Saturday night at the Sun Bowl UTEP fans got exactly what they had been asking for over the last weeks. Redshirt freshman quarterback Blaire Sullivan got the nod under center, and played almost as well as one could expect him to against a stout UCF defense. However, I'm still not sure the result was the best we could've expected as the Miners lost 31-24.
What was a little upsetting, was the fact that the Miners didn't really play to win. That's not to say that they weren't out there competing and playing hard. It's a statement that says that the play calling was safe, at best, and it seemed as if there was a mentality of playing 'not to lose', more than it was 'play to win.
UCF opened the game with an 8 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that saw little to no resistance from the UTEP defense. But, from there, the Miners came alive. They answered with an 8 play, 75 yard drive of their own that evened the score at 7 a piece.
The Miners forced a Knight punt on the ensuing drive, but were unable to do anything on their next drive as they ran on 6 of their 7 plays, totaling only 14 yards. The trend continued after the Miners' special teams blocked a punt to give them a first and goal on the one. The Miners ran 2 rushing plays on first and second downs, before a well covered bootleg with Sullivan forced him to throw the ball away, setting up the UTEP field goal.
The Miners' defense continued to play well, forcing punts on the next two UCF drives. But, the Miners continued the safe play call, running on 11 of their next 12 plays. One of them resulted in a fumble, deep in Knight territory after the special teams had come up with another big play, recovering a fumble after an Ian Campbell punt.
The Knights then took advantage on the next drive, generating an 18 play 88 yard drive the put them ahead 14-10 with only 28 seconds remaining in the half. After a touchback, UTEP took over on their own 25. Logic would say take a knee and head to locker rooms, but the Miners ran the ball, fumbled, and gave it right back to the Knights with 21 seconds on the clock. The result: a 17-10 UCF lead heading to halftime.
It's safe to say that the Miners outplayed the Knights in the first half. They came up with two huge special teams plays, and the defense was stout, forcing UCF to punt on four straight drives after the Miners' tying touchdown. However, after going 75 on their opening drive, the Miners only totaled 68 yards on their next 7 drives.
For the half, they ran a total of 29 plays, and amassed a total of 143 yards. The numbers don't sound terrible for an offense with a freshman quarterback going up against perhaps the best defense in the league. However, the problem lies in the complete lack of balance in that play calling.
Sullivan was 3-5 for 55 yards passing in the first half, and the team as a whole totaled 88 yards on 24 attempts rushing. Simple math will show that passing averaged 11 yards an attempt, and rushing produced only 3.6. Now, we should expect that the Miners will be more of a rushing team with Sullivan running the show, but rushing on more than 80% of plays shouldn't be the norm.
The Miners continued the conservative play calling for the rest of the game. After receiving the opening kick of the second half, they ran the ball 6 times before punting it away. The defense held once again, and forced a UCF punt, but 4 more run plays put the Miners in a 2nd and 12, and Sullivan threw deep into triple coverage, and the ball was intercepted.
Again, the UTEP special teams came up big, blocking a UCF field goal to keep the game at 17-10, but the Miners were unable to capitalize, missing a field goal of their own from 47 yards. The Knights then marched down the field in 4 plays, scoring on a Blake Bortles run to open the game up to 24-10 with about 14 minutes to play.
With their backs against the wall, the Miners went down the field on a 10 play drive and scored a touchdown on a Sullivan run that put the game back to a one score game with just under 9 minutes to play. The Miners defense forced a punt on the next drive, and it took the Miners one play to even the score as Nathan Jeffery raced away for a 69 yard touchdown run.
The Knights answered quickly with a score of their own, making it a 31-24 ball game with 5 and a half minutes left to play. And, just when they needed a score, the play calling once again went conservative. On the final drive of the night, the Miners ran 4 times in 5 plays, including on a 4th and 4, and turned the ball over on downs.
For the game the Miners ran a total of 64 plays, 53 of which were runs. Percentage wise, roughly 17% of the plays were pass plays, while 83% were runs. Of course, it should be factored in that on some occasions, the UCF rush blew up some pass plays that forced Sullivan to scramble. But, that can only account for so much.
The fact was, the UTEP coaching staff's game plan was far too conservative. It's understandable that they would scale things back a bit with a freshman making his first start, but an 80/20 split is far too safe, and more than that, far too easy for a good defense to defend.
The Miners had a good chance to come away with a victory in this game, even with the style of offense that we played. But, we have to realize that this style forced us to play from behind the majority of the game. When the Miners had the lead early, that was an opportunity to put the pedal to the metal and take hold of the game.
Instead we continued to run the ball, pick up a first down or two, and punt it away. Over and over we asked the defense to come up with a stop. And they did, for a while. But, in the end that's just not a formula for success.
In the Miners two wins this season, the play calling has far more balanced than what we saw Saturday night. Against New Mexico State, we ran 36 pass plays compare to 37 runs, and against Tulane we ran 30 pass plays compare to 40 runs.
Granted, with Sullivan under center, this isn't likely to be a pass first team. But, to try and turn this team running team is completely off the mark. It goes against what this offense was formed as, and it goes against the way our coaching staff knows how to coach.
Now, the future with Sullivan looks bright. While we haven't seen him throw the ball a ton, we have seen that he's got the arm to do so when necessary, and he's also got the speed to get out of the pocket and make plays with his feet. But, as a team we've got to find that medium where the offense can succeed.
With Southern Miss and Rice left on the schedule, hopefully we're able to find that medium. While those teams' defenses aren't nearly as good as UCF's, and it'll be tempting to run the ball 50 times, it's still good to at last try to establish an identity for Sullivan as quarterback. I just don't think running the ball so much is it.
Overall, it was a gutty performance by the Miners. They did well to compete until the last minute against a team that many consider to be the best in Conference USA. The defense and special teams played extremely well, and the offense showed some signs in spurts. If we can continue with that play, and improve upon it, we just might find a couple of wins to end the year.