There was no real reason UTEP’s offense should have felt good about itself with 3:13 to play Saturday night against Memphis and the ball on their 4-yard line.
To that point, the Miners had 193 yards of offense, their three scoring drives covered 7, 53 and 27 yards, and the longest of those three was their only possession of the game that covered more than 33 yards.
Here’s another way to look at what happened. In the first 56:47, UTEP averaged 3.4 yards per minute. To move that ball from their own 4 to the opponent’s 1, they needed to average 29.5 yards per minute.
They did, of course, and there’s a story behind that.
“Everyone was jacked up,” tackle Alex Solot said of the attitude as they huddled in their own end zone. “We practice that; we know what we’re doing; we have a lot of seniors who have been there before. It was a combination of all those things.
“We knew it the whole time (they were going to score). From the first play, we knew we were going to do it.”
“The confidence was there,” quarterback Trevor Vittatoe said. “Confidence wasn’t an issue.”
In these situations, the first obvious chore is to get a first down so Memphis doesn’t get the ball back at midfield needing just a field goal to win.
“We’ve got to get out,” said co-offensive coordinator and play-caller Aaron Price. “Inside the minus-10, we got into a two tight-end set and ran the ball.”
If the longest journey begins with a single step, UTEP’s actually began with zero steps. Donald Buckram ran right into a corner blitz on first down and was stopped at the line of scrimmage.
“Instead of trying to bang our head, we decided to throw a short, consistent pass,” Price said. “They did it again (a corner blitz) and it left (Elijah) Goldtrap open. We got 10 yards and we got it out of there.”
Before this game, Goldtrap had seven career catches in two-plus years as a tight end. In what may have been the biggest play of Saturday’s game, he caught the ball 8 yards downfield and dove past the sticks.
“I got really excited when they called the play in the huddle,” he said. “I think I was the first read; I was hoping I was the first read. That’s really cool to get the ball in that situation. ...
“I knew I wasn’t to the chains yet so I reached out to get the ball over and it worked out.”
At this point there was still 2:31 remaining, the ball was at the 14 and the Miners had all three timeouts left. Aaron Price, in what is becoming a trademark of his late game play-calling, was extraordinarily patient. The next four plays were three Buckram runs and a dump-off pass: 11 yards on a run that stopped the clock to move the chains; 6 yards on a run; 3 yards on a pass to set up third-and-1; 8 yards on a run for a first down to the UTEP 42 with 1:20 to play.
“They were dropping eight or nine guys (into pass coverage) all game. They were really worried about our speed in the passing game,” Price said. “We had three timeouts; we had enough time; we know we can get down the field various ways. If they take away the pass we can run it. They only had four guys in the box and we kept hitting it.”
Said Buckram: “It felt great, it felt like last year, knowing they trusted me with the ball in my hands. It was clicking like last year.”
Still, though, UTEP was running out of time and needed to take a shot. Star receiver Kris Adams wasn’t much of a star in this game as he battled a bad back, but with 1:03 remaining Vittatoe got out of some trouble and threw a long jump ball for Adams, who went and got it for a 30-yard gain to the 28.
“Kris got tweaked early and he couldn’t perform as well as he normally does,” Aaron Price said.
“Sooner or later we knew they’d be in a blitz situation. If we had blocked it correctly it would have been a touchdown. But Trevor did a great job getting the ball to him.”
Now UTEP was in field-goal range meaning it could run the ball all it wanted. The Miners got an 8-yard run from Joe Banyard to the 20 that forced Memphis into using a timeout in hopes of getting the ball back after a field-goal attempt.
UTEP rode Banyard again and he broke through a stacked line and took it to the 2. Two more carries got it to the 1 to set up the winning field goal. Of the 11 plays (not counting the field goal), there were eight runs and three passes, all completions. The first run and last two combined for 1 yard, the other five went for 51.
“It was a tribute to our experience,” Price said. “Trevor is great under pressure. He couldn’t have been more calm. We practice this all the time. Instead of panicking, they put pressure on the defense.”
Said Buckram, “We showed everyone on the field and on the sideline we were capable of moving the ball 95 yards whenever we are on the field. It all felt great.”
It all looked great, and by the end of the night, it looked like a win.