UTEP Football Needs a Hero; Here’s Why it Has to Be Quarterback Gavin Hardison
There's a sense of urgency within the UTEP football team (1-3) this week as they approach a key matchup against UNLV (2-1) on Saturday at the Sun Bowl.
It's not a "must win" necessarily, but a "pivotal" game, according to head coach Dana Dimel. They aren't panicking inside the locker room, but they understand the importance of this week's game.
"I don't think 'must wins' are ever a part of coaches' thoughts," said Dimel at his weekly press conference. "Important ones are there and it's important because you don't want to go three games below .500. You want to get back to where you're one weekend away from being .500. That's why this game is very pivotal. It's pivotal because it gets you back in striking distance and it gets you a really quality win over a Mountain West team. There's a lot of positives that can be gained from a win like this."
If the Miners manage to pull off a much-needed home victory over UNLV on Saturday, it could springboard them into the full stretch of CUSA with a manageable slate of LA Tech (Sept. 29), FIU (Oct. 11), NM State (Oct. 18) and Sam Houston State (Oct. 26) ahead. After, they have a tough span—a home game against Western Kentucky (Nov. 4), a road contest at Middle Tennessee (Nov. 18) and senior day hosting Liberty (Nov. 25).
Conversely, if they drop Saturday's game versus UNLV, a 1-4 record going into CUSA play could derail the motivation of the team and could diminish all hopes of a postseason bowl berth.
"It's huge because every win gets you back where you want to be at and every loss stretches it out," Dimel said. "A couple wins gets us back to where we want to be. A couple wins in a row gets us there. As I look at the next five games, they're really important for us because it gets us to a point where after nine games, we have a good feel of where we sit."
"As I looked at it, I grouped the first four, which I knew were going to be really difficult tasks for us. Then I looked at the next five that's another group that will really showcase where we are with our season. After that, you have two of three at home in the (final) stretch," Dimel explained.
The reality is that UTEP is in search of an identity on offense. Until they find their identity, this will be a below-average team with a good defense.
Players-only meeting sparked by Gavin Hardison
Reflecting back on the Arizona loss, Hardison was visibly frustrated at points during the game. He completed 15-of-31 passes for 228 yards with no turnovers and zero touchdowns. Receivers accounted for four drops and 18 catches on 34 targets. Hardison started the game going an efficient 8-for-10 passing midway into the second quarter, but as the defense adjusted, he went 7-for-21 to close the contest.
"Gavin played solid and he knows he can play better and I'm looking for him to play better," Dimel said. "He didn't make any crucial mistakes to swing the game one way or another. I thought all in all their secondary did a good job of covering our receivers. They matched up really well with us. It was more of a difficult task for him because their defensive backs matched up well with our receivers."
"Our receivers know they should've played better," Dimel continued. "We haven't had many dropped passes all year and we didn't execute the way we needed at the wide receiver position, so that skewed Gavin's production in what he did."
Saturday's performance sparked a player's only meeting initiated by Hardison after practice on Monday. The starting offense has scored one touchdown in the last two weeks against Power 5 opponents. They are in the bottom 10 of FBS in scoring (14.6 points per game) as a team, although Dimel pointed out that the inefficiency of the offense is the bigger issue.
The players themselves understand the importance of Saturday's game against UNLV. They currently have 10 seniors starting, including Hardison, a majority of the offensive line and top skill players like Tyrin Smith.
While fans might bemoan the idea of Hardison leading a possible rejuvenation of the offense, the fact is they are running out of options.
Running back Deion Hankins hasn't been as healthy as they needed him to be to start the season. He was limited in week one at Jacksonville State. He missed the entire second half at Northwestern. Hankins carried the ball nine times at Arizona for just 34 rushing yards. Additionally, Mike Franklin dealt with an injury against Arizona last week and he's "day-to-day," according to Dimel. The bright spot is Torrance Burgess Jr., who has emerged as an x-factor in both the run and passing game.
Dimel pointed out that the offense needs to be "patient in the run game," but Arizona exposed that when defenses shut down the running attack, it ends up hurting the Miners' game plan.
For better or worse, Hardison has to be the leader to spark a change in the offense. Whether they find success with the run game that opens up passing options; or, a pass-first approach that brings opportunities to the running backs. Whether Hardison attempts 15 passes and they go run-heavy against UNLV; or, they let Hardison loose and ask him to throw 30-40 passes. Whether they use both Smith and wideout Kelly Akharaiyi in the passing game or see receivers like Jeremiah Ballard step up to make plays.
The Miners need Hardison to be efficient, play turnover-free ball and make plays that will lead to points.
Now, whether this will come to fruition remains to be seen on Saturday.
"I really like this team," Dimel said. "I'm not going to let everyone get dramatic about a slow start. We have a lot of football to play, we have a good football team and it will all be shown in the future as we move into the season."
Catch all of our coverage on Saturday on 600 ESPN El Paso and KLAQ! Starting at 3 p.m., we will be LIVE at The District West (3233 North Mesa) for a "tailgate" party leading into the broadcast. Catch the "Countdown to Kickoff" with Jon Teicher, Cole Freytag and Mando Medina starting at 6 p.m. on KLAQ. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at the Sun Bowl. After, we will have MinerTalk live on 600 ESPN El Paso.