Can UTEP Football Regroup in Time for Conference USA Play?
After starting their season 0-4, the UTEP football team and first-year head coach Dana Dimel have an arduous task ahead of them, as they hope to regroup in time for Conference USA play, squaring off against UTSA on Saturday, Sept. 29.
But Dimel remains positive, using words like "improving" to describe his team on a weekly basis. He sees the team getting closer to a win each week, and continues to say the team needs to be solid on all sides of the ball in order to win.
Now, what do the Miners need to get their first win? Or better question, how do the Miners get their first win?
Let's break this down, piece by piece:
Repair Their Turnover Margin
The Miners currently hold a -4 turnover margin, which is bad enough to be tied for the 10th worst in the nation. They have lost the turnover battle in three of four games, with their lone win being against Tennessee on a +2 turnover margin.
The Miners have lost five fumbles, thrown four interceptions and had a punt blocked through four games. They average 1.25 turnovers a game, and it's something that Dimel wants to rectify.
Against NMSU last week, the Miners had two costly turnovers that could have possibly been the deciding factor of the game. They had a punt blocked in the opening drive that led to an 18-yard touchdown, and fumbled just before halftime, which led to a 53-yard scoop-and-score for the Aggies.
"We had the turnover going in and then we respond with our defense again to another adversarial environment by causing the turnover ourselves," Dimel said. "Then we turn around and give the turnover that leads to a touchdown there at the end of the (first) half. That was really a big swing in the game. You talk about the way we started the first half and then the way we ended the first half, and now we’re down 17-10 at halftime."
Eliminate the Penalties
At his weekly press conference, Dimel emphasized the importance of eliminating penalties. Although the Miners are not among the worst in the nation for penalties--averaging 8.5 penalties per game for 64.5 yards--they are taking on a UTSA squad that is among the more disciplined teams on the penalties side, as they average 37.5 yards of penalties per game, which is the 12th fewest in FBS.
Here’s what Dimel said on eliminating penalties, as revered by his former coach Bill Snyder of Kansas State:
“We have consequences for penalties. That’s probably something I’ve learned from Bill Snyder. If you want to eliminate a behavior, you have to have consequences. There’s extra penalties for penalties. There’s running, there’s stair steps in the weight room, there’s push-ups out on the practice field. We’re doing all of the reinforcement mechanisms that we can do to try eliminate the behaviors. So that’s the way that we attack it... We’re talking about the little things right now for this football team that make a difference between winning and losing. You can say right there that that play had a huge and dramatic effect on that football game. We had too many penalties in the ballgame again, so that’s how we’re trying to address it.”
Generate Some Points
As it was last year, the Miners are again having a tough time generating points and finishing drives. They are the worst in the nation (130th) in scoring per game, averaging just 13.5 points.
So while this may be one of the most winnable games against UTSA, the Miners must first generate points against the Roadrunners. Last week versus NMSU, the Miners converted three of five trips to the red zone, which left two possible scores on the table.
Strengthen the Young Line
Upon the news of UTEP losing starting lineman Jerrod Brooks, who is out indefinitely, the team needs to gear up their young offensive line for C-USA play. Brooks suffered an injury against the Aggies and Dimel says best case scenario, he’s back with them in 3-4 weeks, but worst case, he will be out for the year and apply for a medical redshirt.
Along with Brooks, the Miners have also lost starting center Derron Gatewood and Greg Long on the line.
The Miners have shifted up their line already, trying to mix with their depth. They will start (from left tackle to right tackle) Zuri Henry, Bobby DeHaro, Markos Lujan, Ruben Guerra and Josiah Gray.
“We’re going to work those scenarios this week to iron out the line play,” Dimel said. “(Jerrod) Brooks is out for a while either way.”
Continue to Build on the Ground Game
On 80 plays against NMSU, the Miners ran 64 rushing plays against the Aggies, which was the most the team has rushed the ball in 21 years (Sept. 27, 1997). And the Miners are running the ball well, totaling over 200 yards of rushing for the second time in three games.
They are currently ranked fifth in C-USA for rushing offense, averaging 174.2 yards per game. Junior Quadraiz Wadley is ranked seventh in C-USA, averaging 70.8 yards per game, while Locksley is currently eighth at 64.2 yards per game.
What makes Wadley so important to this offense is his yards per carry, as he is averaging 6.6 per rush. Only six UTEP players have averaged six or more yards per carry, including Donald Buckram in 2009 (6.2 ypc), Joe Banyard in 2011 (6.6 ypc) and Aaron Jones in 2016 (7.7 ypc).
Locksley’s ground game has also been impressive, as he’s amassed 257 yards of rushing thus far. He is on pace to potentially beat out the most rushing yards for a quarterback in a season, which is held by Kevin Ward in 1982, who had 813 rushing yards on the season.
A large majority of UTEP’s total rushing yards have come from Locksley and Wadley, who currently have 77 percent (540 of 697 yards) of the Miners’ ground game.
Sean Kugler said it, Mike Price said it and Dimel would agree, winning changes a lot for a team. And for a team that hasn’t won a game since the likes of Aaron Jones, it would be a step forward in the right direction for this program.
“Confidence is a gigantic, gigantic thing for football teams,” Dimel said. “Momentum leads to confidence and success leads to momentum and confidence both. I think that our team really is gaining confidence.
“I told our guys to just watch the film and tell me what should happen in that ballgame. By doing that they sit there and say you know what, we’re good enough to win these football games. So we’re playing good enough now to win these football games. They are gaining the confidence, and I expect to see the confidence lead into this ballgame as well.”
While fans might be upset toward the situation, Dimel has embraced the challenge and continues to work on improvement for the team.
“You always come to a program, 98 percent of the time you come because things need to be fixed,” he said. “A couple times you come because they were really, really good. We knew that, but I also know that’s a part of the process. I’m trying to expedite this process as fast as possible because I want to have a good season this year.
“I know that you say, ‘you’re 0-4 coach, how can you have a good season this year?’ We’ve got a bunch of really good kids on this football team that are working their tails off to be good and they’re learning life lessons.”
Kickoff between the Roadrunners and Miners is slated for 5 p.m. MT and will be televised on ESPN+.