What a difference a bye week makes.
Coach Kugler talked about change, improvement marks, and it all came together Saturday night.
"Extremely proud," UTEP coach Sean Kugler said. "Coming off the bye week, people on your tails, people not really expecting you to do anything, you're beat up, I'm just proud of the way the guys fought."
"We talked about this being the second half of our season," Kugler continued. "We were going to put the work in necessary and try to make this fun and try to let the seniors go out on top feeling good about themselves, and right now we're 1-0 in the second half of our season. The rest of the season is behind us and we're looking forward."
UTEP's offense was balanced, not only with run and pass options. But the Miners used effective play action, a physical run game, and multiple formations that wore down on FAU in the fourth quarter.
"I think we utilized our bye week well." Kugler said. "We kind of got an identity of where we need to go the rest of the year. We've got some very strong opponents coming up, starting with Southern Miss. I think they're the most improved team in Conference USA. But I think our team, that was good for them. It was good for those guys to taste a win again, and a hard-earned win."
Mack Leftwich had his best game in a UTEP uniform, and showed what he could do with an effective down field passing offensive game plan.
"The play action doesn't work unless you're running the ball efficiently." Kugler said. "The last few games we haven't ran the ball efficiently. When you run the ball efficiently like we were did tonight, the safeties tend to bite up and you have post throws over the top."
"I thought Mack was extremely accurate. There were probably 100 yards passing left on the field with drops."
UTEP put emphasis in three areas, and all three were improved.
"We attacked the things we weren't doing well in the first half." Kugler said. "We really did a nice job, I thought on third downs we were better on both sides of the ball. Overall the things that we have not been doing well the kids really attacked it. Not only tonight, but did it all week in practice, and they did it during the bye week."
UTEP was solid in red-zone defense, and executed well on both third down defense and offense, also eliminating chunk plays in the second half.
The offense didn't find themselves in many third long situations with play action on early downs kept the eyes of the defense off kilt.
UTEP's average third down distance was 7.3 yards, and the Miners were 4/5 in third and short situations.
Leftwich was 8/12 for 111 yards, with a per completion average of 21.7 yards on third down, and the Miners only went three-and-out one time.
The UTEP defense was 4/10 on third downs, and did a good job of tackling on third downs essentially only allowing 10 points minus the field position flop on the special miscue early in the game.
Playing in the offense seemed fun again for the players, as the Miners executed with a loose, and determined mindset.
"It was really fun." Mack Leftwich said of the open offense. "As a quarterback anytime you get the chance to open things up a bit and my receivers were doing a great job making plays. Overall a good night throwing and catching."
"It felt great." Tyler Batson added. "It felt like we were balanced. We were able to run the ball, and pass the ball effectively so that was a big thing for us."
UTEP's defense also made key adjustments at halftime that shutout FAU in the final 30-minutes.
The Miners completely shut down the FAU run game, and only allowed 116 total yards, and forced three turnovers in the second half.
Tyler Batson abuses NFL prospect
This isn't really a breakout game in a sense, but more of a validation game for Tyler Batson.
It's one thing to torch NMSU, but Batson abused FAU corner Cre'von LeBlanc who will be playing in the NFL one day.
Batson had a career high 146 receiving yards on three catches, and would've had more minus two drops.
Pair of workhorses
UTEP has been looking for consistency at running back and possibility found a nice tandem with LaQuintus Dowell, and Jeremiah Laufasa.
Dowell averaged 4.9 yards on his 18 carries, while Laufasa added an important 71 yards.
"LA and Jeremiah ran really hard." Kugler said. "It was really down to those two, and they delivered. Those guys are physical players, and I'm happy for both of them."
Mixed with the play action aspect, both were able to move the chains, and keep UTEP out of third and long.
UTEP's offensive line also had a nice day, and controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half.
If the run game is effective as it was, things will continue to open up with the threat of a legit down field play action
Football gods smile down on the Sun Bowl
From injuries, to bad breaks, the football gods hadn't shown up in UTEP's favor until Saturday.
The punt that hit the FAU player's leg, Jaquez Johnson's fumble at the goal line, and the phantom roughing the passer call in the fourth quarter were breaks UTEP was granted.
In a game where you don't play perfect, but are playing hard, and making things happen in a lot of different areas. Breaks like these help out the win column, in my opinion.
4th and 1
Facing a fourth-and-one from their own 44, Sean Kugler surprisingly rolled the dice and went for the win.
FAU had called timeout, and the Miner offense stayed in a huddle with no coaches around before the call was made.
"You know what I have to let these guys know I have confidence in them." Kugler said of the decision. "Probably thinking about it, it ain't the best move you know what I mean."
It's rare we've seen Kugler go for it in those situations with success, but Jeremiah Laufasa pounded out a three yard run off left tackle that set up the field goal to put UTEP up 27-17.
"Oh I loved it." Laufasa said of the call. "I was screaming for it, when he gave us the go ahead my face lit up."
"Sometimes you have to go with your gut." Kugler said. "You have to play to win, and show the players you're going to play to win. I just had a gut, and I wanted to show the team that guys we're going out to win this second half of the season, and I have confidence in you."
He fully proved it with that brilliant, and gutsy call.
Plenty of important firsts
UTEP had a number of first happen on Saturday.
For the first time all year UTEP scored first in a game.
The Miners had their first 100-yard receiver on the season.
Nik Needham picked off his first career pass.
And UTEP picked up their first C-USA win of the season.
Defensive line was the defensive key
Tackles for loss weren't factors, but Roy Robertson-Harris and Sky Logan had big games.
Take away the 59-yard run by Trey Rodriguez, and UTEP's run defense was pretty solid for the most part.
Logan was active from the three-technique, and was fast off the ball. Robertson-Harris was crashing hard, and was difficult for the FAU offensive line to handle for most of the game.
Silas Firstley also recorded his first sack of the season.
The unit kept everything within their grasp in a three yard radius in the run game, and became the big difference in UTEP's second half dominance on the defensive side.
To me, it seemed smart at the time.
But when Joseph Greg missed that 36-yard field goal on a first down play with 2:32 left in the fourth quarter with FAU trailing 27-17, Charlie Partdridge all of a sudden looked like the village idiot.
It was smart in a sense that you drove pretty quickly to get inside the 30, so cut the lead and hope you're defense gets a stop, as your offense proved they could drive on UTEP in the first half.
But once again the football gods were wearing Orange and Blue and the kick went wide left.
News and Notes
Treyvon Hughes was ruled out with an injury
Derron Gatewood left the game with injury
UTEP had been outscored 73-24 in the third quarter entering tonight's game. The Miners outscored the Owls 7-0 in the third quarter tonight.
Warren Redix set career highs in receptions (five) and receiving yards (19) and long reception (13 yards).
The Miners forced three turnovers, matching the season high against Incarnate Word.
UTEP converted a season-high nine third downs tonight. The Miners were 50 percent (9-of-18) tonight, matching the Miners' 50 percent conversions at Arkansas to open the season.
The Miners gained 19 first downs, the second most this season. UTEP had 27 at NM State on Sept. 19.
Jeremiah Laufasa gained a career-high 71 yards on 18 carries. It was the most yards he had gained in his collegiate career. Laufasa played at Washington State and Central Washington prior to coming to UTEP.
Tyler Batson's 143 yards receiving was the most receiving yards since Jordan Leslie's 147 against NM State in 2012.
Official attendance was 22,468