun Bowl Saturday. As I mentioned on my Group of 5 Magical Mystery Tour column, I am hoping to get to quite a few games this season, and this Week Zero trip from Washington DC to El Paso came together. So imagine my disappointment when I arrived only to see strikes of lightning overhead. Myself and about 40,000 of my closest new friends hung out in the concourse for about an hour until the storm passed. For a game promoted as a sell-out involving two teams on the come-up in Conference USA, the wind came and went with the storm…and took some of the anticipation of the game with it.
If you were one of the 100 people or so who happens to have Stadium, you may have seen the game. But if you didn’t and only saw a box score, you pretty clearly see how the 31-13 North Texas victory played out. Which leads me to the second time the air left the stadium.
With about two minutes remaining in the first half and the Miners trailing 14-10, quarterback Gavin Hardison was scrambling around in an attempt to make a play. Finally, he saw receiver Tyrin Smith streaking wide open towards the end zone about 50 yards away. Hardison launched the ball towards his target… and the ball bounced off Smith’s hands falling to the ground.
From that point on, the Miner offense was never the same.
Sure, after a Miner punt, they were able to force a turnover and convert that into a field goal, trimming the lead to 14-13 heading into halftime. But the damage was done. For a vast majority of the first half, UTEP was having success throwing downfield on the Mean Green defense. But once that fool’s gold went away, there wasn’t much left. The second half was all North Texas, and the rest was history.
So with a conference game already in hand before Week One even begins, where does each team stand? Let’s examine.
The Mean Green have established their identity. They are predicated on an outstanding running game, solid defense and quarterback Austin Aune being efficient. It’s a formula that should serve them well this year. UNT actually has a stable of four very talented running backs: Ayo Adeyi, Isaiah Johnson, Oscar Adaway and Ikaika Ragsdale (all sophomores by the way). Any one of them can go off for a big game at any time. Meanwhile Aune, who beat out incoming transfer Grant Gunnell for the starting qb position, showed he earned the starting role by going 16-29 for 236 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers may not scream Heisman candidate, but for a guy who finished last season with a 1:1 TD to INT ratio, not making mistakes was a welcome sign.
The defense was expected to be a strength, and once they settled in they didn’t disappoint. The UTEP offense was completely shut down in the second half. All-conference candidate Ronald Awatt was held to 36 yards rushing on 10 carries. It was, quite frankly, an ugly second half, which is just what the Mean Green wanted. If they can take that approach into their next game Saturday against SMU (a future conference opponent) in Denton, that game could be very interesting. Going forward, their conference schedule is still very tough (games on the road against UTSA, UAB and Western Kentucky) so I don’t know if they break through as a conference threat. But if Aune plays like he did Saturday throughout the course of the season, then they will no doubt be interesting.
Miner fans, this team is going to be a roller coaster ride, so hold on.
The first two drives of the game, the Miners marched down the field basically behind Hardison chucking it deep. The problem is, those drives resulted in a missed field goal and a botched 4th and Goal from the 1. If they would have capitalized on those drives (not to mention that missed deep ball at the end of the first half), the trajectory of the game probably looks different.
Hardison is an absolutely electric quarterback, but his decision making HAS to improve. He finished 21-48 but threw for 293 yards, a vast majority in the first half. I made the comment on Twitter that he has that Brett Favre gunslinger mentality, which is fun to watch if you have no vested interest, but if he is turning the ball over it is problematic. The Miner offense has to remember that Awatt is a stud behind him. I’m not a coach, but running the ball to set up the deep pass seems like a much more sound strategy. That may not go well this week against Oklahoma, but with New Mexico St. and New Mexico in back-to-back weeks afterwards, it may be effective.
I thought that this team could surprise in Conference USA. Saturday night’s game showed they are probably not a threat to the top tier of teams, but I still believe they can be a bowl team. There is no doubt talent on both sides of the ball, they just need to clean things up a little bit.
As an aside, while the game may not have gone the way the home team wanted, I did want to point out that the Sun Bowl absolutely delivered. I don’t know if I would classify El Paso as a “college town” (based on the fact that the campus bookstore was closed on gameday and tailgating was essentially a few dudes drinking Dos Equis in the parking lot) but the brewery was solid and the food was outstanding. Shout-out to Deadbeach Brewery.
As for the Sun Bowl, largely considered one of the most picturesque views in all of college football. Let’s just say the setting was absolutely as awesome as I wanted it to be.
The hospitality was outstanding. I got to meet Paydirt Pete!
I have several more games on the docket this year. Here’s hoping I’m not a home team jinx.