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Incarnate Word at UTEP Game Preview: Miners look to sharpen up before C-USA play

The Sun Bowl lights flip on for the first home game of the season.

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Who? Incarnate Word Cardinals (2-1) at UTEP Miners (1-2)

When? Saturday, September 26th, 6:00 PM Mountain Time

Where? Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas

How to watch? C-USA Digital Network

Last week UTEP found a passing game, they also found out the defense can bear down and get stops with their backs against the wall, but can they put it all together for four quarters is the next question heading into week four.

Riding high off the emotional overtime win against NMSU last week, the Miners host their first FCS opponent since 2011 Saturday in the Sun Bowl.

Ryan Metz threw for 218 yards and three fourth quarter touchdowns, accounting for all of UTEP's 28 fourth quarter points last Saturday, and will start this week while Mack Leftwich recovers from a severe concussion.

UTEP also found out they have some reliable receivers, who came up huge in crunch time with big plays, and must needed gains.  Autrey Golden and Jaquan White are targeted 14.1% of the time so far this year, with White having a 72.7% catch rate, and a 5.4 yard average per target.

The running attack was also efficient, as the Miners only had two negative rushes for minus two yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry as a team against NMSU.

What has to improve in the rush game is UTEP's 24.6% stuff rate in the run game, but play calling balance has to be there to keep UTEP running efficiently and teams out of the box which leads to the high percentage of run stuffs by opposing defenses.

LaQuintus Dowell and Darrin Laufasa showed up in huge ways last week, while most of us though it would be the Jeremiah Laufasa and Treyvon Hughes show.  Both combined for over 100 yards rushing, Laufasa averaged 10.6 per carry on 8 carries, while Dowell carried 11 times for 6.9 per clip average.

After their performances last week, both are averaging over 15 yards per carry on big play opportunities in their first heavy load in the life without Aaron Jones period.

The UTEP offensive line played their best game of the season, and was huge in the fourth quarter comeback while in mostly pass protection situations not allowing a single sack.   UTEP's offensive line has 4.6% passing down sack rate which is good for a top-60 ranking in the nation at the moment.

Defensively, Alvin Jones was everywhere and looks to be fully healthy while transitioning into mid-season form after missing a good chunk of fall camp.

The secondary again struggled for about 55 minutes last Saturday and then the entire defense turned things on, and the rest is history.

Havoc is UTEP's main defensive identity, but according to advanced stats the Miners are creating less than 5% havoc (TFL's, sacks) in all three position groups combined.

The most alarming is the defensive line havoc rate which is currently at 2.6% while the national average is 16.4%.

UTEP is also breaking up or defending incomplete passes on 15.4% of opponents pass attempts which ranks dead last in the nation.

For Incarnate Word, the Cardinals are off to a surprising 2-1 start with defense being the key.

Led by former Arkansas transfer Myke Tavares, the Cardinals have held their three FCS opponents to a respectful 4.9 yard per play average.

UIW uses an odd front or 3-4 defense, something UTEP rarely sees or prepares for which is something to watch up front.   Their linebackers are active and obviously their most productive players in terms of tackles and havoc.

Junior safety Adrian Norwood is tied for third in school history with five career interceptions, the Cardinal defense picked off four passes in their 20-10 victory over Nicholls State last week.

Offensively UTEP could see a mirror image of themselves on Saturday.

UIW will go with a number of different formations, and will run the ball to set up play action which will test out the eyes of the UTEP secondary.

Quarterback Trent Brittain has rushed for UIW's lone touchdown of the season and is a true dual threat.  Brittain has thrown for two touchdowns this year, but has only completed 51% of his passes, although the sophomore is averaging 10.6 yards per completion this season.

In the backfield UIW employs a by-committee running back attack with Junior Sessions, and Broderick Revees both combining to average 4.5 yards per carry.

Two of UIW's receiving weapons are causes for concern if the Miners aren't on point in their coverage.

Tight end Cole Wick is 6'7 255 pounds and is currently second in the Southland Conference in receptions and leads the conference in receiving yards.

Sean Kugler admitted that UTEP has struggled with smaller slot receivers, and UIW receiver Jordan Hicks can be an issue.  The 5'8 wideout has averaged 10.5 yards per catch and is shifty and explosive runner after the catch.

For UTEP, it's all about taking steps forward.  Allowing a team like UIW to hang around who is in their fourth year at the division 1 level of FCS after a 2-9 year in 2014 should not happen after UTEP's tough slate to open the season, and the Miners desperately need to avoid taking any progressive steps back with conference play just a week away.

Four players to watch

Ryan Metz, UTEP, QB

We saw his arm, and ability to lead this team to a win.  Now we get to see what he can do for four quarters.

Myke Tavares, UIW, LB

Taveres is among the Southland Conference leaders in tackles per game with 8.0 so far.  He also returns kicks which very Brian Urlacher like.  You will definitely see Tavares play on Sunday's one day.

Darrin Laufasa, UTEP, RB

Laufasa helped UTEP rack up 27 first downs against NMSU.  The versatile running back will continue to see his touches increase, and is an important player going forward in UTEP's rushing attack.

Roy Robertson-Harris, UTEP, DE

Robertson-Harris has shown glimpse of officially breaking out, but it just hasn't happened full circle yet. This could be a game in where UIW doesn't have an answer for the 6'7 defensive end.  Improving UTEP's havoc rate starts with Roy, I would expect him to have a big game on Saturday.

Bottom Line

It's all about sharpening all three phases together this week as UTSA looms on the first weekend of October.

UTEP may have found a big play replacement for Aaron Jones with quarterback Ryan Metz to keep the offense as a legit threat.

But the bigger concern at this point is the defense.

How the Miners improve on defense in week four is crucial to progression of UTEP's young secondary.

Pass rush HAS to improve, coverage can't be an issue, and bringing back the overall physicality we saw from the defense last year needs to show up in a big way this week.

And a few takeaways would be nice too!

After three road games to open the season, it feels good to see some football in the Sun Bowl, finally.

Score and one stat prediction

UTEP 42 UIW 17

UTEP forces three turnovers