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2014 Gildan New Mexico Bowl: Game Preview

One program is looking to keep a bowl game, trophy hoisting streak alive, while the other is looking to break a loooong drought.

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With temperatures below 50 degrees of cool Albuquerque air, UTEP and Utah State will meet for the third time and first time since the early sixties by helping usher in the bowl season with the 2014 Gildan New Mexico Bowl kicking off Saturday just after high noon Mountain Time.

Utah State has had a wild ride to their 9-4 record.  Losing nine starters, and three quarterbacks, although their elite defense has helped sustain the recent success head coach Matt Wells took over two years ago in Logan.

The Miners will look to #MakeMoreHistory by snapping their bowl losing streak in the same stadium and sideline where they opened 2014 in the win column.  Riding a physical offensive line, a five player rotation of complimentary running backs, and an ever improving defense that is aggressive, deep, and athletic, UTEP has turned the corner quicker than most expected, and maybe even quicker than Sean Kugler expected.

In the stat sheet eye test, it figures to be UTEP's run attack vs. Utah State's run defense as the main key to either side raising Pottery after sixty minutes of bowl season football.

UTEP wins if....

The Miners control the line of scrimmage on offense allowing Aaron Jones and & Co. to go off, and win the turnover battle.  If UTEP is averaging less than four yards a carry, and turns it over more than once without forcing any turnovers themselves, its hard to see the Miners keeping it close in that instance.  I don't think there is a bag tricks or offensive wrinkles Sean Kugler and staff throw out there.   UTEP has to execute on who they are offensively which is pound you out efficiently till the clock runs out.  Defensively if UTEP is able to stop the run like they have proven possible, they in turn can force fourth string quarterback Kent Myers to beat them on third downs.  UTEP will have their hands full with three rushers who have over 450 yards on the ground this season, and the jet sweep option with the speedy JoJo Natson zooming sideline-to-sideline.  A spy or  blitz scheme to avoid the athletic Myers from extending plays should and undoubtedly will also be emphasized.   I feel Utah State will not have success passing if Myers is pressured during his first and second progressions, though he may duck and run with a quick trigger. The Miners at times have struggled with athletic quarterbacks this year sometimes via their blitzes, containing Myers cannot become an issue.   UTEP will also win if Autrey Golden, or any other special teams player can come through with a big play that leads to six.  Same formula for UTEP in seven wins this year: play well in all phases, dominate in one, and don't beat yourself.

Utah State wins if...

They establish a consistent run, gash UTEP with big plays in the passing game, and completely shut down UTEP's run.  Call it struggles along the offensive line, or with running back depth, but UTEP will be able to play behind the line of scrimmage in this one.   Utah State's offense will put guys like Natson, and fellow play maker receiver Hunter Sharp laterally in space where UTEP will have to have to be sound with proper angle and tackling technique.  Defensive end B.J. Larson and the brothers Vigil, Zach, and Nick as backers will give UTEP fits at times in the run game, but if they consistently shut it down, Utah State may very well win the ever important time of possession battle that UTEP values.  Safety Frankie Sutera is a turnover forcing machine, and also is credited with six quarterback hurries.  If Utah State's front seven stuffs the UTEP run, expect see Sutera over the top of UTEP receivers with eyes on Showers looking for the pick, he has a team leading seven interceptions this season.  Just like UTEP, Utah State prides themselves on winning the turnover battle, that is an area that will dictate the score for either side.

Position group comparison

UTEP Advantage Position Advantage Utah State
I'll take Jameill Showers' experience in this one. While Showers doesn't have gaudy passing numbers, his decision making in UTEP's run/pass read option has helped win games.  If Showers has a big game, UTEP has a big game.

X

Quarterbacks Kent Myers is going to be a very good college quarterback down the road of his career.  This will be a big stepping stone for him, and I feel it won't be a surprise if he outplays Showers.  He has to have a big game as well to break down UTEP's defense, and generate big plays.
Even the homerest of Utah State homers might even agree with this one.  UTEP has confused defensive coordinators with the running back packages UTEP uses down-to-down.  Wild cards for big games are the two seniors who have came up big this season in Josh Bell, and Nathan Jeffery.  A lot of pro scouts will be watching how Aaron Jones handles this run tough defense.

X

Running Backs Looking at Utah State's rushing numbers, it seems they ride the hot hand in the running game. True freshman Lajuan Hunt is their leading rusher with 524 yards this season.  Hunt splits time with senior Joe Hill who comes in with 457 yards on the ground.  UTEP will have to be assignment sound in keeping the Utah State motion based run/pass option in check.  Not a scary group on paper, but if Utah State executes what they do, and the Miners struggle, they both will move the chains.
The only legit argument for UTEP grabbing an X here is the blocking ability UTEP has on the outside, and from tight ends Katrae Ford, and Eric Tomlinson.  Guys like Autrey Golden, Jarrad Shaw and of course Ian Hamilton are the proven vets who haven't to be able to consistently stretch the defense if UTEP is unable to run. In 23 catches this season Hamilton is averaging 21.7 yards a grab, feed the man down field if in need, please. Receivers/Tight Ends

X

Not only are they big play threats in the short passing game, but JoJo Natson brings a dangerous option within their corps in the jet sweep scheme. Natson has 458 yards in just 45 carries. Two other guys to keep an eye on are consistent producers.  Hunter Sharp and Ronald Butler.  In third-and-ten or longer situations, both Sharp and Butler average 15 yards a catch.
This is UTEP's MO. Down an All-Conference Freshman starter, UTEP has proven they have depth to show no drop off, but its well documented they will be tested by a tough front seven with NFL sized athletes lined up across the rock.  No penalties, no negative plays, and no mental break downs are the musts.  Sad to see an enforcer like Jerrel Watkins go, expect him to be lighting up cats off the edge.

X

Offensive line With only one returning starter, and the modest rush numbers, one can guess without watching any recent film, and from the outside, that Utah State isn't as strong as expected up front.  They will have to be sound with the numerous blitz looks UTEP's brings, I think the UTEP defensive calls, packages, and pressures give these guys a hard time.
UTEP has developed not thought of in the preseason depth here, and is not far behind Utah State in this match up. If Roy Robertson-Harris is able dictate his match up, it always opens up everyone else to play in the opposing backfield.  But a few guys like Nick Usher, Cooper Brock off the edge, and Maurice Chavis, and Geno Bresolin in the middle have to continue to come up with big stops in big time situations.  I'm predicting a minimum of 5 TFL's. Defensive line

X

Loaded with size and productive players, if UTEP has trouble with this group, the scoreboard with reflect it as well. B.J Larsen is a legit pro prospect and has nine sacks.  They are a run stop first group that is going to be a factor if UTEP's run game is halted.
One day, UTEP will have linebackers with Vigil(s) like numbers.  But there is no denying the depth UTEP has built there this season on the field, and in red-shirts.  Alvin Jones, Anthony Puente, Trey Brown, and Jimmy Musgrave will have to keep everything in front of them for UTEP be successful on defense.  Tough sledding against Natson, but each UTEP linebacker has had their multiple moments of shine this season.  A group with questions in the preseason, has become a strong point. Linebackers

X

Nick and Zach Vigil are by far the best linebackers UTEP will see this season.  Both have combined for 16 sacks and Zach Vigil was named MW Defensive player of the year. The injury bug also effected the linebacker spot for the Aggies, but hard to tell on the stat sheet huh? Big and athletic overall group, very impressive size.
One of UTEP's deepest spots on the defense will need to force turnovers, and not a miss a single tackle.  I feel Utah State will test UTEP on the outside when in man.  Its a shame Devin Cockrell and Wesley Miller weren't named second team All-C-USA.  Like the linebackers each guy within the package rotations has had their shine.   What happens if they all come out and make plays? (Ask UTSA fans) Defensive backs

X

Safety Frankie Suetra is a straight up baller.  6'3 corner Brian Suite has 8 PBU's and 2 int's, another corner freshman Jalen Davis has added 2 int's and 7 PBU's.  Another safety to watch is Devin Centers who who is fourth on the team in tackles, and leads Utah State with 10 PBU's.  A veteran front line of DB's outside of Davis that are also factors in run support.
Autrey Golden cemented his mark as THE or one of the elite returners in the nation.  Jay Mattox will now handle every kicking situation, and has to be able to pin Utah State on his punts, and grab points he can when a drive stalls in his range.  Tough match up for UTEP here. Special Teams

X

Utah State has a number of dynamic returners lead by Natson.  They have also blocked three kicks, and only give up 17.5 yards per kick off return.  Kicker Nick Diaz is also 12/15 on the season on FG tries.

Final Take

I'm going to end with this what will a win do for UTEP in the long run of things take.  Utah State is a model of blue collar, physical football success Sean Kugler wants to emulate just like the Kansas State's, Boise State's, and locally the Rice's of the college football world.  More than X's and O's, I expect this UTEP team to be fired up with energy, and the embedded mentally tough and focus gene we're used to seeing from the 2014 Miners.  This group has embraced those identities starting with the leaders on this team, and will be a huge strength when UTEP needs a play in a game deciding situations they practice over-and-over for.

In UTEP's case, despite not being in a bowl in almost five years, and without any historic bowl success is it safe or fair to say that in only Sean Kugler's second year this bowl game is in sort of a must win category to keep the momentum going?

The bowl appearance, and turnaround has helped the program build pillars of success,  and also has already made a difference in recruiting.  But if the fighting Kugler's follow the same mental preparation and game execution formula that has brought them to this point, UTEP has a legit football "program" going forward for the first time in school history.