LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (KTSM) – New Mexico State had been dominant in recent years against rival UTEP. That train came to a screeching halt on Saturday night in the 98th edition of the Battle of I-10.
The Miners flipped the script and instead rolled the Aggies, 30-3, to beat NMSU for the first time since 2016, snapping a three-game losing streak against their rivals.
With the win, the silver spade and brass spittoon return to El Paso and with it, high hopes for the Miners to potentially make a bowl game in Dana Dimel’s fourth year as head coach. Dimel picked up his first win over NMSU as UTEP’s coach on Saturday as well.
“Bringing coach Dimel in, we had a plan to turn the program around and that’s what we’re gonna do this year,” said redshirt sophomore defensive end Praise Amaewhule. “It’s definitely a slow building process, it won’t be done overnight. It’s like a puzzle game. We’re putting the pieces together and now we’re making the final picture in 2021.”
Playing NMSU for the first time since 2019, after the Aggies sat out the whole 2020 season due to COVID-19, UTEP made the most the opportunity, scoring on each of its first three drives of the game to take a 17-0 lead after the first quarter.
“Looking at the team we have we’re so talented on both sides of the ball. The defense brings something, the offense brings something, but the thing I like the most is that we have so much depth,” said running back Ronnie Awatt.
The game slowed down from there, but UTEP’s dominance did not. The Miners kept the Aggies out of the end zone and in five trips to the red zone, NMSU managed just one field goal. UTEP’s offense out-gained NMSU 452-190, as Gavin Hardison commanded the game well. The Miners converted all four of their red zone trips into points.
“Once you win it gives you momentum, but you can coach them harder. We can fix the things we need to fix and we can coach them harder to get better,” said Dimel. “I never want to forget how great it feels to get a win and take away from the effort they gave and the hard work they put in.”
Hardison was 11-16 for 249 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He hooked up with favored targets Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett early and often. Cowing caught five passes for 158 yards and a touchdown; Garrett had four catches for 74 yards.
The Miners want to be balanced offensively in year one under new offensive coordinator Dave Warner and that was on display. In addition to Hardison’s 249 passing yards, eight different ball carriers combined to rush for 203 yards. Leading the way was Ronnie Awatt, who went for 74 yards and a touchdown; Quardraiz Wadley ran for 51 yards; and Deion Hankins rushed for 50 yards.
New Mexico State did not play football in the fall of 2020 due to COVID-19, instead playing two games against FCS competition in the spring. That was painfully apparent for Doug Martin’s crew in the season opener, to no fault of their own.
Jonah Johnson got the start at quarterback for NMSU, going 8-24 for 82 yards, while also rushing 12 times for 17 yards. Weston Eget came off the bench late, but was just 1-9 for 7 yards.
If Saturday is any indication, the two programs could be headed in different directions in 2021. UTEP’s win could propel them to a hot start against a favorable schedule; a 4-1, or even 5-1 start is not out of the question.
NMSU, meanwhile, will play a difficult slate, beginning with a road game at San Diego State next week. The Aggies play seven games against Mountain West teams, in addition to trips to SEC teams Alabama and Kentucky.
“The positive side, if there is one from losing this game, we at least played physical, it wasn’t like the spring games,” said NMSU head coach Doug Martin. “We can correct all the other mistakes. We have a long way to go, we have a lot to overcome it’s one game. We’ll just reload and go play again next week.”
UTEP will host Bethune Cookman in its home opener next Saturday, Sept. 4, at the Sun Bowl. Like NMSU, the Wildcats did not play football in 2020, but won seven games in 2019.
It’s just one game, but with the win over the Aggies, it appears the Miners could truly be in the hunt for their first bowl game since 2014. Time will tell if Saturday night was fool’s gold for UTEP.