Head Coach Sean Kugler was quoted as saying this is the best defense the Miners will face all year. While on the flip side, Utah State is 9-4 with their fourth string quarterback at the helm. So what gives in this bowl tilt that everyone outside of Vegas sees as a close game on paper?
Playing a perfect game in all phases is the goal each week, but here are a few points of emphasis I feel UTEP has to be on top of to bring home the prized piece of New Mexico Pottery.
Crisp offensive line play
With UTEP's style of offense this is a must every week, but more so against the aggressive, run shut down minded Utah State defense.
The Aggies have racked up 47 sacks this season along with 107 tackles for loss, with six players who have three or more sacks and are holding opponents to only 3.2 yards per rush.
As much as offensive diversity is needed when facing a team with those types of defensive numbers, I really feel UTEP will hang their hat on what has lead them to this point by running heavy, though efficiently.
If UTEP can control the line of scrimmage and average over four yards a carry, things will go the Miners way when it comes to time of possession, and wearing out the defense.
When UTEP does pass out of either a straight drop back or the run/pass option, Jameill Showers needs time to let things develop. Offensive line play has been the furthest issue the Miners have on offense, and is a key in keeping drives going against Utah State.
But it's not all about protecting the skill players.
Pre-snap, and penalties' overall can't become an issue against a tough defense like Utah State's.
Any opportunity UTEP has to grab some chunk yards cannot be walked off due to a penalty from the offensive line that will surely have their hands full in the dirty, dirty trenches.
Avoiding drive stalling negative losses, or sacks should be priority number one above all; UTEP is 26/75 on third down tries that have came about in losses which usually means they are facing third and long with the run game taken out of the question.
The offensive line is playing as physical as any UTEP offensive line of the past, and I would hope to expect the same Saturday afternoon, it's going to be needed.
Don't allow momentum changing big plays
UTEP's defense has done a good job of limiting chunk plays, and forcing teams to earn their yards and points apart of the UTEP defensive renaissance.
Utah State has three key play makers that worry me when looking at match ups against the UTEP defense.
Hunter Sharp has four 70 yard touchdown receptions this season, and leads Utah State in receiving yards. JoJo Natson is like Darren Sproles 2.0, and does it all from rushing, to receiving, to returning.
And even though he is the fourth string quarterback, Kent Myers can become a duel threat night mare. Expect a ton of lateral plays, like bubble screens, jet sweeps, read options in hopes of pitting those capable play makers in open field chances against UTEP's secondary. #Tackle #Tackle #Tackle
The Aggies also have five players who have rushed for a long of over 50 yards this season, and while they are not a prototype labeled "explosive offense", they have weapons to expose a defense if they are allowed.
Its going to start with the front seven or six breaking down their offensive line with intense pressure, including the linebackers making every play they can in front of them to avoid things breaking into the second level.
UTEP's secondary has created a number of coverage sacks this season while in man coverage, though I feel Utah State will try to stretch out the passing game with Sharp, and Natson even though the Aggies' season tendencies say they won't.
Rice exposed UTEP's weakness of defending the deep ball against taller, more physical receivers.
Utah State doesn't have a physical receiver like a Jordan Taylor from Rice, but Sharp and Natson can fly, and need to be covered physically so they don't get comfortable in their routes when UTEP mixes up their coverages.
UTEP has been solid against the run in the final six weeks of the season, if UTEP can take away the run by playing in the backfield; I like the Miners chances in second or third down in long situations with the play calling Scott Stoker dials up in those situations, along with UTEP's ability to take things away with their stellar man-to-man coverage.
Flawless Special teams play.
A team like Utah State thrives on turning you over, scoring defensive touchdowns, and turning the tide with break downs on special teams that lead to big plays or scores.
The Miners had their best special teams game in the regular season finale against Middle Tennessee, and that effort desperately needs to transfer over up onto I-25.
But it's not all about not about protecting the punter which has been a weakness this season.
Natson is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return, and has housed two punt returns this season, while Hunter Sharp, Jalen Davis, and Kennedy Williams all average over 20 yards per kickoff return. They are also the lone Mountain West team to return a punt longer than 80 yards.
The Aggies have also blocked three kicks season, they have not allowed a punt return over 20 yards all season, and opponents are averaging just a mere 17.5 yards per return.
For UTEP, great special teams play will keep them at bay with field position, or a huge momentum swing with a return, or a key special teams stop to give the defense some momentum.
Utah State is another mold of a team UTEP wants to be like, solid offensive line play, stout defense, and game breaking special teams can help win three straight bowls games just like the Aggies have.
UTEP runs for over 200 yards, the defense comes up with an early defensive touchdown, and I grab another amazing omelet and $10 glass of Orange Juice from Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque before I go back to El Paso.