The Miners, who fell flat in a rivalry game loss one week ago, tried for a quick knockout punch by jumping out to a 17-0 first quarter lead. But the Aggies performed their best Marvin Hagler impersonation, taking on the chin several would-be knockout punches, but never hitting the canvas.
Behind a school-record 48-for-73, 506-yard, four-touchdown show put on by quarterback Chase Holbrook, New Mexico State (2-2) rallied to tie the game at 31 with 3:27 left in the third quarter, before a late fourth-quarter flurry came up short.
"At some point, you have to say UTEP is a pretty good team," said NMSU head coach Hal Mumme, who was going for his 100th coaching victory. "Jordan Palmer is a good player and (Johnnie Lee) Higgins is a good one too. They're guys who will be playing in the NFL on Sundays next year. And thank God for that so they won't be here anymore."
Palmer countered Holbrook's performance with an impressive 18-of-26 for 414 yards and three touchdowns. Each of his three scoring strikes were thrown to Higgins, the Miner's speedy senior receiver who exploited mismatches in the NMSU secondary throughout the game and finished with seven catches for 223 yards and the three scores.
UTEP coach Mike Price, who evened his team s record at 2-2 on the season, seemed to line Higgins up opposite the Aggies best cornerback, senior Courtney Bryan, throughout the game. Higgins responded with six of his seven receptions coming while being guarded by either junior corner Marvin Betts or Alex Bernard
Despite his career night, Holbrook said the game would linger in his mind for some time because of the way it ended.
Down six with 2:18 remaining in the game, NMSU moved the ball from the 20 to the UTEP 38 before Holbrook threw an UTEP-clinching interception.
"I'll remember that one for the next year," said Holbrook, who leads the NCAA in passing yards. "... I did (some growing), but then I made some young mistakes out there on that last drive — I took a sack and then threw that interception."
Mumme said the final play was his fault by calling a bad play.
Despite being in a position to win the game late, the interception was hardly the only mistake that cost NMSU the game Saturday.
Place kicker Matt Pratt missed a 38-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter by kicking the ball too low and having it blocked by UTEP's Troy Callavo. The kicking woes seemed to be a continuation of previous struggles for Pratt and forced Mumme to go for fourth down conversions deep in UTEP territory several times throughout the remainder of the game and use junior Ryan Bowling on point-after attempts the rest of the game.
"We were having tryouts at half time (for a new kicker)," Mumme said after the game. "You'd think a school that produced (former NFL star kickers) Danny Villanueva and Roy Gerella would be able to find a kicker."
The Aggies' 38 points came primarily throughout the air. A.J. Harris caught 10 balls for 129 yards and a touchdown. Chris Williams also caught 10 balls for 68 yards and a score while Derek DuBois caught seven for 83 yards and a score.
Running back Jeremiah Williams rushed the ball 15 times for 90 yards and five catches for 69 more yards and a touchdown.
Holbrook completed passes to 10 Aggie receivers on the night.
NMSU begins Western Athletic Conference play next Sunday when they travel to Moscow, Idaho, to play against the Idaho Vandals.