You can sense the focus Sean Kugler has in finishing 2014 with a winning record.
In his media luncheon, Kugler doesn't say the B word and UTEP, us or we in the same sentence once, and that clearly shows all eyes are on Middle Tennessee.
Here are the noteworthy info bits from his weekly media addressing session.
***Kugler opens up the chat by saying UTEP is still trying to catch up to Rice in terms of being a winning program, and they didn't make enough plays on both sides of the ball to win.
***In an annoyed manner, Kugler explains how UTEP has lost the turnover battle in three conference road losses this season.
***Explains that the blocking on the outside (receivers) was part of the problem in lack of run game efficiency against Rice, but gives Rice a lot of credit for shutting down the run.
***Kulger talks about UTEP having six negative plays on offense that didn't allow for the Miners to be in manageable third downs as they were 25 percent on third down conversion tries.
***Goes on to say for the first time all year UTEP lost the time of possession battle by having no run game.
***Every game UTEP has won this year, they have scored on their opening drive.
***Kugler talks about Ian Hamilton's game, and how he used to his body, and size to over power over smaller corners.
***He also acknowledges the missed pass interference calls on Hamilton, but said UTEP simply didn't catch those breaks.
*** "We're not built, nor do we want to throw it thirty times a game"
***Felt the defense did a good job early in the game of putting pressure on Driphus Jackson, UTEP finished with three sacks.
***UTEP has forced a three and out in six straight opening possessions on defense.
***He said the interception from Devin Cockrell gave UTEP tons of momentum, but the lack of forced turnovers were needed to stay at bay, and he also says UTEP missed two or three chances at forcing turnovers in the Rice game.
*** "We did not to a good job of containing the receivers"
***Rice had seven plays that went for over 15 yards.
***Kugler notes that Rice's third down conversion numbers were a big negative for the defense.
***He also says the defensive backs have to do a better job of tracking the deep ball.
***Said Jay Mattox had his worst day punting due to the shanked ten yard punt he had in the Rice game.
*** "No issues with the team's competitiveness, I though there was fire in their eyes the whole four quarters"
*** "Sometimes you just have to face facts that we're just not caught up to Rice yet in some areas"
***Top Gun Special Teams Player of The Week was Laquintus Dowell.
***Captain of the Week is Ian Hamilton.
***Kugler says that injured seniors Kyle Brown, and Deandre Little will carry the Pick Axe onto the field for the Middle Tennessee game, both have had their careers cut short due to injuries but have helped the team this season like assistant coaches.
***Opens the MTSU talks in describing their offense as "extremely balanced".
***Middle Tennessee is third in the C-USA when it comes to total offense.
***Their offense ranks fourth in the C-USA in third down conversions, and fifth in the league in red-zone offense.
***Middle Tennessee has allowed 25 sacks, and have turned the ball over 23 times on offense.
***Defensive back Kevin Byard has six interceptions on the season.
***As a defense, the Blue Raiders have piled up 25 sacks, and 54 TFL's this season.
*** "They pretty much have a three-headed monster at running back"
***Calls running back Reggie Whatley, "explosive and exciting", he also returns kicks averaging 25 yards a kick return.
***Says Middle Tennessee runs the stretch run play very well on offense.
***Special teams unit has blocked four kicks this year.
***Kugler says he has not had one off the field issue with the current senior class, he says the seniors came together in changing the culture here at UTEP.
***Paulo Melendez, and Chris Thomas will rotate at guard this week.
***Autrey Golden had a foot issue but will be okay, defensive back Dashone Smith had surgery on a lacerated spleen and will miss the remainder of the season.
*** On prepping for MTSU's defense:"For us its not about Middle Tennessee, its more about us correcting our mistakes"
*** On Devin Cockrell's play: "He had a real good freshman year. He probably didn't know what he was doing last year, just flying around and playing on energy. He led our team in tackles last year, which is amazing for a freshman safety. He's been a lot more balanced this year in coverage. He has been a physical presence at the line of scrimmage for us. He is really starting to understand the defense. What I'm seeing, he is becoming a leader on the field with his energy and play. Devin has a very bright future."
(On Friday's loss at Rice)
"It was a tough loss for us on Friday night against a very good Rice team. They're a team we're trying to catch up to in our conference; they're defending Conference USA champs and they played extremely well against us. We didn't make enough plays neither offensively nor defensively to give ourselves a chance.
"Offensively we've lost the turnover battle on the road three times this year, and that was against LA Tech, Western Kentucky and Rice. We had that one turnover on offense with fumble early in the game and then we got a turnover on a punt return that hit one of our players in the back. And we only got one turnover on defense.
"We were inefficient in the run game. We only had 2.1 yards per carry that's not up to our standards and I think a lot of that is a tribute to Rice doing a good job stopping our run. I feel we didn't do as well on the perimeter blocking with the wide receivers, tight ends and fullbacks on theedge and that was attributed to them stopping the run game. We struggled with their stunts up front; they had a very solid defensive line and Jameill (Showers) was sacked twice and hit on six different occasions. We need to do a better job of protecting him.
"And then how our offense is built, we want to be in manageable third downs. We were only 25 percent on third downs, which our goal is 50 percent every game. The result of they came on negative plays from penalties and an inefficient running game. For the first time all year, the other team out possessed us. Rice held the ball for 31 minutes and 59 seconds.
"Our goal as an offense is to start fast. Every single game that we've won this year, dating all away back to the first game, we have scored a touchdown on the opening drive. We started our opening drive with two straight eight-yard runs and then we fumbled. That put us behind the eight ball to begin with, although the defense did a good job of putting out the fire on that first fumble.
"Some positives offensively, I thought Ian Hamilton had a very strong game. He used his body; he made some physical catches and made some spectacular catches. He had 130 yards receiving and probably could've had two, or possibly three (passing interference) calls against them defensively, but they weren't called and that's just the breaks. There was six catches by the tight ends. I was glad to see those guys get a little more involved.
"I really thought Jameill competed hard in this game. We're not built, nor do we want to throw it 30 times a game, but Jameill did a good job sometimes under duress making plays with his legs; making some throws. He made an outstanding individual effort on his touchdown run on a read optionplay. I just liked the way he competed the entire game.
"Defensively, our goal was to contain no. 6 and put pressure on him. I thought the defense did a good job of that, especially early. We got three sacks and three quarterback hits on him. We wanted to start fast. We started the game with three three-and-outs and that about as good as you can start defensively. It's been six-straight games now that we started with a three-and-out. We always challenge to defense to start fast and offense to start fast. The defense came out and did their part early in the game. They had two good running backs in no. 3 and 32 and also the quarterback. They only ended up with a 3.9-yard average, but they ran it 42 times. Probably more of a goal we wanted to do offensively ratherthan have the opponent run the ball 42 times. We did give up a couple big runs in the game which can't happen as the result of missed tackles.
"The negatives; we only got one turnover and I showed the team in the film room on Sunday how much that turnover energized our team. And it resulted in points from our offense and energized the entire sideline and basically put us back in the game with the interception from Devin Cockrell and we didn't get enough of them. I really felt there were three maybe four missed opportunities for turnovers in that game where the ball was in the air and there was a chance to make a play. We didn't do a great job of getting our head around and making plays on the ball. When that ball is in the air, it's just as much our ball as it is theirs. We didn't do a good job containing the receivers. No. 1 had 150 yards receiving, one touchdown and a long of 55 yards. No. 15 had 37 yards receiving, one touchdown and a long of 24. Really, their chunk plays came on passing plays. They had seven plays of over 15 yards and again we can't give up that much chunk-age.
"We weren't as good on third downs as we normally are. 47 percent, they were 7-of-15. We had been operating around 30-34 percent all year. We have to do a better job getting off the field on third downs. And probably the big thing that stood out was the tracking of the defense with the deep balls and not getting our heads turned around and having opportunities to make plays on those balls because each time our guys were in good position.
"Special teams - kickoff coverage again, I thought they have done an outstanding job all year. They had one return for nine yards, and about five different guys at one point hit the returner. On kickoff returns, Autrey (Golden) had one return, as they're kicking it away from him, he did get one return for 32 yards, a good return. And then (LaQuintus) Dowell got his first return action. He's the off returner and mainly a blocker, but if they're going to kick it to him, I feel good with the ball in his hands being a former running back and he had one nice return for 33 yards. PAT, field goals was 100 percent. Mattox was 2-for-2 on field goals, he also had two touchbacks on kickoff.
"Areas we need to improve on in special teams. In punt return, we obviously had the turnover that was costly for us. It was a 24-13 game in the fourth quarter and we were going to get the ball back with decent field position and we turned it over and they basically ran out the clock and a score in the process. We only had a 2.6-yard average and we have to do a better job catching the ball and not always try to make a spectacular play on puntreturn. Just get vertical and take what you can get on punt return and we can live with that.
"Mattox probably had his worst day punting. A lot of that was on one punt that went off the side of his foot and he only had a 10-yard punt. You don't see too many 10-yard punts, but he only had a 34.5-yard average. He's got to do a better job of catching the ball cleanly and getting it out off his foot quickly. He's been doing a good job for us all year, he just had a subpar night.
"Again. We had no issues with team's competiveness. I thought there was fire in their eyes for the whole four quarters on the sidelines. They were competing, but sometimes we have to face facts that we're not caught up with Rice just yet in some areas. These are areas we have to identify and improve on our team. It's just like in the NFL; everyone is trying to catch up to the Denver's, the Seattle's, the San Francisco's and the New England's. And everyone is trying to build their team with an opportunity to catch up to those teams. So we're in the same mode in our conference tying to catch up to teams like Rice and we understand what we have to do to get there.
"Top gun for special team's player of the week is (LaQunitus) Dowell. He's been pretty consistent all year as a quality special teams player and he takes a lot of pride with that. Captain of the week with be Ian Hamilton. I really liked the way he competed, really the last couple ofweeks. But he really had an outstanding game receiving. I think that was his highest total since he's been here as a receiver.
"(Ian) will not be carrying out the pickaxe this week though. We're going to do something special for two players that are seniors that really lost the opportunity to compete this year. Kyle Brown, offensive lineman, who had an unfortunate blood clot was one of our starting offensive lineman. His career was cut short because of that. And then DeAndre Little,who's a senior, really had a devastating knee injury to the point where he couldn't play anymore last year against Colorado State. Both those guys are a big part of our team and our chemistry as anybody else. And they've helped in the football offices and helping on the field. You would think they were assistant coaches out there. They take that much pride in their team. You should see those guys and how energized they are on the sidelines during the games. I really feel for those guys that they didn't get the opportunity, but they're just as much as part of us winning this year as anybody else. DeAndre Little and Kyle Brown are going to carry out the pickaxe and give it to a special young man on the sidelines this week."
(On Middle Tennessee)
"A returning bowl team from last year. A very solid team, one of the best teams in Conference USA. They are also bowl bound this year(6-5). Just like we are. Offensively, they are extremely balanced. They are one of the top tier offenses in C-USA. They are up there with Marshall, WesternKentucky and Old Dominion. They are scoring 32 points per game. They run the ball extremely well. They are at 209.7 and we are at 209.3 yards rushing per game. We both want to run the ball. They pass it extremely effectively as well. 228 yards per game. Offensively, they have been putting up close to 440 yards per game. They are third in C-USA in total offense. They have been very good on third downs (44 percent), which puts them at fourth in C-USA. Very good in the redzone, fifth in C-USA. As much as they have thrown it, they have given up 25 sacks, which is around the middle of the pack in C-USA. They have had a lot of turnovers. 23 of them on offense. So, we have to do our best to get to get opportunities to get the football. Defensively, they are giving up 32 points per game. 176 rushing, 284 passing and 461 yards total. They have given up a lot of yards. You look at their defense, which I thought was outstanding last year, returned six players. They have a strong safety that has six interceptions and a defensive end that has nine tackles for loss. Their linebackers are productive (#38 and #28) both have 69 and 66 tackles. They have a cornerback that has 50 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups. They have some talented guys that are back and we anticipate a challenge from them. They do have 25 sacks and 54 tackles for losses, so they do create some problems with their movement and their pressures.
"Really, as you look at their season, they have been playing extremely well on offense. They've been in every single game. They've been in a lot of close games, some that they have won. They are at -3 in the turnovercategory. They have given up turnovers on offense, but they have also been forcing them on defense. They have 20 turnovers on the defensive side of the ball.
"They pretty much have a three-headed monster at running back. They have two very big backs in #1 and #6. They're both about 6-foot-1, 220 pounds. Then they have change-up back in Whatley, #25, who's about 5-foot-7, 175 pounds. This guy is explosive and exciting. He's also their kick returner and he's averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He's got seven touchdowns in the running game. #6 is 4.2 with two touchdowns and 530 yards, and #1 has afive-yard average and six touchdowns. They run the stretch play very well and try to find creases and get vertical with that and they have a very good running scheme.
"The quarterback #2, he's got close to 2,500 yards and he's got 17 touchdowns on the year. He can make plays with his legs, as he's got 336 yards rushing and five touchdowns. He knows where to get rid of it and when to get rid of it. He places the ball well. They have two very solid receivers in #80 and 19. They have seven touchdowns combined, and #10 is their punt returner. He's also got a 61-yard touchdown on a punt return and 12.3-yard average. They've got some explosive weapons on offense.
"Very talented team and bowl eligible team. A team that has been to bowls the past few years. One of the benchmark teams in C-USA that we are trying to compete with. We're trying to make this game about us and a great group of seniors. A group that I've really enjoyed coaching this year. I can't tell you how rewarding it is for me. I haven't had one issue with this senior class. Not even one phone call. Not one complaint (training room, weight room or academic center) for any one of these seniors. I really feel this group came together before the season and said we want to be the ones to stop the bleeding on eight straight losing seasons. I know that they are going to go out and play their hearts out to try and accomplish that goal. These guys are class acts. Most of those guys are going to get their degree in December. I'm proud of every single one of them. They have upheld the leadership standards I have expected from them since the beginning of the season till the end. We are going to honor them Saturday with Senior Day. A lot of the parents are going to be here; it will be an exciting day for them. I think it's pretty neat that DeAndre Little and Kyle Brown will represent the senior class and carry out the pickaxe for the last home game."
(On health of Paulo Melendez and Autrey Golden)
"Paulo and Chris Thomas will play at the right guard position. Both of those guys will get reps this week. I would anticipate you will see both of those guys at the position during the game. Golden will beready for the game. He had a little issue with his foot. I think he'll be fine."
(Does Middle Tennessee know how to win?)
"Yeah, they got experience to bank on that. They've won in the past and they've been to bowl games. Coach has done a great job their building that program, and now they're at a point, they're like the Rice's of our conference. They expect to go to a bowl game every year. They expect to win every year. You can sense that in their players. They did not panic when they were behind. They stuck with their philosophy and they ended up winning thegame because of it."
(How to be moreeffective on offense)
"Well again, we got to do what we do best. That's getting back to the roots and running the football. No matter who we play, we have to run the ball effectively to make our offense go. That's regardless of who we are playing as a opponent. We didn't do a good job of that last week. We have to regroup and refocus and identify the things we do best, and try to get those done in this game. It's not about Middle Tennessee, it's more about us and correcting our mistakes."
(About how hard it is to play the bigger schools whose programs are further along [Kansas State, Rice])
"I acknowledge that. We're not at where Kansas State is. I think we're gaining ground, but we are not where Rice is. We're not going to sit there and think that we are something we are not. We know where we're at. We're trying to get there. It just doesn't happen like that. Takes a lot of strides, a lot of hard work, a lot of recruiting, coaching, offseason strength and conditioning, man there is a lot that goes into it. Good news is, myself and the coaching staff is patient enough to know that we have to build that. We're not going to panic. We're not going to sellout into something that might be a quick fix. That's not the way we're going to do it. Is it going to take some time to catch up with those teams? Painfully so. When we do catch up to those teams, we will feel like we're built for the long haul when we get there."
(How to correctgiving up explosive plays [personnel or technique])
"Not a lot of things you can do 11 games into the season personnel wise. The guys that have been playing are playing out there and they've been playing all year. You can drill those type things in practice and put a lot of emphasis on that. I know when a competitor gets beat; they want to get right back out there and challenge guys. We'll challenge those guys to get out there and compete. I have all the faith in the world in those DB's. Again, they've been outstanding all year. I'm not going to lose my mind on a couple of miss-racked balls. But yeah, I'm sure they'll test us with that."