I didn't expect the UTEP Miners football team to go undefeated this season. I'm a practical fan and I have realistic expectations for this team. Coming into this season, we all knew UTEP was breaking in a new defensive system and coming off a 4-8 campaign. So, I'm not upset that UTEP lost a game today on the road to a hungry UAB team playing for their coaches job. I am upset because when things got tough down the stretch, the Miners simply rolled over. Losses will happen in college football. Especially in a league where there is comparable talent seemingly across the board. But, there's never an excuse for not showing up to the fight.
Here are my post game thoughs, bullets style.
- How Long Was the Flight? Mike Price has done some incredible things at UTEP. I'm a fierce Price defender and I value what he's done for the program and how he has embraced the community over his tenure. But, there's no denying that something is seriously lacking in UTEP's road game preparation. Is it a mental thing? Is UTEP flying Southwest? What's going on? UTEP hasn't won a C-USA road game since October 4, 2008! They've played some of the worst teams in the nation on the road in that span and haven't been able to get one win in the last nine? Don't the odds favor us winning one of those by accident? Streaks happen, but losing every C-USA road game over two years is a sign of something else completely. There is something systemically wrong with UTEP's road preparation. There is a lack of focus. Yes, there is a lack of leadership.
- Dismissing Excuses: Yes, the Miners suffered from some tough injuries to key players. Most notably, UTEP's starting center Nathan McCage (who started due to injuries to Eloy Atkinson and Tanner Cullumber) was knocked out of the game. So was DT Germard Reed and LB Royzell Smith. I do not know the severity of Trevor Vittatoe's injury as he did seem to be limping in the third and fourth quarter, but I do know that he looked terrible during the second half. The last two interceptions (and one gimme that was dropped by a UAB defender) were made on bad decisions and lazy throws. Was it the injury? If so, why didn't the coaches get him out of the game or lean on a running game that was somewhat successful to minimize the risk? UTEP wasn't in a must pass situation until UAB's third touchdown which put the game out of reach with four minutes to play. Which brings me to...
- Where's the Run? In UTEP's other loss this season, to Houston, I couldn't quite understand why Aaron Price abandoned the running game so early in the second half of the game. I thought that UTEP, with the defense struggling so much in that one, would benefit by leaning on Joe Banyard (who was running well), shortening the game, and hoping the defense could make 1-2 stops instead of 4-5. In the third quarter, UTEP had three drives, two of which were three and outs. Guess what, UTEP ran the ball twice in the third quarter. Twice. In UTEP's inaugural drive of the fourth quarter, down 14-6, the Miners didn't run the ball once. When the dust settled, the UTEP Miners ran the ball two times in a second half that was mostly a one possession game.
- Buckram Looked Great: Someone might take a look at the games final stats and see that UTEP averaged 2.6 yards per rush and think Price was right to stress the pass. UTEP's rushing stats were thrown off by failures in goal line situations. In a 6-0 and 7-6 game, there is no excuse for running the ball two times in a half. Buckram, early in the game, had a nice 11 yard run and broke off a 30 yard gain on a screen pass. He looked to be back completely to full speed. In the second half, the Miners made no concerted effort to get him involved in the game plan.
- Missed Opportunities: This one never should have been close because UTEP should have broken UAB's will in the first half. On UTEP's third drive, the Miners drove down to the UAB 24 yard line. Vittatoe was sacked and the drive stalled with no points. It should have at least been 3-0 there. Then, at the end of the first and start of the second, UTEP put together an excellent 12 play drive that chewed up 6:00 and got the Miners to first and goal at the 7. On third and goal at the two, UTEP had a false start penalty that essentially killed the drive. UTEP hit a field goal, but the Miners should have been up 10-0 here, not 3-0.
- The First INT: On UTEP's next drive, the Miners put together another nice, 11 play series UAB was playing tough, but UTEP was mixing up the run and pass and had moved the ball to he UAB 45. Then, Trevor tossed his first of 3 interceptions, this one at the UAB 20. Three long drives in the first half for the Miners and UTEP came away with 6 points. UAB should have gone into the locker room down 13-21 points. Instead, it was a manageable 6-0.
- A Sign of What's to Come: After TV's first interception, UAB's coaching staff figured out the key to attacking UTEP's defense. UAB held the ball for the final 9 minutes of the half with a 9 play drive that served as the blueprint to UAB's second half scheme. UAB used Pat Shed and Justin Brooks to attack the interior of UTEP's 4-3 defense. Shed and Brooks broke off 10 yard runs with ease and before you knew it, UAB had killed the entire second quarter. Luckily, they missed a chip shot field goal but it became apparent that UAB would be able to soften up UTEP's defense with the run.
- More of the Same: In the second half. UAB kept attacking UTEP with those runs that eventually opened up the passing game for Bryan Ellis. UAB was chewing up the clock and wearing out UTEP's defense. Late in the second, UAB had a 12 play, 74 yard drive that ended with their first touchdown and a 7-6 lead, UTEP took over on their 30. I wanted to see how Trevor would react. Would he take over the game like he did against Memphis? First, Alex Solot was called for offsides. Then, Anthony McNac was called for holding which resulted in 1st and 25 from the 15 instead of 1st and 10 on the 30. Three plays for three yards and UTEP's defense was back on the field in a matter of minutes. It was that kind of day.
- A Fourth to Forget: In the fourth quarter, the Miners had 3 drives. They gained 17 yards and had two interceptions. Again, I don't know how serious TV's injuries were and the coaching staff didn't help him out by using the running game at all, but he simply didn't look good. He was forcing throws and the first INT of the half was thrown into an area where there were three defenders. He also had one pass bounce off a UAB defender that should have been a 4th interception. In the first half, he was sacked a few times and pressured. In the second, he had plenty of time to pass. He simply didn't execute.
- The Bottom Line: UTEP showed up expecting for UAB to roll over. I have no problem with UTEP rolling into Birmingham with tons of confidence. At 5-1, playing against a 1-4 team, I want the Miners to expect to win that game. For that confidence to translate to a win, though, UTEP needed to go out and hit UAB first. The Miners needed to show UAB they were for real and put them away early. When the Miners failed to capitalize on early drives, UAB gained confidence. As UAB took control of the game with long, bruising drives, UTEP's coaching staff had no answer on offense or defense. I've never seen a team so desperate for someone to make a big play, be it Kris Adams, Trevor, Travaun Nixon, Donald Buckram. Nobody did. As UAB marched up and down the field, the Miners looked content to let the game end and get back home.