Florida International Golden Panthers (1-4, 1-0) @ UTEP Miners (1-4, 0-2)
Series Record: Tied 1-1
Kickoff: 6:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Streaming: C-USA TV
Vegas says: UTEP -6, O/U 48.5
With their backs against the wall, a battle of wills will take place Saturday night in the Sun Bowl between two struggling squads.
In some ways both FIU and UTEP are mirror images.
Both have struggled on offense, both will lean on the ground game, and both have been on the wrong side of some lopsided final scores.
With the combined record of their remaining opponents at 10-24, it's do or die time for UTEP.
The Miners will go with Zack Greenlee at quarterback as Ryan Metz has been ruled out with a concussion.
According to Sean Kugler, Greenlee is as close to 100% health wise as he's been since camp which is good news for a UTEP offense that ranks 108th in passing success rate.
Hayden Plinke had a solid outing against LA Tech, and is UTEP's most target pass catcher so far. Freshman Eddie Sinegal proved he needs the ball in his hands against LA Tech breaking out with 102 yards receiving as he's seen his snaps increase in the past couple of games.
The most interesting part of UTEP trying to spark plug their offense is this week's shuffle along the offensive line.
UTEP could start JUCO transfer Tanner Stallings at center, moving Derron Gatewood over to right guard, and John De La Rosa to right tackle. The left side is solidified with Greg Long at left tackle, and Will Hernandez at left guard.
Sean Kugler has shuffled his offensive line this season more than he has in the past at UTEP. This new combo change could help UTEP offset some their athletic deficiencies along the offensive line which has led to an increase in holding penalties.
Defensively, UTEP continues to excel against high powered spread passing attacks. But this week will face a power run team who utilizes tight ends to block.
FIU's rushing power success rate ranks 119th in the nation, but UTEP has struggled against the power rush game. They've also struggled with their eyes against the read-option, something FIU will certainly use.
Alex Gardner is averaging 4.8 yards per carry for FIU, and is one of the top backs in the C-USA East division. Anthony Jones ran for a season high 90-yards last week against FAU to form a legit dynamic duo at running back.
Quarterback Alex McGough is back at quarterback, and ran for another 61-yards against FAU.
His main target in the passing game is NFL prospect, and tight end Jonnu Smith who leads the Panthers in receptions and receiving yards.
Thomas Owens is another capable wideout, he had a 43-yard touchdown catch against UTEP last year in Miami, and is averaging 14.7 yards per catch this season.
FIU has struggled mightily in stopping the run, but have a pair of linebackers who are tops in the conference in tackles. Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint are putting up all-conference type numbers, but the Panthers rank no higher than 108th in a number defensive rushing advanced metrics categories.
With both teams looking to hang their hat on a turning point midway through the season. Something has to give, but who rises to the occasion with simple "want-to" walks off with confidence, and a much needed W.
Three UTEP keys to a win
Stop the run
UTEP has not faced blocking schemes like the heavy packages FIU will bring, even though they will still utilize shotgun, and pistol formations. Gardner is a shifty runner, while Jones is the thunder in the FIU run game. If UTEP can play in the FIU backfield and force negative plays, that aspect will show on the scoreboard.
FIU, like UTEP, is -6 in turnover margin this year. The team who can not only force, but cash in points off turnovers should have the edge. UTEP's defense has almost done it all this year. But forcing turnovers in bunches will be a giant improvement step.
Create chunk plays
UTEP found ways to do this against LA Tech, and could find some success again against FIU. Aaron Jones will certainly get his yards in this game. But creating big plays off his big plays is a major offensive key against a defense that has struggled in stopping the run.
Three matchups we’re watching
FIU's run blocking schemes vs. UTEP's front seven
If you listened to our latest podcast. I feel UTEP will have trouble stopping the run simply because they could outmanned up front before adjustments are made. UTEP has played against spread based zone blocking schemes and a triple option. FIU's blocking scheme could give UTEP's front seven a hard time if the Miners do not win one-on-one battles up front.
Aaron Jones vs. FIU linebackers
Give me Aaron Jones all day in this matchup. But with the way Wint and Williams played last week, this could be a fun matchup to watch.
Advantage: Aaron Jones (all day everyday)
UTEP WR's (and Hayden Plinke) vs. FIU DB's
FIU has some good athletes in the secondary. Although their defending passing down metrics are pretty bad. UTEP showed some confidence in the passing game with the emergence of Sinegal, and big game from Plinke. This could be UTEP's biggest advantage, even though we know the run game comes first.
Aaron Jones should have a big day, but the question remains where will the rest of the offense come from in being able to sustain drives? I'm thinking AJ cracks 200-yards and has two big touchdown runs.
FIU's run game versus UTEP's 3-4 scares me, and whether UTEP has success in stopping it, or allowing FIU to eat will be the difference in the win column.
Hope I'm wrong, but….
FIU 28 UTEP 24