UTEP Football Offensive Woes: Can Dimel Ignite an Early-Season Turnaround?
Don’t blame the player, blame the play caller, acknowledged UTEP head coach Dana Dimel.
The Miners (1-2) are coming off a 38-7 downing at Northwestern, a win that snapped the Wildcats' 12-game losing streak and handed the Miners its 37th consecutive loss to a Power-5 team.
The loss was particularly glaring due to the offensive struggles. Senior quarterback Gavin Hardison totaled two interceptions despite completing 17-of-25 passes for 192 passing yards and a touchdown. They were shut out in the second half and couldn't manage to score after their opening 70-yard touchdown drive.
On Monday, ahead of another Power-5 matchup at Arizona this Saturday, Dimel took ownership of Hardion's early-season struggles. Through three games, Hardison has 494 passing yards (44-for-67) with four touchdowns, four interceptions and a fumble. He leads the conference in interceptions three games into the season.
“His source of his struggles are (a result of) bad play calling by me,” said Dana Dimel. “We’re not going to pin anything on Gavin. I’m not going to do that because the kid’s a really good player and the pro scouts like what he’s doing. It’s a part of the (quarterback) position. When a team isn’t doing what people (want) us to do, you’re going to blame Gavin. But I’ve been pleased with Gavin and I think he’s doing a great job. I got to give him better plays and put him in better situations."
As a team, UTEP currently ranks in the bottom 10 of FBS in both scoring (16.3 points per game) and turnover margin (-5).
"If I had to critique my performance, I wouldn't say it was a bad game," Dimel explained. "We actually did a lot of really good things (at Northwestern). We managed it really well in the first half. Some of the mistakes and the unforced errors, that falls on me as a play caller. You always have to put your team in the best situations. I don't go back and say, 'there's a lot of bad calls in the game,' it was just a game where we couldn't afford any bad calls."
After the back-to-back opening touchdown drives by both teams, UTEP's offense punted twice—once at the UTEP 47 and the next drive at the Northwestern 46—which led to the Hardison interception inside their own 40 to start the second quarter.
Following the missed 44-yard field goal that marked the end of the first half, the Miners wrapped up the game with a series of drives resulting in an interception by Hardison, a punt, back-to-back turnover on downs and an interception thrown by backup Jake McNamara.
"Not creating enough big plays and losing the turnover battle," Dimel said as the key things he isn't seeing offensively. "If we're not doing those things offensively, that goes back on me as a play caller and it goes back to me as a head coach. I feel like they are doing a great job and they'll be fine because they're good football players."
Scouting Arizona and a familiar foe
The Wildcats dominated Northern Arizona, 38-3, in their season opener before dropping an overtime loss to Mississippi State this past weekend (31-24). Arizona will go as far as quarterback Jayden de Laura can take them. He's already off to 627 passing yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Defensively, their red zone defense currently ranks ninth in FBS. They are led by linebacker Jacob Manu, who leads the Pac-12 with 21 tackles.
Let's not bury the lead, though. Former Miner turned Wildcat Jacob Cowing highlights the wide receiving corps for Arizona. The NFL-caliber receiver already has 10 catches for 69 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"It will be cool to see him on Saturday," said Hardison about his former receiver. "He's like a brother to me. We were really close when he was here and we're still close. It will be cool to see him and I want the best for him—just not this game."
The last time both teams played in 2017, Arizona destroyed the Miners in El Paso, 63-16. Arizona has won the last 13 meetings between the teams, with UTEP's last win coming in 1970 when the two schools were in the WAC.
No change coming at kicker
Kicker Buzz Flabiano has missed his first two field goal attempts—each from 40+ yards—and has made 9-of-9 extra points. The Miners will not look to another kicker in the near future and are committed to the development of Flabiano.
Andress graduate and senior Mark Ramos is second on the depth chart, while Eastlake alum and true freshman Julian Melucci is the third option at kicker.
"[Flabiano's] got such a great leg so I know the potential is there to be a really good player," Dimel said. "He's just got to find his way. I'm not going to criticize him because I love his potential. Unfortunately, he's just a freshman. We lost a guy that started for us forever. Now we have to play a freshman. Main thing he needs to keep doing is kick the ball... As all things go in football, he'll make a big one for us this year."
Tyrice Knight shines for defense, wins CUSA DPOTW
After his 14-tackle, 1.5 tackles for loss game at Northwestern, UTEP linebacker Tyrice Knight earned CUSA Defensive Player of the Week honors. This is the first weekly award for Knight, who has been a staple on the Miner defense and should be in contention for CUSA Defensive Player of the Year.
He's on a 13-game streak of double-digit tackles. He's currently the FBS leader in solo tackles (28) and total tackles (43).
Looking ahead to UNLV
Now the Miners will turn the page and look to another Power-5 opponent Saturday at Arizona. The focus is obviously the Wildcats for this team, but I'm looking ahead to the UNLV matchup. If the Miners drop back-to-back games, they will enter their home matchup against the Rebels at 1-3 overall.
There's no way in my opinion the Miners can rally back and get to a bowl game with a 1-4 record entering the full stretch of the CUSA schedule. At that point, the Miners could be looking at a disaster of a season and things could unravel.
On the flip side, if they were able to beat UNLV and improve to 2-3, there's a path to gaining momentum. They open the full CUSA schedule with a home game against LA Tech on Friday, Sept. 29. Best case scenario, UTEP gets out of September with a 3-3 record. If they go .500 and gain momentum, UTEP will have three winnable games ahead of them in October—at FIU (Oct. 11), vs. NM State (Oct. 18) and at Sam Houston State (Oct. 25).
But before getting to that point, the Miners must establish an identity on offense in order to score points and win games. Their defense has proven it can hang with teams. But the offense needs to do its part. And the play caller—sixth-year coach Dimel—understands that.