Adam Rosenfield: What's caused this massive improvement with UTEP this year???
Alex Nicolas: I really attribute it to the new found mental toughness, and senior leadership, but also the Sean Kugler way of doing business. There were no drastic scheme or personnel changes in the off-season, UTEP returned their whole staff, and more than 10 starters. Kugler demands accountability and focus on and off the field whether in class or in the film room, They also practice and prepare for the mental toughness needed to win situations in games which I think has seemingly helped in turning the contending and respectable corner again.
After cutting the Mike Price guys who didn't buy in, the remainder of Price's signees and over 40-plus of "Kugler Guys" have came together and bought into each other and the system. It's been way more than X's and O's and Kugler has been cleaning that part of the program up since he got of his flight to El Paso.
If we go the stats route, lack of dumb penalties, third down defense, and turnover margin are also high points that have helped for most of the season, but the maturity curve has been the most fun to watch from a program growth standpoint.
Alex Nicolas: Is it just reloading growing pains, or the lack of consistent QB play that has slanted the turnover margin, and overall record this year?
Adam Rosenfield: I'm going with the theory of 1. We lost a lot more than we thought we did from the D last year , which in turn has caused our D to get gashed every single game minus a few of them, but yes 2. Quarterback play has been egregiously inconsistent, but I also think that stems from McCarney deciding not to play any of them a lot of reps during blowouts LAST YEAR, of which there were a lot of them. Unfortunately, #Hit6 has been the goal this season, so 6-6 is considered a success around Denton, though I'm fairly nervous about this game.
Adam Rosenfield: Showers is finally healthy this season- how has his return impacted the offense? Who else should we watch out for Saturday?
Alex Nicolas: From a leadership standpoint, his return has been beneficial in simply having a guy know what he is doing back. The coaches have tilted the offensive scheme a bit to better fit his skill set with a triple option spread attack that he started off well in, but has had two bad games in consecutive weeks. Its been a case of good Showers, and bad Showers this year, not really an obvious trend to catch on, so its weird trying to figure out which one we will see this week.
Aaron Jones is always public enemy number one for DC's but missed last week's game due to a knee injury, and is expected back this week. UTEP went deep into the running back stable with Josh Bell, Nathan Jeffery, and true freshman David Hamm showing off the versatile depth UTEP has at RB.
My hope is receivers Autrey Golden, and the 6'5 Ian Hamilton have big games. We at the Rush have been waiting for them both have a big game in the same game, so with so much on the line Saturday, I would bet on Golden and Hamilton to have a big day if UTEP is efficient in their the pass game.
Alex Nicolas: Is this a game you see North Texas trying to run 40-plus times? How does it all go down on Saturday?
Adam Rosenfield: I have a feeling that we will run 40+ times a game. We're starting Andrew McNulty again, and his job is not to take over the game, but manage it (See: his stat line from last game). I think the two man show of Antoine Jimmerson and Reggie Pegram will be relied upon a ton, UTEP doesn't have the greatest passing defense, but I don't think McNulty is going to throw for 250 yards. I expect at least 40 rush attempts, and a close game until UTEP's running game starts gashing the UNT defense (obviously I'm not too high on the team...) UNT is young and has a lot of work to do... and obviously everyone is surprised that other than Rice, the class of CUSA West happens to be UTEP and La Tech.
I think UTEP avenges last year's blowout- 34-17.
Alex Nicolas: North Texas lost a lot of size and nasty up front from last year, but have still managed to be a solid run defense, where are the stregnths there?
Adam Rosenfield: Junior Chad Polk is the anchor for the defensive line, While he's the smallest starting d lineman in CUSA (6 ft 230) he has 5.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss leading the team. SR LB Derek Akune has also been a stalwart for the team, and he leads Conference USA with 83 tackles.
The defense boasts a lot of youth, and losing most of the d-line, as well as current Baltimore Ravens LB Zach Orr, and DB Marcus Trice (who were the emotional leaders of the 2013 team) didn't help. I think a telling stat is Polk is the only d-lineman in the top 10 for North Texas in terms of tackles, meaning opponents are getting to the linebacking and defensive back corps often. I do put a lot of the defensive troubles on the fact that they've been on the field an awful lot due to the struggles of the offense.
Adam Rosenfield: I'm a North Texas fan and I've never been to El Paso before. I arrive Friday at 5 pm and have nothing to do- Plan my night/day before the game.
Alex Nicolas: Usually I would give you a list of bars, and restaurants to hit up on a Friday night, but with Washington State coming into the Don Friday night I would suggest taking in a UTEP basketball game. There is no other Mecca of hoops in Texas better than the Don Haskins Center, and with a nice ticket deal from UTEP Athletics, Friday nights game should be an electric charged sold out crowd.
Saturday I would suggest taking a trip up to Scenic Drive to get a view of the entire Borderplex from a mile up. Everyone will tell you to go hit Chico's Tacos for lunch as that is the signature El Paso entree. But you cant go wrong with L&J Cafe, Avila's, or any neat looking restaurant around the UTEP area.
The new ball park downtown is also a site to see, along with some cool little shopping and restaurants that are cheap in price, but champagne quality hole in the walls.(If that makes any sense lol)
Adam Rosenfield: Prediction?
Alex Nicolas: This is just too close to call. From watching North Texas return to the punishing running game last week behind that big offensive line, this is going to be a physical battle. Kidsy, Harris, Pegram, and Jimmerson scare me, but I think UTEP has a little more speed on both sides of the ball to create big plays, as I see big plays on either side of the rock being the difference in this one.
UTEP 28 North Texas 27, not very confidently