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UTEP at Old Dominion Preview: Miners, Monarchs fight for slim bowl hopes

A “C-USA playoff game” in front of a sold out stadium will take place Saturday afternoon/morning.

For both UTEP and Old Dominion, a day after their underdog wins last week had to lead to a 'what are we still doing here' moment for both programs.

Old Dominion had dropped five out of their last six, including a 49-0 drubbing at the hands of Appalachian State before hanging on for a must needed win in the Alamodome last week against UTSA.

UTEP was only held to six points at home against UTSA, and were blown out by FIU and Southern Miss. before knocking off Rice last week with a late fourth quarter field goal.

After what UTEP has gone through injury wise, and the deep valleys ODU found themselves in at times this season, some how, some way both still have postseason hopes.

For Old Dominion, they may have also found lightning in a bottle at quarterback.

David Washington threw for a career high 378 yards as he combined with wideouts Zach Pascal, and Jonathon Durhart to torch the UTSA defense in a 36-31 win.

ODU has put together back-to-back offensive outputs of more than 490 yards with a balanced attack that should be of a huge concern for the UTEP defense.

The Monarchs have some impressive numbers when it comes to explosive plays in the pass game over the last two games, but its their running back who is the focal point.

Sophomore stud Ray Lawry has ran for 100-yards in three straight games, and opened the season with a pair of 200-yard games on the ground.  The future NFL prospect at 5'11, 200 pounds currently leads C-USA in rushing yards, and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry in his latest three game output.

Despite plenty of turnover with injuries and youth, ODU's big men upfront create 2.9 yards per carry, but allow a passing down sack rate of 8.2% which ranks 81st in the nation.

In the pass game, ODU repeatedly attacked UTSA's single coverage which is exactly what the Miners will be up against on the defensive side.

Pascal and Durhart look like a legit tandem, and with the way Washington played last week.  You figure to see lots of deep shots testing UTEP's mettle in man coverage.

Man coverage, and stopping the run has actually been a strong point for the UTEP defense over the past few weeks.

The Miners rank 48th in the nation against the power run, but giving up the big play via the run could be an issue against talent like Washington, and Lawry.

The production UTEP has been getting out of their front six in the last two wins is important in UTEP's 4-2-5 scheme.  Guys like Sky Logan, Nick Usher, Alvin Jones, Jimmy Musgrave, and Roy Roberston-Harris have improved UTEP into a bend but don't break unit that has cut down the number of big plays allowed in UTEP's last two wins.

According to advanced stats, the UTEP defense has been actually pretty good in the fourth quarter when you measure UTEP's S&P+ rating.

UTEP has a fourth quarter S&P+ rating that ranks 51st in the nation in the fourth quarter.  That measures field position, adjusted scoring average, and finishing drives which has been a strength in the fourth quarter for the UTEP defense.

UTEP is once again in an emergency running back situation with the devastating loss of LaQuintus Dowell.

Jeremiah Laufasa carried UTEP to a win on the Miners final drive of the game last week. Laufasa was hobbled after carrying nine times for 52 yards on the Miners final drive against Rice, and was questionable with a knee tweak heading into this week.

Per the El Paso Times, Laufasa has been practicing and should be a go on Saturday.

Sean Kugler talked about freshman quarterback Kavika Johnson seeing carries as a running back, and wide receiver Warren Redix who has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his 17 carries will also see more time at running back.

UTEP's running game will be important in keeping the ODU offense off the field , and you have to figure Treyvon Hughes will also see carries as well as UTEP is down to their bare bones at running back.

Since Mack Leftwich has returned from his concussion, UTEP has averaged 35.6 pass attempts per game, compared to the 15.6 he averaged in his first two full games.

In his last five starts, Leftwich has not been intercepted in 140 attempts, and has completed over 50 percent of his passes.

UTEP's main target in the pass game in tight end Hayden Plinke had his best day as a Miner last week with nine catches for 85 yards, most of which came on third downs.  He's been dealing with some injuries this week but should be a go on Saturday.

Wideout Jaquan White is UTEP's second most targeted receiver, and is averaging 11.5 yards per catch.

Getting wide receivers Tyler Batson, and Autrey Golden involved is something we've seen Patrick Higgins continually do over the past couple games, and should be another main priority this week.

UTEP will line up against one of the more productive linebackers in C-USA with T.J. Ricks.

Ricks anchors a ODU defensive unit that ranks 43rd in the nation in IsoPPP which measures explosive plays allowed.  Fellow linebacker Martez Simpson has came on strong as of late, he piled up 11 tackles and a sack against UTSA.

Where they have struggled according to advanced stats is against the power run in which teams have a 65.1% success rate there, something UTEP will surely use at times.

That stat is surprising when you look at their defensive line personnel.

Defensive end Oshane Ximines goes 6'4, 240 pounds and has seven tackles for loss, and five sacks on the season.  6'4 255 pound end Poncho Barnwell adds 4.5 tackles for loss, while defensive tackle Rashaad Coward accounts for 5.7% of ODU's solo tackles.

In the back end, safety Fellonte Misher is an experience defensive back who has four pass breaks up and is second on the team in solo tackles.

Another thing the Miners will have to shake is the win-less record in the eastern time zone.

Sean Kugler has changed a lot things since he took over at UTEP, one thing that has alluded him is an eastern time zone W.

Can this group of wounded, but hard fighting Miners change that, and continue to defy 2015 bowl odds?

UTEP's keys to a win

Force Turnovers, and Cash In!

ODU is -4 when it comes to turnover margin on the year.  If UTEP can steal a possession and in turn into points on the board, then the UTEP power run game will be effective late in the game when it's needed to burn clock.  UTEP's secondary has improved on getting their hands on passes, now grabbing those and heading the other way is the next step in UTEP's youth movement in the secondary.

Continue To Throw, and Use Play Action to Leftwich's Advantage

Out of necessity, UTEP has thrown more, and it's been effective.  Sean Kugler acknowledged the change a few weeks ago, and with another running back lost for the season we will continue to see UTEP setting up the run with the pass. Leftwich has been effective and is earning the respect of his teammates with his gritty, and productive play.  UTEP has speed, continuing to utilize it will help this team sneak into a legit bowl run.

Contain ODU's Skill Players

ODU will get their yards, but cutting down the chunk plays is something UTEP defense has improved upon over the past couple of weeks.  Pascal, Washington, Lawry, and Durhart can change a game with one cut, and a long run.  Keeping everything in front, and tackling in open space has to be almost perfect if UTEP wants to keep themselves in the game.

Bottom line

Another see-saw game for UTEP in terms of their bowl hopes.

A loss, and  a 5-7 season stares right at the Miners with a rested LA Tech coming into the Sun Bowl next week.

A win, and UTEP gives themselves a bundle of momentum heading into next week.

This team has played with a different attitude, a different level of urgency, and a different level of physicality in the second half of the season.  You're seeing the younger guys buy into Kugler ball, and it's led to a 2-1 start in the second half of the season.

If UTEP continues to play with those intangibles we saw last year and which we've seen already in the second half of this year. The Miners could shock the C-USA world and sneak into a bowl game.

That long, and tough winding road to a improbable bowl appearance for UTEP continues tomorrow.

Prediction

UTEP 34 ODU 30