HOUSTON (KTSM) – TJ McMahon found Bradley Rozner for the winning 23-yard touchdown with 25 seconds remaining and Rice defeated UTEP 37-30 on Thursday night at Rice Stadium.

The Owls piled up 502 yards of total offense and put together a seven-play, 75-yard drive in the final minutes to get the winning score.

UTEP (4-6, 2-4 Conference USA) now must win its final two games of the season – at home vs. FIU and on the road against conference leader UTSA – in order to become bowl eligible for the second year in a row.

“We had our chances but we didn’t make the plays that Rice did,” said UTEP head coach Dana Dimel. “We had this right where we wanted but just couldn’t execute.”

The Miners opened the game with an eight-play, 78-yard scoring drive that ended in a Deion Hankins rushing touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. Rice (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) would score the next 10 points to take a 10-7 lead after one quarter.

UTEP would equalize with a Gavin Baechle field goal early in the second quarter, but TJ McMahon quickly put Rice in front 17-10 with a rushing score midway through the frame. Gavin Hardison’s seven-yard touchdown toss to James Tupou got UTEP even at 17 with 3:04 left in the first half, but Rice kicked a field goal late in the stanza to take a 20-17 lead into halftime.

UTEP managed a field goal in the third quarter to tie the game at 20, but Rice once again quickly regained the lead on a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take a 27-20 lead after three quarters.

The Miners were hit with a major bump in the road early in the fourth quarter, when Gavin Hardison went down with what appeared to be a right ankle injury and did not return to the game. Dimel said postgame that Hardison didn’t have any broken bones and would be day-to-day.

In stepped backup quarterback Calvin Brownholtz, who immediately engineered an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Brownholtz calling his own number on a 25-yard touchdown run that once again tied the game at 27.

UTEP’s defense got one of its only holds of the game on the ensuing drive, holding the Owls to a field goal that put Rice in front 30-27 with 6:52 left.

The Miners had a golden opportunity to take the lead for the first time since the first quarter on their next drive. Brownholtz converted a big third-and-long on a tight end throwback to Trent Thompson for 36 yards down to the Rice 17-yard line, but that’s when disaster once again struck for UTEP.

On 3rd and 3 from the Owls’ 10-yard line, a Brownholtz pass to Tyrin Smith fell incomplete. It was a puzzling play in the moment and head coach Dana Dimel appeared unhappy with it in the moment, especially since the Miners had the run the ball effectively with Brownholtz in the game.

“We had the game right where we wanted it at the very end. I’m envisioning just running the clock out and giving them the ball back with no time on the clock,” Dimel said. “We got into a quandary on the third down because we thought they had a player down and had stopped the clock and he wasn’t down. He got up and left the field and we were running out of time. Calvin had a dual check to check the pass, unless it was a perfect alignment and we didn’t have time and no timeouts to get him out of it. He threw a great pass and Tyrin (Smith) tried to made a good play but I envisioned running there against them if the pass wasn’t wide open. That’s the one drive I want back; I didn’t want to throw it there.”

Instead, the Miners had to settle for a Baechle field goal, which led to the Rice drive to win the game with 25 seconds left.

UTEP will have an uphill climb to get to bowl eligibility after a Nov. 12 by week now. FIU is 4-4 and much improved, but the Miners will have to beat the Panthers Nov. 19 in order to set up a last-ditch chance at bowl eligibility in the final week of the season on the road at UTSA.

The loss to Rice on Thursday night was no doubt a complete gut punch to UTEP’s chances and unless the Miners pick themselves up off the mat in a major way, it could be the knockout blow for a 2022 season that began with so much promise.