With its coach now working at Washington and its quarterback in the NCAA transfer portal, Fresno State was not the bowl draw that it was just a few weeks ago. Given that, the Bulldogs landed what could be a best possible bowl scenario on Sunday with a matchup against Texas-El Paso in the Dec. 18 New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.
The Bulldogs will have a chance to finish with a 10-win season in a final game for 17 seniors, which would be only the 11th double-digit win season in program history and the first since 2018 when they went 12-2 and won the Mountain West Conference championship. And, with its early date on the bowl calendar, the New Mexico Bowl also provides the players a chance to be home for the holidays and for Fresno State to move on quickly following a 2021 that did not end the way that it would have hoped.
The Bulldogs were in the race for a West Division title until the final weekend of the regular-season, beating San Jose State on Thanksgiving Day to finish 9-3. They needed Boise State to take down San Diego State the following day to play in a fifth conference championship game since 2013, when the Mountain West went to divisional play.
But the Broncos blew a 16-3 lead and lost, then four days later Bulldogs coach Kalen DeBoer accepted the job at Washington and quarterback Jake Haener went into the transfer portal the next day. A matchup against the Miners gives the Bulldogs a chance to put that behind them and end the season on a positive note.
Fresno State interim coach Lee Marks and the Bulldogs players were not available to the media on Sunday.
The Mountain West representative in the New Mexico Bowl has won three years in a row and six of the past eight games – Hawaii beat Houston (28-14) last season, San Diego State beat Central Michigan (48-11) in 2019 and Utah State beat North Texas (52-13) in 2018, and none of the games were close.
Fresno State has won its past two bowl games, beating Arizona State in the 2018 Las Vegas Bowl and Houston in the 2017 Hawaii Bowl. The Bulldogs had lost six bowl games in a row prior to those victories. It is 8-3-1 all-time against the Miners, a former rival when in the Western Athletic Conference.
UTEP is 7-5, but didn’t beat team with winning record
UTEP went 7-5 this season and finished fourth in the West Division of Conference USA, but did not beat a team with a winning record – the victories have come over 2-10 New Mexico State, 3-9 New Mexico, 6-6 Old Dominion, 3-9 Southern Miss, 3-9 Louisiana Tech and 4-8 Rice and FCS Bethune-Cookman, which was 2-9.
The combined record of those teams: 23-60.
The Miners will be making their first bowl appearance since a loss to Utah State in the 2014 New Mexico Bowl. Their most recent bowl victory was in 1967, a 14-7 victory over Ole Miss in the Sun Bowl.
UTEP ranked fourth in the Conference USA in passing defense and 29th in the nation in passing defense, allowing just 203.7 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks hit only 54% of their passes and had an efficiency rating of 119.40, the Miners defense ranking in a tie fir first and second in those two statistical categories.