Through the first four games of the season, the UTEP football team has shown fans plenty of promise. They were able to stay competitive against the likes of Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Wisconsin, and they were able to pick up a much needed win over rival New Mexico State.
And, while they are sitting at 1-3 as they enter conference play, its not so much that the Miners were outmatched in their losses, as much as they gave away opportunities with costly mistakes. Through four games, UTEP ranks dead last in Conference USA in both penalties per game (9) and penalty yards per game (77), last in field goal percentage (42.9%), and 10th in extra point percentage (81.8%).
The bottom line is that if the Miners hope to pick enough wins in Conference USA to make a return to a bowl game, they must find a way to cut down on their mistakes. Of course, one area that the team is already working on improving is the kicking game.
Sophomore Stephen Valadez has taken over full time duties since Dakota Warren has been out with a back injury. And, while Valadez had an extra point blocked that proved to be a huge momentum shifter in the Wisconsin game, he also nailed two field goals from 40+ yards.
On the year, he has now connected on 8 of his 10 extra point attempts, with the other miss coming on a block against NMSU, and he has also connected on 3 of 4 field goal attempts, with the lone miss coming in the opener against Oklahoma.
With hard work and preparation, the Miners should be able to overcome their early kicking woes. But, what is to be made of the 36 penalties that the Miners have committed in the first four games? Last year, the Miners only committed 55 penalties all season.
Over the last 5 years, the Miners have averaged about 77 penalties a year, and about 57.18 penalty yards per game. That would rank them about 62nd and 77th in the FBS, respectively. However, through a third of 2012 season, they rank 119th and 111th. Keep in mind that there are only 124 FBS schools.
Interestingly enough, three nationally ranked Pac-12 schools (UCLA, USC, and Oregon) also rank in the bottom 15 in total penalties on the season. However, the Miners just don't have the talent to overcome so many mistakes when taking on top opponents.
In the Oklahoma game alone, the Miners had three pre-snap penalties that gave their offense a 1st and 15. Two of those drives stalled without getting a first down after the penalty.
In the Ole Miss game, at a crucial point with 1st and goal down 21-7, the Miners had two penalties for 15 yards that forced them to attempt a field goal. They also had a drive early in the 4th that was killed because of a 1st down holding call that put them in a 1st and 20 situation. They punted at 4th and 10.
Against Wisconsin, the Miners had a defensive holding call that would have left the Badgers with 3rd and goal from the 7. Instead it was 1st and goal from the 3, and they scored on the ensuing play. A holding penalty midway through the second put the Miners in 2nd at 18, and forced them to punt.
After a roughing the kicker call gave the Miners a first down late in the first half, two costly procedure penalties turned the 1st and 10 into a 1st and 20, and the Miners wound up settling for a field goal.
The point is that in each of the Miners' three losses, mistakes and penalties at crucial times have proved to be extremely costly. Of course, there's no way to know whether or not less penalties would have made a difference in the outcome of the games.
But, in certain situations those penalties have definitely cost the Miners drives, and more importantly opportunities. If they're going to make a return to a bowl, no longer can they afford to give away opportunities. They must capitalize.