The UTEP Miners end their South to North three game Texas road trip in Denton Saturday against the North Texas Mean Green. It's a 1:30 MDT start at Apogee Stadium where the Mean Green are 5-0 this season, the game will be televised on CSS/Time Warner Texas.
The Miners will limp into Denton with a 1-7 overall record against a surging North Texas team that has won four straight and is sitting up top the C-USA west standings with an 6-3 overall mark and 4-1 conference record.
The big news coming out of El Paso this week concerning this match up is the change at quarterback for the Miners.
The injury to Jameill Showers will keep him out for the rest of the season and with Blaire Sullivan making way too many mental mistakes, UTEP will start true freshman Mack Leftwich. Leftwich, has had a red-shirt on him all year, and a green scout team jersey as well.
After seven quarters of Blaire Sullivan at quarterback, Sean Kugler pulled Leftwich's red-shirt and will be thrown into the fire against a very stingy and solid North Texas defense. He was also one of Kugler's first commitments as head coach after a very impressive prep career.
Leftwich played his prep ball at North Allengheny HS where he was 30-1 as the starter and lead his team to a 16-0 finish and a state championship last season. He is undersized at 5'10, but from what I have seen in practice the kid has a great command of the offense and the huddle, even if it is a scout team. He is definitely capable depending on how he is used.
His father Spencer Leftwich is also the offensive line coach, the kid can flat out play the position there is no doubts in that, just not sure if this is right timing in the season to throw him out there with a team like North Texas being his first start in a meaningless game for the Miners.
Outside of Showers, he has the best accuracy of anybody UTEP has, though I wouldn't be suprised to see lots of zone-read and option called early, as he is very mobile and even elusive at times.
Its really hard to say what the Miners will do on offense Saturday which could possibly be an advantage. The questions I have is do they play conservative as they have all year, or do they let Leftwich sling it around and put the ball in his hands to see if he can make plays?
For the first time in a while and maybe in school history (will check further on that), UTEP will start a true freshman at running back and quarterback.
Aaron Jones surpassed John Harvey's UTEP freshman single season rushing record last week against Texas A&M. As it has been heavily noted by us and other media, the kid will be huge star and something to look forward to, but why does he get 20-plus carries and runs down as the gunner on punt coverage?
Over using him has been an issue for me and I know there are depth issues all around on defense, though risking injury to your top offensive player is not smart.
There was no one else in camp who could been have put there and challenged that to improve at that spot once we all found out Jones was going to be a factor as a running back?
All the talk before the season was the stable of running backs UTEP would have at their disposal. Jones has 150 carries on 805 yards, while the other backs combined have gained 544 yards on 137 carries.
Now that is not terrible by any means, though Nathan Jeffery is a guy who can gain 1000 yards, and LaQuintus Dowell showed his talent before he got hurt against NMSU, he is back healthy but has not been back in the mix.
Autrey Golden is one of the best kick returners in nation and only has 23 carries and is sparingly used at running back.
I get Jones is talented and deserves a lot touches, but those other running backs early showed they can tote the rock too, giving UTEP that potent and efficient run attack that was becoming a solid identity. Now It has turned into to just turning around and giving Aaron Jones the ball on offense.
Why not get Jones going on screens, line him up as a receiver, and move him around a little bit pre-snap, teams can almost put spy on him the Miners have been so predictable.
The Miners cannot continue to be vanilla and run the same three to four running plays and hope to be successful against North Texas, its just not going to happen against a defense of that caliber.
Its hard to talk about the receivers and the pass game since UTEP has seem to abandon that aspect of the offense. After three straight 100 yards games, Jordan Leslie has had six catches for only nine yards that past two games. Yeah that is not a typo.
While the Miners have made things difficult by committing costly turnovers, the play calling has also killed any chances of fighting back in games when UTEP trails by keeping the same offensive mindset and drive plan.
There is proof in the pudding that shows UTEP can throw the ball down field instead of just trying to live first down at a time. It just not trusted, scripted, or the coaches are holding their cards way too close with a 1-7 team.
As a coach I would rather turn the ball over on a down field interception with guys trying to make a play, rather than the defense just sitting back knowing what it is coming and bringing that hit stick on a freshman running back.
The health on the offensive line is still an issue as UTEP started another true freshman upfront against Texas A&M. North Texas is second in C-USA in sacks and averages 2.56 a game.
I would not expect straight drop backs from the young Leftwich, play action and screens will be his best friend Saturday, something North Texas struggled with early on in the season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Miners will get back two defensive backs, Jameel Erving and Nick Gathrite after they were suspended for the Texas A&M game. The Miners took three corners and only ten defensive backs in total to College Station last week.
The Miners have relied on the versatility of the secondary, the absence of Wesley Miller, Richard Spencer, and Erving who all have been in the mix hurt the Miners chances as Manziel threw four easy touchdowns.
Depth has been the main issue all season for the UTEP defense among other issues. The Miners have played noticeably better in the first quarter of the last two games. Getting that to translate into turnovers and field position for the offense, and doing it for four quarters is the next step.
The defensive line did a way better job with technique getting some pressure against a very good and athletic Texas A&M offensive line. I would expect that confidence to grown as guys like Roy Roberson and Silas Firstley have shown signs of talent upfront.
The Miners still have only one player record an interception, DaShone Smith accounts for both of UTEP's interceptions and has become a better tackler as well, really plays hard too.
The Miners will face three or four talented running backs from North Texas. Stopping the run first will be the key as North Texas should look to establish that early. Their quarterback Derek Thompson has thrown a decent amount of interceptions he shouldn't have thrown, so pressure on him will force him to make mistakes and give the Miners life.
North Texas boasts the most talented group of linebackers and defensive backs in the C-USA and maybe the whole State of Texas. That group has been the responsible for giving the Mean Green a plus-9 turnover margin.
Middle Linebacker Zachary Orr leads the team in tackles and has recorded twelve tackles in a game twice this season. Marcus Trice is the best safety in the C-USA, he is third on the team in tackles, leads the team with four interceptions and has also blocked two kicks.
The Mean Green defense is on a streak of four straight games of holding opponents to under 20 points, and with Miners only scoring 14 points the past two weeks, that could very well be the story of the game with a true freshman starting in his first game at quarterback against a top defense.
Wade and Orr are not the only productive players on the Green Curtain. Lairamie Lee is a hard hitting safety that plays both the strong and free giving North Texas one the best safety combos in the conference with him and Trice.
Will Wright plays outside linebacker on the left side and has two picks, and has good size at 6'2 230. Derek Akunne plays the opposite side at linebacker and is second on the team in tackles can really bang heads in there, like Orr he has two games of twelve tackles as well.
You can't forget about that quick and active defensive line for North Texas. While the Miners offensive line has faced bigger lineups, they will not face a more deep, experienced, and talent group.
Aaron Bellazin leads the group in sacks at the defensive end spot, and could get an NFL look after the draft. Richard Abbe is a monster at D-tackle, he goes 6'4 320. While his stats will not jump out at you, the injury problems for the Miners offensive front at guard will be exposed.
All those main pieces have led North Texas to a 20th ranking in the FBS in scoring defense, while they sit 40th overall in total defense. In comparison, UTEP is 115th in total defense and 117th in scoring defense.
As mentioned, that same Miner defense will see a trio of talented backs. Bradin Byrd is the leader and the feature back, he has four 100 yard games this season, and will certainly be difficult to stop.
Antoinne Jimmerson is usually the second spell back, the sophomore from Dallas has not put up huge numbers, he is very consistent and I could see him having a big day against the Miner D, he came up with some huge plays against Rice.
The third amigo is Reggie Pegram, he was held out last week against Rice with an injury. He might go against the Miners, and has been a pleasant surprise for Mean Green fans this year. He has six rushing touchdowns and if he is healthy the Miner defense is will have their plate full.
Their quarterback Derek Thompson has taken a lot of heat from the Mean Green fan base for inconsistent play, though his role in the offense is to really just manage the game. His TD to interception ratio is 12 to 11 and he his third in the conference in passing yards per game.
Some fans have an inside joke comparing him to the Houston Texans quarterback situation, though in my opinion a senior who is third behind two of the best quarterbacks in C-USA in passing and has you 4-1 in conference should get a little more respect, though I have not seen him over his career like North Texas fans have.
He maybe be loved this week as UTEP has made a lot of average C-USA quarterbacks look like All-Americans when they go man coverage, which UTEP usually does often.
I can probably go off on a whole up write about North Texas's top play-maker Brelan Chancellor. Chancellor is the best skill player in the conference, and averages 167.9 yards of total offense a contest.
Guys like Kam Jones from UTSA, Keevan Lucas from Tulsa, have gave UTEP problems this year are in the same mold as Chancellor but he just has the extra burst and has a nose for the end zone and big play.
Darnell Smith is another good receiver they have, he leads the team in catches and has been a consistent target this year. Carlos Harris is the slot guy, he is third in catches and gets a lot of first downs.
It will be interesting to see how Scott Stoker goes about game planning a play maker like Chancellor, then have to worry about slowing down a three headed monster in the run game.
The only opportunities for a win is to take care of the ball, sustain long drives that result in touchdowns instead of punts or blocked field goals. While on defense creating some turnovers giving Leftwich field position, and shutting down North Texas's run
No one outside of Denton expected North Texas to come into the C-USA and dominate like they have so far. This is a veteran group and a model for Sean Kugler and Co. to follow, as North Texas is playing the exact style Kugler is trying to instill here at UTEP.
When UTEP can sustain and finish drives, that usually gives the defense momentum in the second half, though getting to the second half within reach of the lead is the first battle they have to win.
Giving away an early turnover on the road against a team like North Texas is deadly so UTEP needs a faster than fast start to even have a chance.
I would expect UTEP to be fired up and play hard trying to shock the C-USA world behind a true freshman making his first start, though it could have also affected the team negatively as well for those who backed Garrett Simpson or Sullivan.
Big shout out to the DFW Miner Nation as various message boards are saying UTEP has sold out their allotment for the game in Denton. Even though this year is pretty much over Miner Nation still and will always love their Miners.
North Texas 37 UTEP 17
UTEP Miners (1-7, 0-4) at North Texas Mean Green (6-3, 4-1)
1:30 PM MDT Denton, TX Apogee Stadium
TV: CSS/Time Warner Texas
Radio: The Fox 9.23-FM, ESPN Deportes 1150-AM