Well, the non-conference run is over, and its now time to get into Conference USA action. The Miners did well to be competitive against some extremely stiff competition, but fell short of picking up a huge win, mostly due to self inflicted damage.
Coming off a 37-26 loss to #23 Wisconsin, its now or never time for the Miners. This week they head to Greenville, NC to take on the ECU Pirates in what will be UTEP's C-USA opener. East Carolina has already picked up a league win, knocking off Southern Miss on the road.
The two teams have met three times prior to this one, with the Miners taking last year's contest in the Sun Bowl (22-17), and the Pirates winning in 2008 in Greenville (53-21), and 2007 in El Paso (45-42 OT). Overall, UTEP is 0-17-1 when playing in the Eastern Time Zone, with the tie coming at West Virginia in 1949.
The Pirates enter the contest at 2-2 on the season with wins against FCS opponent Appalachian State (35-13), and as previously mentioned at Southern Miss (24-14). Most recently, ECU was dropped 27-6 at the hands of in state rival North Carolina.
So far this season, ECU has played two different quarterbacks. Junior Rio Johnson made the first two starts of the year, and while he completed better than 60% of his passes for 435 yards, he was only able to put up two touchdowns compare to four interceptions.
Sophomore Shane Carden first appeared in week two, and has been the signal caller ever since. He has completed 56% of his passes, also for 435 yards, but has done a better job taking care of the ball with two touchdowns to only one pick.
The rushing attack is led by junior Michael Dobson, who has racked up 120 yards on 36 carries, and also junior Vintavious Cooper who has 153 yards on 28 carries. While the two have been productive in stretches, as a team the Pirates rank 117th in the nation in rushing yards per game (96).
On the season, 13 Pirates have registered at least one grab, but the wide receiving unit without a doubt is led by sophomore standout Justin Hardy. He's already hauled in 23 catches, for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Junior wideout Justin Jones is the only other ECU player with more than 100 yards receiving. He's got 9 catches for 137 yards.
Defensively, the Pirates are led by linebackers Jeremy Grove, a sophomore, and Montese Overton, a freshman. Grove has tallied 32 tackles on the season, while Overton has racked up 23 tackles and a sack in three games.
Also look out for a couple playmakers in the secondary in juniors Damon Magazu and Adonis Armstrong. Magazu already has 26 tackles and a pass deflection through the first four games, while Armstrong has 23 tackles and a ridiculous 6 pass deflections.
The Miners are led by senior quarterback Nick Lamaison. After a slow start to the season, he has now racked up 811 yards, 7 touchdowns and no interceptions. Mostly due to a poor 6-23 effort in week one, his completion percentage is still rising and currently stands at 55.1%.
The backfield, which was supposed to be highlighted by sophomore Nathan Jeffery, has now turned into a running back by committee. Jeffery is still the lead rusher with 186 yards on 29 carries, but he only received 8 carries for 9 yards in his return from injury against Wisconsin.
Freshman Autrey Golden has done well to pick up the slack, going for 130 yards on 30 carries, and freshmen Xay Williams and L.A Dowell, and sophomore Josh Bell have also played a role in Jeffery's absence. Williams has 79 yards on 21 carries.
Senior receiver Mike Edwards has now taken over the top spot in the receiving game, as most expected he would coming into the season. He has totaled 325 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 receptions. Sophomore Jordan Leslie isn't too far behind, as he has 287 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 grabs.
The Miners defense suffered a huge blow in last weekend's loss to Wisconsin, as senior safety Richard Spencer was lost for the season to an ACL injury. Because of the loss, that unit will have to figure out how to fill the void with guys like sophomore Wesley Miller, and freshmen Shane Huhn and Gage Sharp.
Senior defensive backs DeShawn Grayson and Drew Thomas will have to pick up the slack in the secondary as well. Grayson now has 31 tackles and 3 pass deflections on the year, while Thomas has 19 tackles as well as 3 deflections and an interception.
One developing bright spot for the Miners is the emergence of sophomore placekicker Steven Valadez. The kicking game had been quite the liability in the first few games, but Valadez has now connected on 8 of 10 extra points, as well as 3 of 4 field goals, including two 40+ yarders against Wisconsin.
Its now time to see exactly what the brutal non-conference schedule has done for this Miners' team. With the exception of the loss of Spencer, which can't be overstated, UTEP made it through the non-conference run fairly healthy.
But, just cause everyone else is healthy, doesn't mean this team is going to go out and rack up wins. They do have the experience though, and they couldn't be more prepared for a league that at this point is nowhere near the level that it has been in recent years.
In my opinion, while this game won't be easy, its definitely one the Miners can win. East Carolina has struggled to find a running game, they've struggled to put up points, and they've struggled to take care of the football.
The Miners may be 1-3, and may not have a "signature" road win, but if any Mike Price team has ever been capable of picking up a couple on the road in Conference USA, its this one. Nick Lamaison will need to be sharp, hopefully Nathan Jeffery is nearing 100%, and the defense can make up for the loss of Spencer. If that is the case, the Miners will win.
Miners 31, Pirates 27