Kugler Gets to the Heart of the Matter After UTEP Loss
The loss was like the wind that swirled around the Sun Bowl Saturday. It cut and stung and numbed.
UTEP deserved to beat Conference USA West Division-leading LA Tech, but the game can be as cold as November's empty aluminum bleachers. In a game rife with statistics, there are none that measure worthiness and only one that ever really counts. That one read 17-15.
That's not what Sean Kugler saw, though.
The Miners head coach was almost defiant in his post-game press conference, as you can see here. He was proud of his team despite the loss, which sealed UTEP's bowl fate and a sub-.500 record.
To Kugler, it's not the numbers, it's the names. Many are missing, but the ones who were present gave UTEP a chance Saturday.
The Walking Wounded is one thing. The Walking Dead, another entirely. Somewhere in the middle is UTEP.
According to Kugler, four more players suffered season-ending injuries in Saturday's loss bringing the grim tally to 16 this year. It's a staggering number and doesn't include the many players who have been hurt on and off throughout the season.
It's also Kugler's responsibility -- one he accepts, blaming his desire to develop team toughness through a grueling training camp.
Instilling toughness is one of the reasons Kugler is back at his alma mater. The November swoons UTEP had under Mike Price are gone. As banged up as they are, the Miners still have a chance to go 2-2 this month as they finish the season against a 1-10 North Texas team Saturday.
As for last Saturday, the Mangled Miners had one of their best days on the field this season against the favored Bulldogs.
With fourth- and fifth-string running backs, two freshman quarterbacks and a smattering of new linemen, UTEP's offense dominated time-of-possession, keeping the ball away from the explosive LA Tech offense. The Miners held the ball almost twice as long as the Bulldogs, 37:49 to 22:11.
Individually, Kugler lamented pulling true freshman running back T.K. Powell's redshirt, but the move helped. Powell exploded for 124 yards on just 18 carries against LA Tech and looked the part. Shiftiness in tight spaces. Acceleration.
Defensively, in the game despite a partially torn labrum, LB Alvin Jones was all over the field, as he and the Miners' defensive line largely nullified the Bulldogs' Kenneth Dixon.
Averaging over 100 yards a game this season, Dixon was held to 39 in the Sun Bowl. There was no more telling play than Jones' all-hustle take-down of the sturdy Dixon in the end zone -- the linebacker's third safety of the season. The play got UTEP within five points of LA Tech in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs were averaging 40 points per game when they came to El Paso, but only scored 17. Still, the Miners' offense couldn't get six when it counted. Couldn't get three when it counted, either.
Jay "Auto" Mattox, as he's known to his teammates, missed what might have proved to be the game-winning score, over-compensating for that cold Sun Bowl breeze and pushing his 32-yard attempt wide with 2:38 left in the game.
His head coach reached the kicker after both had left the stadium to the wind Saturday night.
"It's okay. We'll be coming right back to you and you'll bang home a game-winner," Kugler said he texted Mattox.
Kugler knows he'll be judged by the numbers, and 5-7 or 4-8 aren't good ones. It also looks like he keeps track of his team's numbers after all.
Their phone numbers, anyway.