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Despite sharp Miami Vice uniforms, FIU can’t defend the 305 against UTEP in 27-14 loss

UTEP snaps four-game skid thanks to backup QB Cade McConnell and a stellar 21-0 first quarter.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 11 UTEP at FIU Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The FIU Panthers unveiled perhaps the sharpest alternate uniform of the season in honor of Miami Vice night at “The Cage.” FIU certainly dressed to impress, donning all black uniforms, highlighted with vibrant pink numbers, enhanced with palm trees and the Miami skyline design on the jersey sleeves, and embellished with a turquoise panther head on the helmet. Even the field adhered to theme, with a giant 305 area code emblazoned at midfield, bright pink end zones on either end of the field, and a turquoise Lamborghini parked on the sideline.

But despite the spectacular Miami Vice theme, UTEP was officially crowned Mr. 305 on Wednesday night in Miami, taking FIU down in a 27-14 in a wire-to-wire victory — and even celebrating with the Lamborghini on the sideline. It was the Miners’ first-ever triumph in the state of Florida and second-ever win in the Eastern Time Zone. Prior to toppling the Panthers, UTEP held an 0-7 mark in the Sunshine State and a 1-25-1 record in Eastern Time Zone, winning its only other matchup at Charlotte last October.

UTEP entered the night averaging just 16.2 points per game, fielding the fourth-worst scoring offense in the FBS. But it was an explosive offense which carried the Miners to a decisive lead in the early going. On the opening drive, running back Deion Hankins took full control, receiving five consecutive handoffs to push UTEP from the FIU 29-yard line into the end zone.

One drive later, the Miners took a shot. Bereft of starting quarterback Gavin Hardison, who missed his second consecutive game with an arm injury, head coach Dana Dimel elected to start Cade McConnell. But McConnell delivered plenty of starter-caliber throws out of the gate. His third pass of the night hit wide receiver Kelly Akharaiyi in stride on a seam, completing an 80-yard touchdown — UTEP’s longest play of the season and its second exceeding 40 yards.

McConnell just wouldn’t slow down in the first quarter. He started 5-of-5 for 175 yards, connecting on a 50-yard strike on his next drive and following it up with a 23-yard touchdown to Akharaiyi for the pairing’s second scoring play of the night. Entering Wednesday, UTEP averaged 188 passing yards per game and McConnell nearly reached that total on just five dropbacks. He finished the night with an efficient 262 passing yards with 11 completions on 17 attempts, setting the season-high for most yards by a UTEP quarterback in 2023.

Meanwhile, Akharaiyi enjoyed a career day as well, posting 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns on eight catches to step up in the absence of No. 1 wideout Tyrin Smith.

The Miners held a 21-0 first quarter lead after the quarterback’s second touchdown strike to Akharaiyi — exceeding their season scoring average and point total from four of their first six games in less than 12 minutes of action.

UTEP never found the end zone after the 3:28 mark of the first quarter, but that early dominance was enough to secure a victory. FIU responded with a second quarter rushing touchdown by running back Kejon Owens, who led all Panthers with 82 rushing yards, and then again on a third quarter QB keeper by Keyone Jenkins. But the majority of second half drives for FIU ended in disastrous fashion.

After slicing the deficit to 24-14, the Panthers attempted a 4th and 7 from the UTEP 49-yard line, but Jenkins was stonewalled by UTEP star outside linebacker Tyrice Knight well short of the first down marker. Then the fourth quarter turned into a turnover fest for the team repping the 305, as Jenkins tossed an interception into deep zone coverage with no receiver in the area, and Miners defensive end Praise Amaewhule forced a fumble on a sack with under five minutes to go — becoming the program’s all-time sack leader in the process. Jenkins was injured on the hit and backup Haden Carlson took his place for the tail-end of the contest.

While UTEP’s offense started the game, it was the UTEP defense which finished in impressive fashion. By holding the Panthers to 14 points, the Miners tied their best defensive showing of the season. They collected six sacks and nine tackles for loss, led by defensive end Maurice Westmoreland who contributed 2.5 and 3.5 in those departments, respectively, in an all-around dominant showing.

FIU (3-4, 0-4 CUSA) remains winless in conference play after dropping its third consecutive matchup. Due to a strong non-conference showing, bowl eligibility remains a realistic possibility for Mike MacIntyre’s squad. They look to get back on track next Wednesday night in Huntsville, TX against Sam Houston — one of two winless teams in the FBS.

UTEP (2-5, 1-2 CUSA) finally is on board with its first FBS victory of the season. The Miners shattered a four-game skid by upending the Panthers on the road, simultaneously enjoying their best passing performance and best defensive clinic of the year in Miami. UTEP hopes to sustain the momentum as it returns to the Sun Bowl next Wednesday for a rivalry matchup with New Mexico State.