A Win Saturday Would Solidify True Improvement for UTEP Football
UTEP's roller coaster of a season took a complete downhill spike last weekend after getting blown out by Western Kentucky (40-16), who hadn't won a conference game since last season.
Prior to this slump, it was a weekly improvement for the Miners, seeing them inch closer to a win against teams like UTSA (30-21), North Texas (27-24) and Louisiana Tech (31-24). The season hit its peak against Rice, where the Miners stormed through with a 34-26 victory over the Owls to snap their 20-game losing streak.
But the win may have brought comfortability for the team.
UTEP was blown away early in back-to-back games against Middle Tennessee (48-32) and Western Kentucky was up 40-0 at the half before the Miners put two scores on the board to close out the game (48-16).
The Miners were clicking soundly on all sides of the ball prior to their game against Middle Tennessee. They were starting to move the ball more effectively on offense, using numerous receivers as threats and establishing a balanced run-pass game. They totaled 200 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns against Rice, but the Miners have been held to 115 and 50 rushing yard performances against MTSU and WKU, respectively. They turned the ball over once against Rice on an interception, but have had seven interceptions and two fumbles through back-to-back games against MTSU and WKU, including five interceptions against the Hilltoppers.
Defensively, the Miners went from holding defenses to passing for 188.3 yards to now allowing 205.5 passing yards per game.
"I think the fatigue of it all kind of showed up in our team early in this ballgame," said first-year head coach Dana Dimel. "The injuries, the numbers are getting up to the upper 20’s and close to 30, it not only affects your performance on the field but it affects your practices and what you can do for scout guys and what you can do for twos. Basically, we’re down to only two offensive linemen that can run reps with the twos. Some of those affected the team, but we’ll continue to tweak and figure out ways to work around that and make our practices fit the issues that we have. That’s our challenge this week moving forward to Southern Miss."
When asked how much of a mental setback the WKU loss was, Dimel countered the question with an optimistic approach to next week.
“You can’t let it be a setback. Obviously, we’re disappointed in the performance that we had in the first half," he said. "The positives that you’ve got to take out of it in your first year is that you that you’ve got to say ‘OK, the guys responded and played better football in the second half.’ WKU wanted to beat us as bad as they could beat us, so I was really happy with that part of it. The first half, we haven’t played like that all season really. The first half was the part that was discouraging to me obviously. You have to be honest with that part of it, but us responding in the second half, I thought that was good. Now, I think the challenge for us is to have a good weekend this weekend.”
And the Miners (1-10, 1-6 C-USA) will have to shift gears quickly this week, as they host Southern Miss (5-5, 4-3 C-USA) on Saturday for "senior day."
The Golden Eagles are vying for a bowl berth on Saturday after beating out LA Tech last week (21-20). They have returned sophomore quarterback Jack Abraham from an injury, as he finished 24-of-29 through the air for 195 passing yards against the Bulldogs.
Southern Miss hasn't won a road game this year (0-4), but comes into Saturday's game as the league's third-best scoring defense and second-best in total defense, allowing just 21.1 points per game and 289.5 ypg.
"[Beating LA Tech] was big for them because it got them to the point where now they can get themselves bowl eligible with a win against us," Dimel said. "That’s their motivation. They’re very, very good on defense."
For the Miners, they will juggle between juniors Kai Locksley and Brandon Jones at the helm of quarterback. Locksley has been dealing with both his ankles being injured, while Jones has shown improvement through the past few weeks, but can't match the athleticism and dynamics that Locksley brings to the table.
"We’re not sure yet what we’re going to do at quarterback, it just depends. We’ve got to evaluate Kai (Locksley)," Dimel said. "Kai can move, he moved better today than he has in any (recent) Monday. This is the first time he’s practiced on a Monday for quite a while. He moved better. The evaluation will be when we get down to it after Thursday’s practice."
At the end of the day, it won't matter who is the starting quarterback Saturday. The most important thing for the Miners is improving after two abysmal performances in order to make this season a respectable rebuilding year.
"Again, you hate to say that but we didn’t play like we’ve been playing," Dimel explained. "In this ball game, we didn’t do that. We have to evaluate to see what we can do better. We have to respond and be better this week to play good, positive football."
Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for 1 p.m. MT.