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Rockets Bomb UTEP

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) _ Bruce Gradkowski and the Toledo offense ran, passed and scored almost at will. David Thomas and the defense shut down a potent UTEP offense and even scored once, too. And another GMAC Bowl resulted in a big MAC victory. Gradkowski threw five touchdown passes, Trinity Dawson ran for 132 yards and Thomas returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown, leading the Rockets to a 45-13 victory over the Miners on Wednesday night.

“We just came and played the best game we could ever play,” Thomas said. “It was kind of like everything we did was right.”

The Miners certainly weren’t arguing that point after getting victimized by a dominant all-around performance and extending their string of postseason futility one more year.

Toledo (9-3) had lost its last two bowl games, but left little doubt in this one, running the Mid-American Conference’s record to 5-0 in the Mobile bowl.

“Wow, that felt good,” Toledo coach Tom Amstutz said.

Mike Alston contributed two big tackles for the Rockets to end the first half, when UTEP was threatening to cut into a 28-13 deficit. It was the last time the Miners (8-4) appeared set to mount a rally.

“They just came out and beat us in all aspects of the game,” UTEP linebacker Jeremy Jones said. “Their offense was striking and going on all cylinders tonight.”

UTEP ended its season with a defeat for the 19th consecutive year and dropped to 0-4 in bowls since 1967, despite making big strides in two years under Mike Price. Price was fired from Alabama in May 2003 after an evening cavorting with strippers an hour down the road in Pensacola, Fla.

He has led UTEP to back-to-back postseason games for the first time in 50 years, but the Miners finished the season with three losses in a row.

“They’re one of the few teams we’ve played the last couple of years that beat us and we didn’t beat ourselves,” Price said. “They just beat us. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”

But, he pledged, “We’re going to be back in a bowl game next year. We’re going to win a bowl game wherever we’re going and break another drought that UTEP has had for a while.”

Toledo’s offense was just the latest from the MAC to shine in the GMAC Bowl. And the Rockets’ defense was pretty stout, too.

Gradkowski completed 18-of-32 passes for 298 yards with TDs to five different receivers. He was intercepted twice, but it hardly mattered. The senior threw five TD passes in a game for the first time this season and third time in his career.

Reflecting on an impressive career, he said, “It’s been a pleasure, and what a way to go out.”

The Rockets harried UTEP’s prolific passer, Jordan Palmer, into an off-night. He was just 14-of-33 for 163 yards with an interception and sat out several series in the second half after spraining his left ankle on the final play before halftime.

He bemoaned his decision to hold onto the ball on that final play before halftime.

“I should have thrown it away and let us get three points,” he said.

UTEP was sixth nationally in passing offense, averaging 310.5 yards per game.

Toledo, meanwhile, was 3-of-3 on fourth-down conversions, and had three players catch passes of 30-plus yards. And Dawson pounded away, too, leaving the UTEP defenders shaking their heads.

“You take away one thing, and they’re going to beat you the other way,” Jones said. “Every pass their quarterback threw was on the money.”

The Rockets effectively decided this game in the final three minutes before halftime.

Gradkowski & Co. took over with 2:56 left and opened with four straight runs by Dawson, with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked onto the fourth.

Then, Gradkowski faked it to Dawson again and launched a 31-yard TD pass to a wide-open Steve Odom with 1:13 to play.

The Miners then moved to the 15 after a sure interception bounced off Toledo cornerback Jason Flowers’ hands into the grasp of receiver Joe West for a 28-yard gain. But Alston, who had also deflected the ball to Thomas for an interception, tackled Palmer on the final two plays and the clock ran out.

The Toledo was able to only figuratively light up the scoreboard, though. The clock for the only functional scoreboard didn’t work most of the game, forcing officials to keep time on the field.

Gradkowski was chosen as the game’s MVP while Dawson (offense), Alston (defensive) and Odom (special teams) also won game honors.