MinerTalk: New Mexico Becomes Must-Win for UTEP Ahead of C-USA Play
Up to this point, the Miner football team (2-1) is playing up to par on what most people expected before the season.
More experience in year four under Dana Dimel.
Two easy wins to start (NMSU & Bethune-Cookman).
A loss to a far better Boise State program.
The expectations have brought us up to this point when UTEP hosts New Mexico (2-1) on Saturday at the Sun Bowl to wrap up non-conference play. Now, the Miners are at a fork in the road for their young season.
"I think it's a big game for everyone considering the proximity of New Mexico and El Paso," Dimel added. "I also think any time you play a team that is a traditional Mountain West team, like New Mexico, is a rival to us."
The path to a successful season would require as many home victories as the squad can pick up, including a win on Saturday to give them momentum heading into the Conference USA slate.
A loss means the team would need to work extra hard in C-USA play to try and reach a 5/6 win threshold. Remember, the Miners under Dimel haven’t won a conference game since Nov. 3, 2018 when they beat Rice to snap a 20-game losing streak at the time. To be fair, UTEP didn’t play a single conference game at home last year due to the pandemic.
The excuses are running dry and the time to win is now for a program that has won just seven games through the last five years.
"I think it's a big game for us because we really can see what a win could do for us to put us at 3-1. That would be gigantic for us. It would have us going into league play with a huge momentum swing," said Dimel.
Returning healthy is key for UTEP
Fresh off the bye week, the Miners were able to get a bulk of their players back from injuries that mounted over the first three weeks of play.
Those that could return from injuries this week include running back Deion Hankins, cornerback Josh Caldwell, center Andrew Meyer, defensive tackle Keenan Stewart and tailback Quardraiz Wadley. The only one that is doubtful as of now is safety Justin Prince, according to Dimel.
The Miners needed to get as healthy as possible for this game and like Dimel said in his weekly press conference, they will get some much-needed help back in the mix this week.
"I think we are taking a lot healthier team into this game," Dimel said. "We were beat up for [Boise State] and there were a lot of things working against us in that ball game. We come back into this week, the open week, and gave us much needed time to get us healthier, give us time to prepare for a team. The timing was really good for us to have New Mexico."
Offensive turnovers have to be limited
The nightmare that was Boise State for the offense’s sake is now past us. I would be shocked if we see another six turnover game by the UTEP offense. I would be equally surprised if we saw quarterback Gavin Hardison total four turnovers in a single game. The offensive performance against the Broncos was totally uncharacteristic by the Miners’ standards.
"[Hardison's] job is to protect the football and he didn't do a good job of that," said Dimel. "It's important for him to move on and be better with the protection of the football."
With that being said, defenses are going to be hungry to create turnovers. Besides Hardison’s turnovers last week, two different wideouts fumbled in the game. New Mexico has a +1.33 turnover margin on the year, including five takeaways between their first two games against Houston Baptist and New Mexico State.
Whether it be an interception, forced fumble on a carry or a strip-sack, UTEP has to be disciplined with the football this week. If they rack up multiple turnovers offensively, this one will be an uphill battle.
Speaking of ‘limited,’ time for UTEP to do away with the mounting penalties
There’s not much to say here. UTEP is currently No.1 in the country for most penalties per game. They’ve committed nine or more penalties in each of the three contests thus far. The Miners have totaled 32 penalties for 338 yards this year.
Penalties have been almost identical between the offense and defense this year. There’s no finger to point except a pointed finger to the Miners.
Suspect secondary faces another test
The UTEP pass defense is allowing 215.3 passing yards per game. Conversely, the Lobos are putting up 199 yards through the air per game. This is a key matchup that heavily favors New Mexico.
The good news for UTEP is getting Caldwell back in the secondary.
The bad news is it might not matter. UTEP’s pass rush has to click, along with the secondary helping in coverage, in order to shut down the talented Lobos quarterback in Terry Wilson.
The Kentucky transfer, who is 19-9 as a starting quarterback in FBS, put up back-to-back three-touchdown games for UNM. Despite a shutout last week against Texas A&M, one can expect Wilson to be ready against a struggling Miner secondary.
"I think our first two games we played well defensively," Dimel said. "Game two we gave up some big plays at the end of the game. That's a huge concern for us in this game. We have to defend the deep ball, the big plays in the passing game. It's going to be critical for us."
Are we worried about special teams? Maybe just a little
When is the last time UTEP allowed a touchdown on special team like they did against Boise State? Between blown coverage on punt team and punts from Josh Sloan averaging only 38 yards, UTEP needs to get more out of their special teams this week. The kickoff/punt return hasn’t done much yet, having totaled just 123 yards on kickoff and only two yards on punt return.
Kicker Gavin Baechle has been great thus far, having made 6-for-6 and made 9-for-9 extra points. Special teams might be overlooked at times, but the Miners need to make it a priority moving forward to avoid any disasters again.
Battle of two El Paso running backs
Deion Hankins vs. Aaron Dumas. Can the matchup get any better?
Hankins, who graduated from Parkland in 2019, became El Paso’s all-time leading rusher in his senior year.
Dumas, an Americas High School standout graduate of 2020, was on pace to break the city record that Hankins set. However, Dumas’ pandemic-shortened 2020 season prevented us from ever knowing if he would have broken the record. He did set the city record for touchdowns in a season with 36 in 2019 as a junior.
Flash forward to the present, both running back are leading their respective teams in the back field. We haven’t seen Hankins since the second quarter of the NM State win. He scored the first Miner touchdown of the season, but has been injured with what is thought to be a shoulder injury. Dumas, a true freshman, has led the Lobos in rushing in two of the first three games. He's carried the ball 35 times this year for a total of 166 rushing yards.
Miners set to sport the Texas Western throwbacks
Like Steve Kaplowitz wrote about on Monday, UTEP will be rocking the amazing Texas Western throwbacks against the Lobos. Here's what Dana Dimel had to say about the jerseys.
"Really excited about the Texas Western uniforms that we are going to be able to wear and pay tribute to some of the good Miner football teams of the past," he said. "I think they are a really cool football model to show the players. I think it's a nice recruiting tool and to keep mixing up what we do with our uniforms. We didn't break out the blue helmets last year. We still have that coming."