Is UTEP Finally Finding Answers to Some Hard Questions?
Clutch when it counted, the UTEP Miners shut down a pesky Florida Atlantic team and won a game it should win Saturday night in the Sun Bowl, 27-17. Maybe more importantly, the Miners finally found answers to some hard questions.
Can Mack Leftwich throw the football?
Yeah, turns out he can do that pretty well.
Leftwich was a shade over 50 percent, going 20-of-39, but had five big drops by receivers, including two that were near-certain touchdown bombs.
Still, 271 yards and a 30-yard TD throw to Tyler Batson speak volumes about his ability. They are career-high numbers for the former Pennsylvania high school Player of the Year.
More importantly for Sean Kugler, Leftwich took care of the football. Having no offensive turnovers is something the Miners haven't been able to say in any game against FBS competition this season.
Leftwich has ample reason to be proud of this game. After Ryan Metz took the reins and wrangled an amazing comeback win at New Mexico State, many -- myself included -- thought he'd just been replaced as the Miners' starter.
Unable to even try to win the job back after a concussion delivered by the Aggies, Leftwich has shown his steady hand also has an arm attached. Sadly, it took a season-ending injury to star running back Aaron Jones and a need to generate offense to show off said arm.
Still, Leftwich has grabbed hold of the starter's job and will probably keep it if he's healthy.
Can the Miners stop the bleeding in the defensive backfield?
Jury's still out for deliberation, but we might have a verdict on Halloween when UTEP plays Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, MS.
They put a tourniquet on things last Saturday, though, and actually out-ball-hawked an Owls' secondary that came in with 10 interceptions.
Nik Needham's first career interception came at a great time, too, as the redshirt freshman DB jumped a route and picked off Owls' QB Jaquan Johnson at the 1-yard line to negate what would have been a go-ahead score late in the third quarter.
Can UTEP catch a break?
They caught a few Saturday, courtesy of three Florida Atlantic turnovers in the Miners' red zone. Two of those turnovers came inside the 10-yard line. One was delivered by FAU's coaching staff.
Regarding the "traditional" turnovers, not only was Johnson picked off at the 1-yard line, he lost a fumble inside that same yard of space in the first quarter as he stretched out his arm with the ball heading into the end zone for the game's opening score.
Johnson's hand possibly struck his own lineman's shoulder pads as he tried to break the plane of the goal. Regardless, the sturdy QB just lost the ball and the Miners recovered it in the end zone.
Three plays later, Leftwich delivered a short, side-armed pass under pressure straight to a waiting Tyler Batson, who broke free down the right sideline for a 76-yard touchdown.
Then, there was that field goal attempt -- one of the most jaw-droppingly odd coaching decisions I've seen this season.
After Jay Mattox drilled 42-yard field goal to put UTEP up by 10 with 4:01 left in the game, FAU went no-huddle and marched 54 yards from its own 27 to the Miners' 19 in just over a minute.
But with UTEP on its heels, Owls coach Charlie Partridge made a fowl decision to try a surprise 29-yard field goal on first down.
Pre-designed trick plays? A well-timed, well-executed draw? Those can be surprises. Field goal attempts are anything but -- clunky, requiring massive personnel changes that kill momentum. Coaches are now calculating the number of players on the field instead of thinking about the next move, never mind the defense which knows exactly what's coming next.
Plus, miss on a trick play you try on first down, you have another three downs to try something else; but miss a field goal and you give up possession.
The Owls gambled and lost.
UTEP got a bit of pressure on FAU kicker Greg Joseph, who also seemed forced to wait a split second in his run-up as his holder placed the snap. Joseph then missed the 29-yarder, the Miners took possession, got a big first down and ran out the clock.
It was an odd end to a hard game. Speaking of South Florida football teams, after thinking, "What are you doing?!" my next thought was "Laces out, Dan!"
Truth be told, UTEP had just about sewn up the game on Mattox's field goal. But you don't have to be an ace pet detective to figure out the Miners were a little fortunate.