The UTEP Defense Has to Prove Itself Against New Mexico
Editor's note: UTEP football will travel to New Mexico this Saturday for their next non-conference matchup. Listen to the coverage on KLAQ (95.5 FM) Saturday starting at 5 p.m. MinerTalk will follow the broadcast on 600 ESPN El Paso. Let's hear thoughts from our fall intern UTEP Zay on the game:
Coming into the 2022 season, the UTEP defense was hyped up as one of the best groups in the Conference USA. However, just three games into the season, experts like The Athletic’s Austin Mock are saying the defense is “really bad”.
So what happened? And, how can the Miner defense get their groove back?
When the Miners travel up to Albuquerque this week, they will prepare to face one of the worst offenses in all of FBS Football. The Lobos have only a 15% success rate on offense this season per advanced analytics. Coming off a 31-14 loss to Boise State at home, the Lobos had 123 yards of total offense and only 25 yards of rushing, despite having 27 rushing attempts. That means the Lobos averaged less than a yard per carry against the Broncos. Their only score on offense came on a 69-yard pass play from quarterback Miles Kendrick to receiver Geordon Porter. Kendrick finished the game with 98 yards, one touchdown, on 9-of-28 passing. Their other score came on a 100-yard kickoff return late in the fourth quarter. As you can imagine, the Lobo offense struggled against the Broncos. This provides an opportunity for UTEP to continue to find its groove on defense. They played well against NMSU, until the middle of the 3rd quarter when it felt like they were consistently on the field. The Aggie offense capitalized on the Miner defense being on the field a lot and ran the ball successfully. That led to the Aggies outscoring the Miners 13-3 in the second half. Despite this, the Miner defense buckled down late in the 4th and forced a fumble that ended the game. The defense showed signs of life in the first half, where they forced two turnovers and held the Aggies to zero points. That was the standard that fans expected the defense to consistently perform at.
With the first win under their belt, and fans still looking for their best defensive performance of the season, can the Miner defense finally turn a page and become what we all expected them to be? These are some of the things the Miner defense can do to prove themselves.
Defensive Line Domination
When you play a team that put up more rushing attempts than yards, you should expect to dominate their offensive line. With the talent that UTEP has on its defensive line, UTEP should hold the Lobos to under 60 yards rushing and get a couple of sacks. Players like Praise Amewhule and Jadrian Taylor (better known as “Shake n’ Bake) should have a feast against an offensive line that has already allowed eight sacks through two games. If the Miner defense wants to be what people thought they were, they should dominate the line this game. With the talent that fans have seen from this unit, the Miners should have no trouble doing this.
Force an interception in the secondary
Last week, I challenged the Miners to force two or more turnovers to beat the Aggies, and they did just that. So I am challenging them again, but this time it is in the secondary. If the Miner defensive line performs to a high level, the pressure on Kendrick should make it hard for him to be comfortable. The secondary, more specifically the corners, have played well early in the season considering that both of the starting boundary corners didn’t have much experience. Kobe Hylton and Ty’reke James have played fine this season. Both safeties have played better in the run game than they have in the pass game. The Miners, once again, have an amazing opportunity to build confidence in their young and inexperienced secondary. The talent is there and an interception could continue to boost the young player's confidence.
Linebackers find themselves
Through their first three games this season, the Miner defense has allowed 203 rushing yards per game, and teams are averaging over 5.0 yards per carry. You can’t put this on any specific group, but there is no doubt that the linebackers have had a rough start to the season. With injury issues and Breon Hayward not being eligible, the team has turned to fourth string linebacker Cal Wallerstedt to be the man. He has played exceptionally well considering the circumstances, but it just hasn’t been a great start at all for this group. From missed tackles, choosing the wrong gap, or whatever it may be, this group has been unimpressive. However, Tyrice Knight is an all-conference caliber player. If he and Wallerstedt find themselves against a bad UNM team, it could do wonders for this UTEP defense.
Get off the field
Don’t get me wrong, UTEP’s defense was a catalyst to the NM State win. That was until Aggies’ last two drives. Up to that point, the Miners didn’t allow a single third or fourth down conversion. That is very impressive. However, in the Aggies’ final two drives, they were 4-for-6 in third down conversions and 2-for-2 in fourth down conversions. That isn’t exactly a recipe for success. All but one of the third down conversions came on passes of more than 10 yards. That just won’t cut it for defense with bowl aspirations. If the Miners can get stops in clutch situations, then all will be good. But not getting off the field when you already have an offense that didn’t help you all game will kill your team.
The Bottom Line
UTEP’s defense came in with loads of hype. They have talent. Fans have seen it. Can they finally piece it all together against a bad UNM offense? We’ll see. The pressure is on for these guys. They have proven people wrong before, but the real question is, can they do it again?