The last time a UTEP football team won a game in Houston, I was a senior in high school.
150 lbs (more or less), and nine years later Sean Kugler and Co. will try for win number seven against the defending C-USA champs in the Clutch City on Friday night.
The Miners usually have Monday off, but with the Friday night game this week, the Miners are already in a Tuesday mode in terms of preparations.
Coach talks about the North Texas win, and what lies ahead Friday night against Rice.
***Kugler opens up by saying the entire Centennial Weekend really energized the team against North Texas.
*** "Our most complete game in all three phases"
***Says the goal on offense was to start fast, and the players responded with four straight scoring drives to open the game.
***Kugler was happy that the offensive line did a good job of protecting Jameill Showers, last year North Texas piled up eight sacks against UTEP.
***He was also happy with the offensive numbers in the rushing game that kept UTEP in manageable third down situations.
***Calls Aaron Jones' 54 yard TD run as maybe one of the best runs he has ever seen.
***Applauds both senior running backs Josh Bell, and Nathan Jeffery for their performances against North Texas as well.
***Coach thought the lineman, tight ends, and receivers were dominant in run blocking, he says they ran a lot of perimeter runs and everyone did a great job of blocking.
***Jay Mattox is the Top Gun Special Teams Player of The Week.
***Kugler challenged punt returner Damian Payne, Payne averaged 13 yards per return against North Texas.
***He also felt the North Texas game was a better defensive dominant game than the UTSA performance despite the late touchdowns when the backups were in.
***UTEP forced 11 negative plays against the North Texas offense including four sacks.
***Kugler was very pleased with the run defense, he was concerned with Reggie Pegram, and Antoinne Jimmerson running behind NT's offensive line coming into the game
***For the fourth straight game UTEP has held their opponent to 100 yards or less on the ground.
***Jimmy Musgrave won the Captain of the Week award.
***Talks about the "next man up" mantra in Musgrave stepping in and having a big game in place of the injured Anthony Puente.
***Coach opens the Rice talk describing their rush attack numbers, and time of possession numbers that are similar to UTEP's.
***He goes to say Rice has good third down, and red-zone conversion numbers on offense.
***Speaks highly of Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson, applauds his completion percentage, and ability to scramble and make plays with his legs as Jackson's high points.
*** "Two very efficient running backs that we're going to have to keep a handle on"
***Talks about how Rice uses play action to open up big plays vertically in the passing game.
***Rice is fourth in the C-USA in run defense, and number one in the conference in sacks and TFL's.
***Says Rice's star defensive tackle Christian Covington had season ending surgery.
***Rice has forced six interceptions, and nine fumbles, Rice and UTEP are tied with a plus eight turnover margin.
*** "Same formula we're using on offense, third downs, and red-zone, they have been using it on defense"
***Kugler is very concerned about going up against defensive end Brain Nordstrom who has 16.5 TFL's.
***Rice's kickoff specialist has 39 touch backs on the season.
*** "Playing against a team that basically uses the same formula we do, control the clock, time of possesion, and try not to turn the ball over"
***Says one factor in the turnaround and consistent streak is the team is gelling together, and playing for each other.
***Kugler talks about the main improvement of the offensive line being that they are just more physical, Kugler feels there are young lineman waiting in the wings right now who may pass up some starters down the road.
***Says center Eric Lee has upgraded their athleticism up front because UTEP uses the center to pull a lot.
*** "I think these guys have just really started to understand the harder you work the more fun the game of football is"
*** "My main objective is keep this coach staff together, because I think this coaching staff is outstanding"
***Kugler says the mentality the team has right now is to keep continuing to work hard over the last two weeks of the season, says the team acknowledges they are bowl eligible but the team also knows its not guaranteed.
***Talks about having ex-Miners on the staff as meaning something in terms of being able to relate with players from actual experiences guys like Brian Natkin and Robert Rodriguez had as Miners.
.***Rotation lineman Paulo Melendez missed the North Texas game with a concussion and his status going forward is questionable.
***Eric Lee is expected to return this week after getting hurt against North Texas
***Kugler mentions how happy he was to get players who have been on scout team the past few years some live game snaps at the end of the North Texas game.
***He also says the guys who were here during the coaching transition and stuck it out from last year have rallied together this year and our proud of preserving through the adversity.
***Kugler cant stand getting the Gatorade Shower.
(On Saturday's win over North Texas)
"It was an exciting win for our team especially on the Centennial weekend. It was a great weekend for all Miner fans. To [win] in front of the Centennial team, some of the great Miners who have ever played in history standing on the field, it think it really energized our kids. They really did want to go out and put on a show for those guys and they really did that. I felt the entire team played with confidence and energy for four quarters. I think it was our most complete game in all three phases that we've played all year long against a very tough opponent, a team that thoroughly whipped us last year. It was great to get that victory.
"Offensively, some of the things we did extremely well, we wanted to be the most physical unit out there which we certainly were. We wanted to start fast and they did that as well. Our first four drives resulted in touchdowns. That's about as fast as you can start in a game. One of the goals was to protect Jameill [Showers]. Last year when we played this team they had eight sacks against us. But what I pointed out to the team was not one of those offensive linemen played in the game. They took that to heart and went out there and we only had one sack, and that was on a run/pass option that shouldn't have even been a sack. So the offensive line kept Jameill clean the entire night. We wanted to be in manageable third downs. We did that. We were at 58 percent and even that was kind of skewed because one of those was at the end of the half when we were running out the clock, and one of those was at the end of the game when we were running out the clock. We put ourselves in very manageable third downs by running the football efficiently.
"We talked about being more efficient in the red zone, scoring touchdowns rather than field goals which kind of burned us the week before. We were 100 percent in the red zone in this game and that's where we want to be. We had 351 yards rushing against the no. 3 rushing defense in Conference USA. We ran for five rushing touchdowns and 7.6 yards per clip. Our goal each week is 4.5 yards per clip to be efficient and be in manageable third downs. We exceeded that. Aaron Jones had 177 yards and two touchdowns and one run that was maybe one of the best runs I have ever seen. He stiff-armed the guy at the 22-yard line and carried him all the way to the end zone and did not step out of bounds. It was an amazing show of strength and balance on that one.
"I was very proud of Nathan Jeffery, a senior, to have three touchdowns. I think that is his highest production as far as touchdowns and he had 6.6 yards per carry. And Josh Bell, a senior, had 7.4 yards per carry. Jameill Showers was at 8.2 yards per carry and he was at 72 percent efficiency with his passing. We didn't throw the ball a whole lot in that game and that was by design. But when we did throw, we were effective. Autrey Golden had some nice grabs, Ian Hamilton had some nice grabs and Jameill was on the mark. He had one drop or he would've had a higher efficiency than that. I thought the o-line and tight ends were dominant. And I throw the receivers into that mix because we ran a lot of perimeter plays, and they don't work unless your receivers and tight ends and fullbacks are blocking on the edge. I can't count how many times during that game we had people down on the ground in the perimeter. That was a great job by everybody working on the perimeter. Some things we can do better offensively, we did have one turnover at the end of the game that quickly resulted in a score. We can't put our defense in that tough of a situation. The young back, he'll learn that lesson keeping both hands on the ball in that situation. We can't have turnovers. We did have two penalties as well. We had a false start and a personal foul. Really the personal foul, I can live with that because it was a penalty of aggression. The kid was blocking the guy off the field and they just called him for being overzealous on the block. I can live with that.
"Special teams, we wanted to be the most physical unit out there. North Texas going into that game statistically was #1 in pretty much every category in Conference USA on special teams. Our kids really took it as an extreme challenge. The punt unit was outstanding. Mattox had a 48.5-yard average. He had one pindown at the one, he is really getting good at doing that. #4 who had been at a 13.8-yard average only had three returns for a 5.3-yard average. The coverage units were outstanding as well, in particular Josh Bell and L.A. Dowell. Punt return, we finally got that on track. We really challenged Damian Payne to get that thing going north and south. He had five returns for a 13.4-yard average which is excellent, and really had a spectacular run called back due to a holding call that would've put us up 35-0 at the half. Kickoff cover again has been outstanding all year. They only had three returns for a 17.5-yard average. Again, that was a guy that had a 41-yard average and a 100-yard touchdown return. We kind of kept him bottled up and it was a great job by them. I thought Mattox was outstanding. He had four touchbacks on kickoffs. He was 100 percent, 5-for-5 on PAT field goals, and I mentioned his punting. Jay Mattox was the special teams player of the week, he got the top gun award. Things we can do better, they had an outstanding kickoff coverage unit. We knew that going into the game. We only had one opportunity to return one. We only got 16 yards, we missed a couple of blocks up front. We'll get that cleaned up in practice this week. And then as I mentioned before, having a punt return called back, that can be a backbreaker for the other team. Instead of going up 35-0 at the half, we went in 28-0. We've got to keep our hands inside and not give them the opportunity to make that call.
Defensively, I know a lot of people mentioned the UT San Antonio game as a dominant performance, but you take away the last couple of drives when we had a lot of backups in the game and they kind of got a lot of garbage yards, and I thought our defense flew around better than they had all year. They were playing with energy, they were playing physical, they were flying around and getting after the quarterback. Some things that they did extremely well, getting off the field on third downs. We had 11 negative plays in that game behind the line of scrimmage. So we were playing on their side of the line of scrimmage. I was really concerned about their big backs. They had two very physical backs that had been running extremely well. Their backs averaged 18 carries for 38 yards. That's a 2.1-yard average, well below what they had been running. I was concerned about they had a senior offensive line, a group that last year physically manhandled our defensive line. It was the other way around in this game and our guys got after these guys. We had four sacks on the quarterback and some outstanding pressure all night and some of his throws were a result of that. Some negative things, we did give up a 65-yard run on a zone read on their quarterback. It was just a misread, we had a guy out of position. If you take out that run, they averaged 1.2 yards per carry. I thought the run defense in this game was outstanding. That's four games in a row where they've held the opponent to 100 yards or less. That's our goal. The two late touchdowns, those guys have got to step up too. I know coach Stoker was upset after the game about giving up those touchdowns and that's the competitor he is. He doesn't settle for anything less than the best. But we'll get that corrected.
"We did get one turnover on defense, although we did have one on offense with the fumble which leaves us at +8 [turnover margin]. The only stat that we talk about is turnovers. We're at +8 and second place in Conference USA with Rice as far as not giving the ball up. A couple things that we can clean up, we did have two pass interference calls. One questionable, the other was a legit call. We did have a personal foul on Alvin Jones being overly aggressive. I've told the players from day one, I can deal with penalties of aggression, we just can't have penalties of stupidity. A couple of penalties in that game probably shouldn't have been. But all in all it was an outstanding effort. Jimmy Musgrave was the player of the week. He will be the captain of the week. He had great production. He had 10 tackles in the game. He was a physical presence all night. He was stepping in for his first start because Anthony Puente could not play in that game due to an injury. That's just the mantra of this team, next man up. He took that to heart and led our defense to another outstanding game. Jimmy Musgrave was player of the week for the Miners.
"Again, great win for us. It put us in a bowl-eligible situation, but our players feel they're not done. We have two more games left, first against a Rice team that has the same record as us and has really been playing well as of the last month and a half."
"Offensively they are running the ball well. They average 184 yards rushing a game. The quarterback has thrown it extremely well. They haven't given up a lot of turnovers. They are +8 on the year just like we are. They try to control the clock. They are #2 in time of possession in Conference USA, right behind us. They have been very good in third downs. They are third in the conference. They are very good in the red zone. That's the mark of a very well coached team, a very disciplined team. I think the quarterback is extremely athletic and mobile. I think he can hurt you with his legs if he gets out of the pocket. He can move and buy time in the pocket and he's got a very accurate arm. He has close to 2,000 yards passing this year. His touchdown/interception ratio is good. He is completing the ball close to 60 percent. He has been very efficient for them but he also has 311 yards rushing and a rushing touchdown. He is dangerous with his legs. Much like the last crew we saw, they have two powerfully built shorter backs. #3 is 5-7, 200. He's got 824 yards, six touchdowns and a 4.1 average. #32 is a 200-pound back as well. He has a 5.1 average and eight touchdowns. They have two very efficient running backs that we're going to have to keep a handle on. They have two big receivers. It seems every week we face a team that's got an explosive big receiver. #15 is 6-5, 210. He's got good speed. He hurt us last year on more than one occasion. He's got a 16.4-yard average. He has an 88-yard touchdown already. He's got four touchdowns under his belt. And #1 is also a 6-1, 200-pound receiver has a 17.6-yard average and four touchdowns. They get some big plays down the field based off their play action because they're an efficient run team.
"I think they're excellent on defense. They're well coached. These guys fly to the football, they play hard. They are giving up 27 points per game which is fifth in the conference. They have been stopping the run well, they are fourth in Conference USA. Overall they are sixth in Conference USA in defense. The thing that stands out to me is they are #1 in the conference in sacks and tackles for losses. They have 33 sacks and 70 tackles for losses which means they are playing behind the opponent's line of scrimmage. They have two very active defensive ends. They have a defensive tackle who is probably going to be a first round draft pick. Unfortunately for them he will not be playing in our game, he was injured and had season-ending surgery. But their two defensive ends have been wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage. They have been getting turnovers. They've got six interceptions and nine fumbles which puts them at +8 on the year. They have been good on third downs at 42 percent. And they have been good at stopping people in the red zone.
"Their linebacker #4 has 56 tackles, he leads the team. He's also got two sacks. Their linebacker #26 has 44 tackles and five for losses. They have had production from their linebacker crew. But again, I mentioned their defensive ends. #47 has got a motor. He's not the biggest guy but he's 230 and he plays hard. He's long armed. He's got 16.5 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks. The other defensive end, #18, has 10 tackles for losses and 8.5 sacks. So great production from their defensive ends. Our tackles are going to have to be really on point to protect Jameill in this game. They have a very talented corner #29. He's got 33 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble, an interception and seven pass break-ups. For a corner, that's pretty productive on the stat sheet. Special teams, their punt team averages 42 yards per punt and nine yards against them as far as return. Their punt returner #29 has a seven-yard average, which is very respectable. Their kickoff returner #8 has a 21.3 yard average. Their kicker has a strong leg. He's got 39 touchbacks on the year which is one more than Jay Mattox. We have seen how many times Jay Mattox has punched the ball out of the end zone. That's why their kickoff return average overall has been good on their kickoff coverage unit. He has been 100 percent on PATs and 10-for-17 on field goals. So solid special teams, energetic defense that flies around, and an offense that really does similar things to what we do and they have been passing the ball more efficiently than they have in the past. This is a very explosive team. They started 0-3 with a very difficult schedule and like they do every year, they regrouped and won six games in a row. They were playing hot football in the months of October and early November. They just played a top-20 Marshall team this past week that beat them and I know they'll be ready for us in a short week. We're excited to play on national TV against the reigning Conference USA champs. We're playing against a team that basically uses the same formula as we do - control the clock, time of possession, trying not to turn the ball over and getting the ball on defense and they're a team that's not highly penalized. I expect a very physical game, a hard-fought game, and this is another team that got after us last year and our players are excited about the opportunity to go there and play them."
(On having staff members who played and enjoyed success at UTEP and imparting that on the players)
"It's just about anything. Life is about experience. We have coaches on our staff that had that experience, having an opportunity to win 10 games under coach Stull, having an opportunity in 2000 to win a WAC championship, Robert Rodriguez playing on the 2004 team that went to a bowl. It means something because when you relay experiences you're not BSing them, you're telling them exactly how it was. We know the formula that it takes to win here. It's just getting our kind of guys. I'm not concerned about stars and all the crap. I'm concerned about getting the kind of guys that fit this program. Guys that have a burning desire to get a degree, guys that want to play football 100 percent and guys that have a work ethic. If they don't have any of that, they're not going to make it here. If we get enough of those types of guys, you're going to see a turnaround like you see right now. Because these guys are buying into that, and the kids that are coming into this program are going to buy into that or they won't be here. That's how it's done around here. I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think we could win here. And we're going to do it."
(On why the offensive line is so much better than last year)
"Well, they're more physical. It was kind of tough last year because I looked down at the scout team every day and saw Will Hernandez and Derek Elmendorff just physically dominating our starting defensive linemen that were seniors, knowing the fact that they're better than what we're playing with on the field. But we stuck with our plan of redshirting most of our guys. Now they're doing it out on the field. We're going to continue to develop linemen. We're going to continue to bring in linemen. We're going to continue to upgrade our size and upgrade our talent. I feel there are some young linemen that may surpass those guys. This thing is going to be built on offensive and defensive linemen and developing them. I think Spencer Leftwich has done an unbelievable job with these guys. They have given up nine sacks in 10 games. They are rushing for 225 yards per game. Jameill has rarely been touched. I don't think he has taken an extreme hit all year long. For a young group that had never played together, Spencer Leftwich gets all the credit for that and their work ethic should get all the credit for that. I like some of the guys that are in the wings getting ready to play next year and the year after that."
(On Jerel Watkins' senior leadership)
"He is tough. He has got the demeanor that you want. If somebody isn't doing the job, he'll choke it out. Literally. He's got that kind of enforcer mentality. You need one of those guys in your offensive line. He's that guy. You've got a guy like Eric Lee who has really upgraded our athleticism at the center position, which we utilize a lot of pulling. Our two guards are very physical. They are my kind of linemen. The sleeper in the group, in my mind, has been Jerome Daniels. He has steadily gotten better every week. He has been a quality performer for us. He has played every snap all year."
(On seeing the team enjoy success)
"It's rewarding to me as a coach just to see smiles on these guys' faces. They really are starting to believe. Even today, we go out one day after playing a game. After a big win, you would expect maybe there's an energy drop-off. Those kids came out excited, they're flying around and having fun in practice. I think these guys are just starting to understand the harder you work, the more fun the game is because it's easier on Saturdays. There's no magic formula to just go out there and put on your pants and play football. It doesn't work that way. You've got to work and you've got to put in your dues during the week and have that pay off on Saturdays. We always talk about every day is a work day and Saturday is a fun day. I think the guys are starting to understand that and as a head coach, I couldn't be happier."
(On building a program that can sustain success)
"The object coming in wasn't for a quick fix. We didn't go out and sign 21 JC players and try to win now and have to retool every year. We want to recruit high school players. We'll plug in a JC player here or there to fill a need or a spot, but it's not going to be the basis of our program. When you look at the signing sheet every year, you're going to see 10 linemen every year. We're going to build our program on that. We really feel we've got the right formula for building a program long-term. That remains to be seen. You've got to win. But my main objective is to keep this coaching staff together because I think this staff is outstanding and they enjoy coaching. They enjoy each other. And my objective is every single player gets a degree. All of the other stuff takes care of itself because discipline is never going to change here, the work ethic is never going to change here, and the system is never going to change here. That's continuity. If you look at the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969. The Cleveland Browns have probably had three head coaches since last week. That's how it works. You've got to keep your staff together and there's got to be continuity."
(Do you think about bowl possibilities, do you allow your team to think about that?)
"No. They understand that they are bowl eligible. That doesn't guarantee you a bowl. We didn't feel like we're done at game 10, let's pack it in and celebrate. That's not the mentality of the coaches or this team. We're going to go out and work and try to continue. We're going to play two very excellent teams that are going to be in a bowl in Rice and Middle Tennessee. We've got our work cut out for us, but the thing I've found out about this team is they're up for challenges."
(On Eric Lee's injury status)
"He is just sitting out precautionary practice, but he should be back tomorrow."
(On building a program)
"You've got to earn trust with the players trusting in me and me trusting in the players. That's got to be earned. It isn't just something that happens in one day. Last year was difficult. There's no getting around that. But it had to be done, setting the foundation for the program and instilling the toughness that we needed. Being accountable, the discipline, and there was resistance at first. Some resistance from guys that aren't here any more. But the guys that stuck it out, they believe in what we're doing now. They kind of thrive on it. They are proud that they were the guys that stuck it out and they are rallying together as a team. As painful as last year was, it was necessary."