Middle Tennessee and UTEP played like two teams battling for an automatic bowl berth in the regular-season finale for both teams at the Sun Bowl on Saturday night.
In the end, Middle Tennessee (6-6, 5-3 C-USA) committed an untimely turnover in the final minutes in a 24-21 setback against the Miners (7-5, 5-3 C-USA), leaving the Blue Raiders to play the waiting game with their postseason fate.
The seventh win would have been huge for MTSU, as C-USA has five automatic bowl tie-ins and five league members who already have seven wins.
Three additional teams, including the Blue Raiders, are bowl eligible with six wins. MTSU and UTEP were virtually playing for one of these automatic bowl bids.
With less than two minutes remaining and trailing 24-21, the Blue Raiders appeared to be driving toward a game-winning or game-tying score.
However, disaster struck on a second-and-goal play from the seven-yard line with 1:31 remaining when quarterback Austin Grammer’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Jameel Erving.
The fourth quarter would provide many twists and turns as the lead would be exchanged between the two teams throughout the fourth quarter.
The Blue Raiders would rack up 259 rushing yards and 358 yards of total offense. Grammer led the ground attack with 106 yards on 12 carries. Running back Shane Tucker added 101 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns.
The passing game proved to be less effective for the Blue Raiders. Grammer would go 9-of-16 through the air for 99 yards and an interception.
UTEP’s ground attack was led by Aaron Jones, as he rushed for 147 yards on 29 carries and added a touchdown.
MTSU would jump out to a 7-0 lead when Tucker capped off a short scoring drive with a 4-yard touchdown less than four minutes into the game.
UTEP would answer with ten unanswered points. The Miners got their first points when kicker Jay Mattox booted a 34-yard field goal to pull them to within 7-3 with 5:53 remaining in the first quarter. UTEP took a 10-7 lead when quarterback Jameill Showers found Jones for a 72-yard touchdown on a big third-down conversion with 14:06 remaining in the first half.
The score remained 10-7 until late in the half when Tucker hit paydirt for the second time. Tucker’s second touchdown, this score from one-yard out, put the Blue Raiders up 14-10 heading into the intermission.
MTSU led the game 14-10 heading into the locker room. In the third quarter, ball control and time of possession proved to be key.
Both teams would open up the second half with long, time-consuming drives. However, UTEP’s drive would end with points and the Blue Raiders’ would not.
Middle Tennessee received the ball to start the second half and proceeded to drive the ball 57 yards to the UTEP 18-yard line before the drive stalled and Cody Clark’s field goal attempt came up short.
UTEP began its opening drive of the second half at its 18-yard line with 8:51 remaining. From there, the Miners would put together a 13-play drive that would see them regain the lead on a 7-yard touchdown run by Jones, putting UTEP up 17-14 with 1:05 remaining in the third quarter.
Grammer’s dual-threat ability has been an effective tool for the Blue Raiders all year, and it proved to be again Saturday night. Facing third-and-five from the 47-yard line on the ensuing drive, the MTSU signal caller rushed 37 yards to the Miners’ 10-yard line to keep the drive alive.
He capped the nine-play, 71-yard drive with a 3-yard scamper. Clark’s extra point put the Blue Raiders ahead 21-17 with 11:44 remaining.
The Miners would not go away though. Showers capped a 12-play drive with a 5-yard rushing touchdown to shift the lead back to their favor, 24-21, with 6:19 remaining.
This would prove to be the winning score.
The Blue Raiders will now anxiously await their postseason fate.
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To contact sports editor Connor Grott, email firstname.lastname@example.org