MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Cade McConnell threw for a career-high 364 yards and Kelly Akharaiyi added 138 in the air, including an 80-yard touchdown, but it wasn’t enough as Nicholas Vattiato amassed 334 yards of total offense to lead Middle Tennessee past UTEP, 34-30, on Saturday afternoon in Floyd Stadium.
The Miners had the ball on the MT 35 with 37 seconds remaining, but McConnell’s pass came up incomplete to Akharaiyi. The Miners overcame a third-and-30 at one points during the drive.
UTEP (3-8, 2-5 Conference USA) outgained Middle Tennessee (4-7, 3-4 CUSA) with a season-high 453 yards of total offense to 427. The Miners also converted a season-high 9-of-16 on third-down plays.
“The message to the team was a tremendous effort with a lot of guys making a ton of plays,” UTEP Head Coach Dana Dimel said. “We played against a good Middle Tennessee team and we had our chances but didn’t get a chance to finish it in the end there in the fourth quarter. Torrance [Burgess Jr.] went down [with an injury] early and Deion [Hankins] went down in the game so we had to go with our younger backs but we had some costly turnovers.”
For Akharaiyi, it was his third consecutive 100-yard performance, while he added two receiving scores on the day. He’s averaging 126.8 receiving yards during the last five games. Akharaiyi has 924 yards on the season and is looking to become the third UTEP receiver in as many seasons to post a 1,000-yard receiving campaign.
Middle Tennessee got on the board first following a UTEP turnover. Frank Pleasant capped a short 48-yard, five-play drive with a nine-yard untouched rushing touchdown at the 9:30 mark. The Miners had turned the ball over on their opening drive as McConnell fumbled the ball after a handoff attempt to Hankins.
Prior to the turnover, McConnell had converted the Miners’ first two third-down conversions. He completed a 12-yard pass to Javoni Gardere on a third-and-10, while finding Emari White on another 12-yard gain on a third-and-9.
Following the MTSU TD, McConnell engineered a 75-yard, 11-play drive that resulted in an 18-yard touchdown pass to Kelly Akharaiyi to even the score at 7-7 at the 3:39 mark. UTEP converted a trio of third-down attempts.
It didn’t take long for the Blue Raiders retake the lead 14-7. Vattiato hooked up with Holden Willis on a 62-yard touchdown. The scoring drive went two plays for 74 yards.
After the UTEP ‘D’ stopped the MT offense on a third-and-2 to start the second quarter, Burgess Jr. returned a punt 54 yards down the right sideline to the house to tie the score 14-14 at the 13:55 mark.
Middle Tennessee jumped out to a 21-14 advantage at the 8:55 mark when Vattiato found Willis on another score, this time a 17-yard touchdown pass that capped a 75-yard, 11-play drive. The key play on the drive was a fake punt on a fourth-and-2. MTSU’s Jordan Branch, a 6-foot, 290-pound defensive tackle, ran the ball 24 yards to the UTEP 43 that kept the drive going. On that play, Burgess Jr. tackled Branch, but left the contest with an injury.
The Blue Raiders took a 24-14 lead after a Zeke Rankin 38-yard field goal with 6:57 left in the half.
The Miners crept within three points (24-21) following a Hankins’s touchdown run with under a minute left in the half. The drive went 85 yards on nine plays. UTEP converted a third-and-14 on a McConnell 26-yard completion to Jeremiah Ballard to the UTEP 48. On a third-and-10 play, MT was called for roughing the passer that moved the ball to the MT 37. Hankins then took a McConnell pass for a career-long 35-yard reception to the MT 2, while capping the drive with a two-yard rushing score.
The Miners were 6-for-8 on third-down conversions, while gaining 203 yards in the first half.
The second half opened with an MT turnover. Tyrice Knight, on the second play on the drive, forced a fumble and recovered it at the MT 24. The turnover led to a Buzz Flabiano 33-yard field goal to tie the game (24-24) at the 11:51 mark. For Flabiano, it was his sixth consecutive field goal made.
MT took a 31-24 lead on Vattiato 56-yard touchdown pass to Zack Dobson at the 10:29 mark. The Blue Raiders drove the ball 75 yards on five plays only taking 1:22 off the clock.
On Middle Tennessee’s next possession, Vattiato threw an interception to Oscar Moore – his second INT in as many games – and returned to the MT 35. However, the Miners gave the ball right back after freshman running back Ezell Jolly fumbled after a 14-yard gain. MT’s Jakobe Thomas recovered the fumble and returned it 15 yards to the MT 28.
The Blue Raiders capitalized on the turnover as Rankin converted a 24-yard field goal to make it a 10-point game (34-24) with 14:55 remaining.
The scoring kept on as McConnell on the ensuing possession found his favorite target Akharaiyi on an 80-yard touchdown reception, his second of the game. Flabiano however missed the PAT to make the count 34-30 with 14:32 remaining. It was the second time in 2023 McConnell hooked up with Akharaiyi on an 80-yard touchdown. The first came at FIU on Oct. 11.
Knight finished with a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss and added a sack. He led the defense with nine tackles. Moore recorded a career-high eight tackles while AJ Odums also added a career high in stops with six.
Jolly rushed for a career-high 30 yards, while gaining a career-most 42 all-purpose yards. Burgess Jr. totaled 103 all-purpose yards (44 rec., 54 punt return, 5 rush).
Vattiato threw for 242 yards on 18-of-35 passing with three touchdowns. He also led the team with 92 yards on the ground. Willis registered 105 yards on six receptions. Thomas, who had a fumble recovery, finished with a team-high eight tackles.
UTEP will close out the regular season against undefeated no. 25 Liberty on “Senior Day” (Saturday, Nov. 25) at 1:30 p.m. in Sun Bowl Stadium.