MADISON, Wis. — UTEP knows it can play with the big names.
Now it just needs to do it.
The Miners (1-3) reeled off 13 unanswered points to cut Wisconsin's lead to 23-19 with 7:59 left Saturday. But the Badgers scored, and UTEP fumbled the kickoff — losing any chance for an upset along with the ball.
"We let this one get away," quarterback Nick Lamaison said after the 37-26 loss. "We've let three games get away now. We just need to execute better and do the little things right."
UTEP fell to 0-17 in road games against BCS conference teams. But as the Miners begin the Conference USA season next week at East Carolina, they can take encouragement from how they played against the Badgers (3-1). Their 26 points were the most allowed by Wisconsin this year, and they had all the momentum until midway through the fourth quarter.
James White gave the Badgers some breathing room with his second touchdown of the day, a 2-yard run that made it 30-19. The Miners then fumbled the kickoff, and Wisconsin recovered at the UTEP 26. Melvin Gordon scored on the next play to seal the Badgers' victory.
"I love these guys. I'm proud of these guys. I want more than anything for them to win," UTEP coach Mike Price said. "But we've got to do some soul searching amongst our team and start doing things correctly and not letting them get away with anything."
Gordon, a redshirt freshman who had all of 18 yards on two carries in the first three games, finished with 112 yards after Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball left the game with a head injury. Jared Abbrederis added a 47-yard TD reception in his first game back from a concussion.
Lamaison threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and Steven Valadez kicked field goals from 45 and 43 yards.
"Every loss we've had was a winnable game," Lamaison said. "A lot of us are pretty frustrated because we've been in every game, but we're not finishing it out."
A roughing-the-passer penalty on UTEP's third drive gave the Miners the ball at the Wisconsin 39, and Lamaison found Michael Edwards in the end zone. But that seemed to wake the Badgers up, as Konrad Zagzebski blocked the extra point attempt, and Devin Smith scooped up the ball and ran it back to make it 6-2. According to Wisconsin, it was the first time the Badgers had returned a blocked extra point for two points since the NCAA adopted the rule in 1988.
Gordon opened the Wisconsin drive with a 20-yard run, and Ball followed with a 22-yard rumble that gave the Badgers the ball at the UTEP 25. Five plays later, Ball scored on a 1-yard run. But he got knocked around on the play, looking wobbly as he got up. The medical staff only needed a few minutes to decide he was done for the day, and Ball spent the second half on the sidelines in street clothes.
"He got dinged up a little bit," coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know if it was a full concussion or whatever it's at, I'll let the doctors decide that."
It was a rough afternoon all around for Ball, who also had the first fumble in his career on Wisconsin's opening drive.
"I was happy to see Melvin and James respond as positively as they did," Bielema said. "And really, there wasn't anybody looking around. Our team knew those two guys could handle the workload."
Joel Stave, a redshirt freshman making his first start, found Abbrederis for a 60-yard pass that set up White's first touchdown, a 3-yard run. Stave and Abbrederis connected again on a 47-yard TD reception to give Wisconsin a 23-6 lead, and the rout appeared to be on. But the Badgers allowed the Miners to hang around — repeatedly. A roughing-the-kicker call kept a UTEP drive alive late in the second quarter, and Valadez kicked a 45-yard field goal just before halftime to start the run of 13 unanswered points.
The Miners converted twice on fourth-down during a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Josh Bell ran for six yards after finding a massive gap on fourth-and-1, and Jordan Leslie may as well have had security around him for as big a cushion as he had on a 7-yard catch on fourth-and-3. Two plays later, Xay Williams scored on an 8-yard run to make it 23-16.
Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward saved a touchdown when he broke up Lamaison's pass on third-and-18, forcing the Miners to settle for a field goal that made it 23-19.
"We were doing the little things right," Lamaison said. "We just executed and didn't try to do anything special, just play within the means of the offense and things started working well."
But White scored, and the Badgers caught a break with the fumbled kickoff.
"We know we can win and play with anybody in the country," UTEP cornerback Drew Thomas said. "No way we should take this loss too terribly. It's a long season."