Battle of I-10 Becomes Must-Win for 0-2 UTEP Football
Two winless programs searching for a win headlines the Battle of I-10 this week, as the Miner football team (0-2) prepares to host their rivals NM State (0-2) on Saturday at the Sun Bowl.
Following a 45-13 loss at No. 9 Oklahoma, the pressure is on for UTEP. Coming off a seven-win season in 2021, the Miners wanted to repeat their success in 2022 with a solid nucleus of starters returning from last year. However, their 31-13 gut-punching loss to North Texas gave the team a reality check. Now at 0-2, the Miners need to start stacking up as many wins as they can in order to try and reach a bowl game for the a consecutive season, something that hasn't been done in back-to-back years since 2004-05.
First-year head coach Jerry Kill is trying to get the NM State football program amped up after taking over the program from previous head coach Doug Martin. Like the Miners, the Aggies lost a home opener and lost to a Power-5 school. They dropped their season opener to Nevada (23-12) and they were shut out against Minnesota (38-0).
"We aren't happy being 0-2 and we have to get over that," said Dana Dimel. "We feel like we let one get away against North Texas."
"So, every game is important," Dimel said. "Now once you start out 0-2, every game gets really, really critical for your football team. And so, you can't afford to take a whole lot of losses because their early losses are just things you must overcome. And the only way to overcome or a loss is to go on win streaks. If you lose the first three, now you got to go on a three-game win streak just to get back to what would get us to .500 to get us to be bowl eligible."
The Battle of I-10 has been played 98 times between UTEP and NM State since 1914. The Miners lead the all-time series in football, 58-38-2. The last time the two met up at the Sun Bowl (2018), NM State beat the Miners, 27-20. The Miners beat the Aggies last year in Las Cruces, 30-3.
Offensively, the Miners appear to have a pass-first approach to their play calling. They've struggled to run the football, rushing for just 135 yards in a pair of games (2.2 yards per attempt). Quarterback Gavin Hardison is coming off a better performance against Oklahoma compared to North Texas. He threw for 244 passing yards against OU (60% completion), but was sacked five times this past weekend. There were also 10 different receivers that caught passes against the Sooners, including newcomers like Jeremiah Ballard, Kelly Akharaiyi, Marcus Bellon and Jostein Clarke.
On defense, it's hard to tell the tangible improvements from North Texas to Oklahoma, but the coaching staff maintains that this unit will improve as the season develops. They allowed OU to rack up 492 yards of offense, while UNT gained 399 on UTEP's defense. Teams have been going high-tempo against UTEP's stout defensive line, while they mix in the run to catch the defense off guard. It will be interesting to monitor the status of linebacker Jerome Wilson, who was injured at Oklahoma but "has a chance to play" against NM State, per Dimel.
Kickoff against the Aggies is set for 7 p.m. at the Sun Bowl. The game broadcast can be heard on KLAQ (95.5 FM) and MinerTalk will follow the broadcast on 600 ESPN El Paso.