EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – UTEP missed on a pair of plays in the final moments of its game against Jacksonville State on Saturday, which led to the Miners suffering a 17-14 loss in its 2023 season opener at Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium.

Down 17-14, with 1:21 to go in the 4th quarter, UTEP was at JSU’s 24-yard and faced 3rd and 1. UTEP elected to pass the ball. UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison targeted wide receiver Kelly Akharaiyi on a fade route into the corner of the end zone. It looked like Akharaiyi made the catch at first, but Jax State cornerback Derek Carter got a hand in there and broke up the play.

“The call was ‘if you got a shot, take it,” Akharaiyi said. “He trusted me to make that play and obviously I didn’t come down with it. I just have to track down that ball in a different way because the defensive back just made a hell of a play.”

Akharaiyi’s successful touchdown catch on a similar route earlier in the game was a big reason UTEP head coach Dana Dimel said he made the call to pass the ball on that 3rd and 1 play.

“We knew, after he caught the one touchdown that got called back, and then the other one where he just ran right by their guys, that we felt comfortable in him doing it again,” Dimel said. “That’s why I gave Gavin [Hardison] the green light and it was pretty much my call to throw that fade ball.”

After an incompletion on 3rd and 1, UTEP used its final timeout and faced a game deciding 4th and 1 possession. On 4th and 1, UTEP passed the ball again, and Hardison threw his second interception of the game and a costly one as that ended UTEP’s hopes of coming out with a win.

All the major players involved in the play seemed to like the play call but not the execution of it.

“On fourth down, we ran motion, and nobody ran with the motion, so we had two guys that they didn’t run with, so they completely busted defensively, but our two receivers ran into each other because the one receiver got into a collision real hard coming off the line of scrimmage. There’s actually one defender over the top three guys on that play right there, and we just didn’t get it converted.” Dimel said.

“The call was to throw it and it was a great play,” UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison said. “If we just executed it right it would have been there, but I forced it and now we are here.”

“At the end of the day the play calls were right, we just didn’t execute,” Hardison said. “So, it comes down to us as a team, us as an offense and this is something we need to learn from and be better.”

When asked if he would have run the ball instead on either plays, Dimel explained his thought process behind the pass play calls.

“There are two schools of thought there. It was a calculated decision, but it didn’t work. The calculation was with the time getting to where it was getting to, I thought we needed to move and get some yardage as quickly as we could,” Dimel said. “I felt like that was our chance to get big play. Just to explain everybody, what goes on in a coach’s mind, is if we get that first down now, they’re going to go back into their umbrella type of look. So, I was playing to win. I wasn’t playing to tie. I wanted to go win that game and that’s aggressiveness. If I was playing for the tie, I would have ran the ball.”

In that game, UTEP also had the option to settle for a game-tying field goal attempt by freshman kicker Buzz Flabiano, but Dimel elected to put the game in the hands of more experienced players.

“If it was Gavin [Baechle}, I probably would have kicked it, but again in that situation, that [a field goal attempt] obviously crossed my mind,” Dimel said. “I didn’t want to put one play to tie the game on a freshman. I wanted to put two plays on seniors and experienced guys to win the game.”

“I said to myself, ‘Do we want to put it on our best players like Kelly [Akharaiyi], Gavin [Hardison] and Tyrin [Smith] to win a game? Or do I want to put it on a freshman to tie a game?’.”

Dimel clarified that his reasoning not to send Flabiano — who had earlier in the game missed a 43-yard field goal — out for another 40+ yard field goal was not because of lack of confidence.

“It’s not that I lack confidence in him because the 42-yard kick looked really good and he just missed it by two feet to the right,” Dimel said. “But it just was like, let’s don’t put it on freshman when you can put on some of your best players.”

Despite the result, Dimel and UTEP had no regrets when it came to the late game play calls.

“The [plays] didn’t work so they’re not good calls, right?” Dimel said. “That’s just that’s the way it goes, but again, being conservative or being aggressive, I chose to be aggressive in that situation and when it works, you win the game and when it doesn’t work, you lose the game. That’s just the part that’s just part of everything that you deal with.”

“I was playing to win, and I felt our best way to win it was right off the get go, instead of having to go into overtime,” Dimel said. “I’ve thought it over. It didn’t work, but I wouldn’t do it any other way if I had the chance.”

UTEP will seek its first win of the 2023 season when it hosts Incarnate Word at the Sun Bowl on Saturday.