The UTEP Miners (2-3, 0-1) square off against the Old Dominion Monarchs (3-3, 1-2) for the first time ever Saturday night at the Sun Bowl. Kickoff for the 2014 Homecoming game is slated for 6:00 p.m. MT.
The Miners enter the contest fresh off a 55-3 drubbing at the hands of the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. They were just never able to get things going, in any facet of the game, and walked away looking for more answers than they began the game with.
Old Dominion enters in much the same situation. Following a 3-1 start to the season, the Monarchs have been dominated in two straight contests, including last week's 56-14 demolition at the hands of the top team in conference, the Marshall Thundering Herd.
Jameill Showers is the senior signal caller for the Miners, and while his numbers haven't been stellar so far this season, he'll have to come up big if they are going to get back on track. So far, he's completed just 55% of his passes for 702 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions.
Of course, the ground game will be the bread and butter for the Miners. Sophomore Aaron Jones has been held in check the last two weeks but he still enters with 659 yards on the year, good for 12th in the nation. Senior Nathan Jeffery also averages a solid 4.7 yards per carry.
While the receiving corp hasn't seen much action thus far, senior Ian Hamilton and Jarrad Shaw have been Showers' favorite targets. The 6'7 tight end Eric Tomlinson, and the recently converted Autrey Golden are also a couple to keep an eye on.
Old Dominion is led by senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Heinicke set plenty of records at the FCS level, and while he hasn't done as well at the FBS level, he's still completed a solid 63.6% of his passes for 1619 yards, 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.
Sophomore tailback Gerard Johnson has become a solid playmaker out of the backfield, averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 81 attempts this season. Freshman Ray Lawry has also been a pleasant surprise, averaging 7.9 yards per carry to go along with 5 scores.
Wideouts Zach Pascal, a sophomore, and Antonio Vaughn, a senior, are Heinicke's top targets on the outside, with each catching 30+ balls and tallying 400+ yards. They have also combined for 11 total touchdowns. In all, six different Monarchs have caught more than 10 passes on the year.
Both teams have struggled defensively this year, with both ranking in the bottom 20 of the FBS in defensive scoring giving up better than 36 points a game. Both teams rank near the middle of the pack in passing defense, but also rank in the bottom 20 in rushing defense.
If the Miners are going to win this game, they will have to get better offensively, and that starts by getting a little more creative. We all know the strength of this team lies in running the football, but it doesn't mean this team has to be one dimensional.
Contrary to popular belief, Jameill Showers is more than capable of making decisions in the flow of the game, and can certainly make some plays with both his arm and his feet.
No one is saying to put the game completely in his hands, but it wouldn't hurt if the Miners were to open the passing game up a bit by using screens, swing passes, and even the occasional shot down the field.
By utilizing the pass game, even just a little, it will force the Old Dominion defense to stay honest, and will keep them from loading the box with 8 or 9 guys. Hell, even a little trick play to start the game could go a long way.
Again, this isn't in an effort to change our identity, but actually an effort to open up the run game, giving us a better opportunity at being successful with what we do best.
With that, here are a few keys to the game:
Control the clock:
Believe it or not, our defense has actually played fairly well to open up the last couple of games. Both were still in reach into the second quarter, but three and out after three and out by our offense continually put our defense back on the field. Its tough to keep asking any defensive unit to keep getting stop after stop when the offense isn't helping.
The offense must be able to sustain drives, control the clock, and turn those drives into points. That will allow the defense to stay fresh, and give them a better opportunity to make the stops that we need them to make.
Get more creative with playcalling:
Again, we've said it many times this week; we've been far too predictable on offense over the last couple of weeks. We've allowed defenses to simply key on the run, load the box, shut down our offense, and race out to insurmountable leads. We can help ourselves out, simply by getting a little more creative.
Take care of the football:
We did a great job of protecting the football in the opening weeks, but five turnovers last week were killers against Louisiana Tech. Back to back interceptions gave the Bulldogs short fields in the second quarter and that eventually led to the game being put out of reach.
A punt isn't always a bad thing. Better to give the opposition 70 or 80 yards to go rather than set them up with a 1st and 10 30 yards away from their end zone. Be smart, protect the football.
Get pressure on Heinicke:
We have got to disrupt the timing of Taylor Heinicke. This is a quarterback that thrives in the passing game, and has been in this system for four years. He's very comfortable in the pocket and will pick you apart if you give him the chance.
Bottom line, don't give him the chance. We've got to establish a pass rush early and often, and if we can, we will give ourselves a much better opportunity to come away with the win.
This is definitely a game that we can win, and even should win. And, at 2-3, its a game that could be the turning point in our season. If we are able to come out and play the fundamentally sound and disciplined football we played in the early weeks, while tweaking our offensive scheme just a bit, we should be able to find ourselves on the right side of this one.
Miners 38, Old Dominion 34