Air Raid sputters, Aggies suffer first loss

The much ballyhooed Texas-El Paso Miners scored early and often, delivering the knockout punch early Saturday night against an overmatched New Mexico State team in an 34-17 win at Aggie Memorial Stadium in front of 30,343 fans in the season opener for both teams.

The Miners win spoiled the debut of NMSU head coach Hal Mumme, who was hired last December away from Division I-AA Southeastern Louisiana.

"We have to get a whole lot better in pass protection," Mumme said. "There are some positives in the game to build on."

The Miners scored on four of their first five possessions and ravaged the NMSU defense for 232 first-half yards in beating the Aggies for the second straight season in convincing fashion.

Last season the Miners topped the Aggies 45-0 at the Sun Bowl.

Texas-El Paso looked like the veteran experienced team that went 8-4 a season ago, a season that included a bowl bid to the EV1.Net Houston bowl against Colorado.

Junior quarterback Jordan Palmer threw for 187 yards, three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth.

The Miners led 31-0 at the break. Palmer threw touchdown passes of 6, 19 and 28 yards. After the Aggies stopped the Miners on the first drive of the game, UTEP went to work.

Johnnie Lee Higgins set up UTEP's first score with a 41-yard punt return to the Aggie 25. Three plays later, Palmer hit Chris Francies on a slant pass for a 19-yard score.

Texas-El Paso then went 55 yards on seven plays on its next drive to make it 14-0 after a 6-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to tight end Lamar Hunt.

The Miner defense then set up the next score when linebacker Thomas Howard picked off Royal Gill's pass and returned it to UTEP's 39. Ten plays later, Palmer sneaked in from one-yard out and the route was on early in the second quarter.

Palmer later connected with talented running back Tyler Ebell with a 28-yard scoring toss and Regan Schneider kicked a 42-yard field goal for UTEP's 31-0 halftime lead

Ebell, a transfer from UCLA, had 63 yards rushing and caught three passes for 46 yards on the night.

Meanwhile, New Mexico State's Air Raid offense and new quarterback Gill failed to materialize against UTEP's first unit defense.

Gill completed 36 of 57 passes for 332 yards, much of it late in the game. He was picked off twice and sacked eight times.

New Mexico State finished with 330 yards of total offense, but had a negative 17 yards rushing due mainly to the sacks allowed.

"I think there were times when things were really clicking for us, but then something bad would happen for us," Gill said. "The defense played well (in first half) but we put them in some tough situations."

The veteran UTEP defense, which returned six starters from last year, pressured Gill throughout the first three quarters, forcing the junior to force several passes or release passes before he wanted to.

Gill's ineffectiveness led him to the bench in the third quarter as backup Joey Vincent entered the game with 4:06 remaining.

Gill and Vincent staged a close battle for the starting quarterback job during fall camp. Gill was named the starter in Gallup when the team spent a week in the town, Aug. 14-19.

The junior Vincent, however didn't fare much better, completing just one pass for five yards and an interception in two series before returning to the Aggie bench.

New Mexico State had also hoped to get junior running back Muammar Ali involved more often, but he finished with just 22 yards rushing on seven carries.

The Aggies threatened on a pair of occasions in the first half, getting inside the Miner 30. But both times, the Aggies faltered and settled for nothing.

New Mexico State and UTEP played to a near standstill for much of the second half, but the Aggies managed to get on the board with a 16-play, 59-yard drive that was capped by a 39-yard field goal by freshman Conor Foley. It would be the first of three scores in the fourth quarter for NMSU against UTEP's reserve unit defense.

Receivers Paul Dombrowski and Tim Tolbert keyed the first scoring drive. Dombrowksi caught two of his career-best 15 passes on the drive, while Tolbert snared three passes for 35 yards, including a 17-yard pass on 4th and 11 to keep the drive alive. Tolbert caught seven passes for 71 yards.

Foley's field goal ended a seven-quarter scoring drought for the Aggies against UTEP.

"I had fun, I hope I earned some respect from their defense," Dombrowski said. "I respect the UTEP defense a whole lot more now. Royal settled down and did some good things in the second half."

New Mexico State added a pair of late touchdowns, the first when Gill hit receiver Derek Dubois with a 36-yard scoring toss down the right sideline.

The Miners added a 43-yard field goal by Schneider for a 34-10 lead, then NMSU came right back and scored with 56 seconds left when Gill hit Dombrowski with a 15-yard touchdown pass for the final margin.

"This UTEP team is as good as any team we've played the last couple of years, including California or Arkansas," Dombrowski said.

The Aggies are back in action next Saturday at Colorado, a 31-28 winner against Colorado State on Saturday


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