EL PASO, Texas - In a game headlined by a new starting quarterback for UTEP and 231 total yards from UCF's signal caller, it was a pair of big runs that determined the game between the best in Conference USA and worst in the west division.
UCF running back Latavius Murray scored a game-winning 46-yard run with 5:25 left in the game and the first-place Knights defeated the two-win Miners 31-24 Saturday at the Sun Bowl.
"It really was a great run. It's kind of the way he runs: he just sits in there, finds a hole and hits it," head coach Mike Price said. "We had him surrounded, we had him stopped and then he just busted it."
UTEP trailed 24-10 with 14:06 left in the fourth quarter but rallied back thanks to freshman redshirt Blaire Sullivan and sophomore running back Nathan Jeffery.
Sullivan, making his first start of his collegiate career, used 10 plays in 5:12 to cut the deficit in half when he scored his first rushing touchdown of his career, too, from two yards out. The score was also the first rushing touchdown by a quarterback all year.
The Miners got the ball back with seven minutes remaining and tied the game in just one play. Jeffery used a 69-yard run to tie the game on the first play of the ensuing UTEP drive.
It was then that the Knights scored the go-ahead touchdown and forced the Miners to turn the ball over on downs to seal the victory.
UCF relied heavily on Blake Bortles, who finished 16-of-27 for 214 yards and one touchdown. He also had 11 rushes for 59 yards.
"That quarterback has really improved since last year. He played very well against us last year we had him contained but he would run up field and duck underneath us. He's a good quarterback," Price said.
Price said he would evaluate Sullivan, who went 5-of-11 for 79 yards with one interception and one fumble, before making a decision on who will take over for the remainder of the season. Price said he never considered replacing him with senior Nick Lamaison or junior Carson Meger during the game. One point of emphasis Price had for Sullivan was to run the ball more than he normally would have Lamaison or Meger do, which translated in 23 rushes and 78 yards for Sullivan.
"It's what Blair is better at and he's good at that and I think he showed it tonight," Price said. "He probably left a little bit early tonight, which was ok."
On his first drive, Sullivan drove the Miners 75 yards down the field in eight plays, which was capped off by a Jeffery 2-yard touchdown run. Sullivan contributed to four plays in the possession, beginning with two runs for 17 yards and two passes for 50 yards.
Sullivan became the first freshman quarterback in the Price era to score on his opening drive in his first start.
Sullivan said he was receiving advice all week and during the game from veteran players.
"They were telling me to just go out there and have fun. My dad even told me to play like it's fifth grade football: just have fun," Sullivan said. "The veteran guys said the same thing: 'we have nothing to lose right now so have fun.'"
Price said the biggest mistakes UTEP was making were the missed opportunities they had throughout the game.
The Miners failed to convert two drives that began in UCF territory into touchdowns during the first half. The initial came off a blocked punt by Jordan Leslie that put the ball at the 1-yard line and resulted in a field goal.
The second occurred when wide receiver J.J. Worton muffed a punt return, which was recovered by UTEP's Ishmael Harrison at the Knight 37. The drive went four plays and ended with a fumble by LaQuintus Dowell at the UCF 13.
The Miners also had a missed field goal in the third quarter and another fumble that allowed UCF to score a field goal before the half.
Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said giving up the big play was an emphasis all week, which defensive back Shane Huhn pin-pointed to two plays: the game-winning run and a 56-yard trick play that set up a touchdown to put UCF up 24-10.
"We had a few mistakes that cost us the win, we need to fix those for next week I take responsibility for some of it. If we would have made those plays, it would have been a different ball game," Huhn said.
William Vega can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at @WillVega21. Make sure to follow Miner Illustrated on Twitter at @minermaniac for more up-to-date news and information about UTEP.