Winless Miners Open the Week as One-Point Favorites Over Rice
The UTEP football team hasn't been favored to win a single game thus far in the 2018 season—even to the likes of FCS-affiliate Northern Arizona (-7) and NMSU (-5.5).
But on Monday —considering the Miners have lost 20 straight games—Vegas gave the Miners (0-8, 0-4 C-USA) a one-point edge over the hosting Rice Owls for this Saturday's matchup.
As far as not being the underdogs, head coach Dana Dimel emphasized the importance of his team being focused going into Saturday's game:
"We’ve got to be careful looking at a game where we’re not a heavy underdog. We have been a heavy underdog in our last three ballgames. Really need to be locking into our preparation. We can’t think about who we are playing and change the way that we are preparing. We have to understand that in order for us to win this weekend, we have to play like we’ve been playing defensively and we have to play like we played special teams wise and then we have to improve offensively."
"In order for us to win, we’re going to have to play at a high level Saturday," he continued. "That’s the big thing. I don’t want them to get caught up in that we got through a real tough three-game stretch and now we’ve got these winnable ballgames. Now we’ve got to go out and execute to do that.”
Rice (1-8, 0-5 C-USA) enters this game riding an eight-game losing streak, with their last win coming in week one against Prairie View (31-28). Under first-year head coach Mike Bloomgren, the Owls are last in C-USA in passing defense efficiency (175.8) and 12th in scoring offense (18.9 ppg), total offense (317.9 ypg), passing offense (170.7 ypg), pass defense (270.3 ypg) and passing efficiency (105.9). They are also 13th in both scoring defense (39.0 ppg) and total defense (447.2 ypg).
But the Owls hold the edge over the Miners historically. They have won 10 of the last 12 matchups against the Miners, including winning the last six games in Houston. The last time UTEP beat Rice at home was Oct. 29, 2005, when they beat the Owls 38-31.
“We’ve weathered a pretty tough three-game stretch here," Dimel said. "During that three-game stretch, there was a lot of positives to grow from. Our football team understands that. We have four more games, but it’s going to just be one game at a time right now. If we keep improving and focusing, then we can have some successful results down the stretch.”
The Miners will hope that they return junior quarterback Kai Locksley, who suffered an ankle injury on Saturday against UAB. Locksley spoke with Dimel and says that he wants to play Saturday. For his backup, senior Ryan Metz is still inactive for the team and his status is still week-to-week. Therefore, UTEP will turn to junior Brandon Jones as their backup for Locksley. Jones has relieved quarterbacks in the past two games barring injuries.
“Right now, Kai (Locksley) still has a chance to play," Dimel said. "So, we’re still looking at him to be the possible starter for the game with Brandon (Jones) backing him up. Then, Mark Torrez and Alex Fernandes are battling for that spot there. (Ryan) Metz still hasn’t come back to be able to attend meetings or workouts yet. So, his time frame he’s still a way away. We’re hoping to get him back before the season is over, but right now he’s not even back with us yet.”
UTEP linebacker A.J. Hotchkins, who had 15 total tackles against UAB, feels comfortable about the team's chances going into Rice.
"We’re going to have a ton of fun," he said following UTEP's 19-0 loss to UAB. "This team deserves a win. I think we play guys close every week and I think that we definitely deserve a win. I go into every game thinking we’re going to win."
Kickoff between the two is set for 1:30 p.m. MT at Rice Stadium.