EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – For the first time in seven seasons, UTEP is going bowling; the Miners will battle former WAC foe Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 18 in Albuquerque.
The official bowl matchup was first confirmed by The Action Network’s Brett McMurphy.
UTEP (7-5) will be an underdog to the Bulldogs (9-3) in its first trip to a bowl since 2014. The Miners played in the New Mexico Bowl that year, too, losing to Utah State 21-6. This will mark the third straight trip to the New Mexico Bowl for UTEP to play against a Mountain West Conference opponent; they lost to BYU in Albuquerque in 2010.
UTEP is coming off its first winning season since that 2014 campaign and are looking to win the program’s first bowl game since 1967, a Sun Bowl victory over Ole Miss. The Miners have also never won a bowl game that wasn’t the Sun Bowl.
Led by quarterback Gavin Hardison, wide receiver Jacob Cowing and a staunch defense, UTEP started the season 6-1, before closing with a 1-4 record against tougher competition. However, the Miners were competitive in all but one of their final five games, with losses to FAU, North Texas and UAB coming despite the Miners leading all of those games at one point in the contest.
Playing just three hours up the road in Albuquerque, UTEP could get a big crowd at DreamStyle Stadium on Dec. 18 for the New Mexico Bowl.
While the Miners are projected to be an underdog – the Action Network expects Fresno State to be 17-point favorites – UTEP will be playing a Bulldogs team that may not look much like the squad that won nine games in 2021.
Head coach Kalen DeBoer left the Bulldogs after two seasons to take the head coaching job at Washington on Nov. 29. Fresno State running backs coach Lee Marks will serve as the interim head coach for the bowl game.
Additionally, Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener entered the transfer portal after throwing for 3,810 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2021. Haener lead Fresno State to wins over then-No. 13 UCLA and then-No. 21 San Diego State, plus a close loss on the road at then-No. 11 Oregon. It appears likely that Haener could join DeBoer at Washington.
In his final game for the Bulldogs on No. 25, Haener led Fresno State to a 40-9 win over San Jose State, throwing for 343 yards and four touchdowns. Jaylen Henderson or Logan Fife are likely to get the start in the bowl game; they have thrown a combined 12 passes this season.
The inexperience at quarterback could be something for UTEP to take advantage of, particularly with how improved the Miners were on that side of the field under first-year defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto.
Fresno State also possesses a stout defense, giving up just 20.3 points and 344 yards per game in 2021. The Bulldogs showed an ability to play at a high level, showcased in their wins over UCLA and San Diego State; they also struggled in games against inferior opponents, losing 27-24 at Hawaii and eking out a win over UNLV, 38-30.
UTEP and Fresno State have two common opponents: Boise State and New Mexico. They were both blown out by the Broncos; both won over the Lobos, Fresno State convincingly, UTEP by a touchdown at home.
Former WAC opponents, the last time the Miners and Bulldogs squared off on the football field was Oct. 9, 2004, a 24-21 Miners win over the Bulldogs in Fresno.
UTEP and Fresno State will kickoff in the 2021 New Mexico Bowl at 12:15 p.m. MT on Dec. 18 in Albuquerque. The game will air on ESPN.