Where to start.
UTEP held on in the final minutes Saturday night in Albuquerque, salvaging a near disaster. while shaking off demons from a year ago against the Lobos, all in a six minute span.
The collective defensive effort in the final six minutes of the game answered a hot button question about the 2014 season: Yes, the defense has improved a notch.
With UTEP leading by a field goal, and in the midst of a 73 yard physically punishing drive to give themselves a two score lead, the New Mexico defense came up with a huge stop on a fourth down up the gut dive by Nathan Jeffery.
At that point I felt UTEP was about to give up a long TD drive on the ensuing possession, raise your hand if you felt the same
After the turnover on downs, and allowing 178 yards on UNM's first fifteen plays of the second half, despite yielding a respectable 148 yards in the first half the Miner D did exactly what defensive end Nick Usher said after the game: "we bowed up."
New Mexico methodically pounded the Miners after a 33 yard run by Cole Gautsche. That run gave UTEP its first break on defense of the second half, Gautsche pulled up limp after finishing up his 194th yard on the ground..
Later in the efficient drive UTEP would get three huge stops after New Mexico picked up a first down inside the UTEP 20.
Anthony Puente, and Alvin Jones stopped the momentum of the drive on the first two downs, setting up Nick Usher to blow up a running play on third down holding New Mexico to just a field goal.
The defense again would be on its heels just a few minutes later thanks to a 29 yard run by Carlos Wiggins that put the ball on the UTEP 31 yard line.
Jimmy Musgrave came up with one the biggest stops of the game to that point with a tackle at the line of scrimmage on second down, setting up a third and six in which New Mexico fumbled the option exchange recovered by Roy Robertson giving UTEP life and the ball back with four minutes left.
Then the football gods smiled upon the Miners again five plays later.
UNM forced UTEP to punt, though Dameon Gamblin, gambled (sorry had to do it) and muffed a nice and high Mike Sroka punt inside his own six yard line, LaQuintius Dowell laid the blow, and recovered it, allowing Aaron Jones to pound it from three yards out two plays later.
But the defense wasn't done making clutch plays.
The UTEP defense bending but not Breaking Bad, allowed two Mitchem completions that combined for 31 yards and took UNM past the 50.
Adrian James sealed a fun bus trip home by grabbing either a duck or prayer lobbed up by Mitchem, but it was Maurice Chavis who made the play of the game on the play before with a sack that netted a loss of nine.
The clutch sack was the first one of his career forcing a 3rd and 19 that set up the obvious passing down New Mexico didn't have a play for,
James played his cover three assignment beautifully, showing me the veteran guys, and even some younger guys have made headway in improving all aspects of their game from tackling, to coming up with huge plays to win games, and most importantly executing the play call.
A year ago things may have not gone this way, but UTEP had its back up against the wall mainly by their own mental mistakes, and missed tackles, though "bowed up" in crunch time when its needed most.
Anthony Puente was everywhere collecting a career high 11 tackles, as were fellow linebackers Trey Brown and Alvin Jones. Jameel Erving also had a big game, and was also everywhere looking like an extra linebacker in UTEP's game plan.
Maurice Chavis may have solidified his spot in the middle, as the defensive line as whole did a hell of a job for most of the game by not getting blown up very often or for majority of the evening at all.
Still some bad was shown like the missed tackles, and few over pursuits, but as far as alignment, and containing the option UTEP was head and shoulders above where they were last year.
To win in football, sometimes you need the ball to bounce your way more than once, how many times has UTEP been on the other side of it?
UTEP prided it self on its ability to create turnovers in the spring, and fall, that new found improvement carried over with three forced turnovers.
As hard as UTEP was playing they deserved the breaks they fought to force, and despite giving up 300 plus yards on the ground it appeared the Miners followed their game plan and stuck to the system.
Gautche's injury also was a huge break for UTEP. You hate and NEVER wish for any kid to go down, though UTEP did not have answer once he got around the edge on the option, something that will have to be cleaned up going forward.
New Mexico's Dameon Gamblin is a definite UTEP fan favorite now.
Showtyme was straight up carving, and swerving on fools from the get go.
Jones stole the show with his 237 yards and three scores, although he just wasn't running past folks, he ran over a few too.
A new dimension in Aaron Jones' game showed up Saturday which usually doesn't show in a young back at his point in his career: finishing runs like a man. .
On his short gains, Jones moved the pile a few times after initial contact which lead to first downs, showing a little bit of power to go along with his elite speed. Jones is clearly showing he wants to, and is capable of being an every down back, huge mental improvement from an already established star.
Four of UTEP's six offensive plays that went over 20 yards came off of Aaron Jones runs', none of them were less than 25 yards long
UTEP's sweep could not be stopped, and huge credit goes to the offensive line who paved the way not only for his big day, but also for Nathan Jeffery's bruising 84 rushing yards that kept New Mexico on its heels all night.
Jones and Jeffery are the perfect tandem, though UTEP has more in cupboard at running back that they didn't fully reveal in week one.
The young offensive line showed some nasty in the run game, and versatility in the pass game as UTEP used a lot of bootlegs early to ease them in, no sacks were given up, and the pocket stayed up for suitable amount of time on a consistent basis. No holding penalties were called on the UTEP offensive front
All in all a win is a win, though there was still some bad, mostly in the second half that can be coached up.
The only big play allowed by the defense in the first half was the 68 yard TD run by Gautshce, otherwise UTEP did a great job of keeping everything in front, and reducing the big play.
We can sit here and talk about how UTEP dominated the first half, controlled the ball, held the option in check and should have won 45-21. But those final six minutes when UTEP needed to make something happen on defense for a win proved to be a possible turnaround point of reference.
Still plenty of work to do especially this week, but I think the UNM game shows, and proves what I have been saying: Kugler has this thing in the right direction.
First week game ball:THE Aaron Jones