Saturday evening was set to be the party in El Paso. The West Texas city was set to welcome one of the most electric atmospheres of college football’s opening “Week 0,” as the Sun Bowl witnessed a sellout for the first time since 2008.
But when the 7 p.m. local kickoff time transpired, the venue was empty. Lightning strikes in the area created a mass vacancy in the stands. When the storm subsided, a different kind of electricity was expected to form in the scenic venue. But North Texas’ defense silenced the impressive crowd decked in orange and blue to prevent UTEP’s historic sellout from becoming the rowdiest show in El Paso.
When the stadium cleared for the second time Saturday night, it wasn’t due to lightning, but rather North Texas’ 31-13 bashing of the home team to open conference play.
Well-traveled second-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett orchestrated a definitive turnaround last season, as evidenced by the Mean Green yielding 35 points per game in their first seven contests compared to just 18.7 in their final six outings. That end-of-season defense sustained into 2022, as North Texas barricaded UTEP throughout the night, shutting the Miners out in the second half.
Led by First Team All-C-USA inside linebacker K.D. Davis, the Mean Green defense had an answer for everything UTEP head coach Dana Dimel schemed up offensively. They consistently pressured the backfield, ensuring that no Miner ball carrier would finish the night with 40 rushing yards, while forcing an onslaught of incompletions and errant throws. North Texas dominated the battle in the trenches which caused UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison to constantly scramble around the pocket.
Hardison attempted countless deep shots in effort to spark UTEP’s offense. While the quarterback experienced early success — connecting on four passes of 25+ yards on his first three drives — his downfield heaves eventually piled up on the turf and drops from the receiving corps began to plague UTEP. Overall, Hardison completed just 21-of-48 attempts, generating 293 yards, and one touchdown.
The third-year starting quarterback’s lone touchdown strike was a 32-yard delivery to his new No. 1 option Tyrin Smith, who is set to expand his role in the offense after the departure of 1,300-yard receiver Jacob Cowing. Smith proved his value as a deep threat, collecting 127 yards on seven receptions. Reynaldo Flores also gathered a bulk of Hardison’s completions, adding eight catches and 122 yards to UTEP’s offensive production.
Due to Smith’s early success, UTEP captured a 7-0 lead in the early second quarter, and quickly regained an advantage at 10-7 when North Texas responded. But within two minutes of halftime, North Texas running back Oscar Adaway waltzed into the end zone on an 8-yard touchdown run, marking his first score since 2020 after missing last year with an ACL injury. Those points from the sophomore provided North Texas a lead that would never be relinquished.
The Mean Green laid down the framework to victory in the second half, where they outscored the Miners 17-0. On the first possession of the third quarter, quarterback Austin Aune completed an on-the-run float pass to running back Isaiah Johnson to open the gap to 21-13. The momentum resulting from that touchdown quickly translated to the defense, which forced its only turnover of the game on UTEP’s ensuing drive. Capitalizing on the takeaway, Aune fired his third and final touchdown pass of the night to tight end Jake Roberts to throw the Miners into the rearview mirror.
Roberts only caught 11 passes in 13 appearances last year, but the 6’5” sophomore tight end looks poised to carve a pivotal role in North Texas’ 2022 offense. He led all Mean Green players with four receptions and provided sturdy blocking in an intriguing matchup against UTEP strong safety Kobe Hylton. Another standout on North Texas’ offense was Ayo Adeyi, who served as the main workhorse in the Mean Green’s rotating stable of running backs with team-highs in rushes (17) and yards (80).
The Week 0 conference clash certainly has conference title implications for the two Lone Star State programs which both attained bowl eligibility in 2021. In the refurbished C-USA which is reduced to 11 teams, divisions are scrapped and the two best conference records earn invites to the championship game on Friday, Dec. 2.
North Texas already has a head start on this goal, as head coach Seth Littrell captured his first victory in a C-USA opener since 2019. UTEP, one of the best surprise stories a year ago, will face a more uphill battle to clinch the title game, and the Miners will marinate in an 0-1 conference record until they face their next C-USA opponent in Charlotte on Oct. 1.