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Southern Miss vs. UTEP Game Preview: Miners start C-USA play at an early season crossroad

How will the Miners respond to some early season adversity?

Southern Miss Golden Eagles (2-1) @ UTEP Miners (1-2)

Series Record: Tied 4-4

Kickoff: 6:05 p.m. Mountain Time

Streaming: Campus Insiders

Vegas says: So Miss -10.5, O/U 57

Both Southern Miss and UTEP are coming off hard to swallow non-conference losses this week, and look to bounce back with conference play opening Saturday night in the Sun Bowl.

Southern Miss fresh off a triumphant comeback win against Kentucky in week one, and a thorough beat down of Savannah State in week two, fell to Troy last week 37-31 in a game that came down to the last second.

Nick Mullens returns for his senior year and has completed 58 percent of his passes this season, but has also thrown six interceptions on the season as well.

Mullens lost two his top wide outs from 2015 to graduation, but Isaiah Jones, D.J. Thompson, and Allenzae Staggers have stepped up and produced through three games this year.

Jones, a former Florida State transfer, has 10 catches for 205 yards with a 20.5 yard per catch average. Thompson is second on the team in targets, and is averaging 10.2 yards per catch.

Staggers has the highest success rate of Southern Miss receivers who have at least 10 targets, and is averaging 18 yards per reception. He is also the Golden Eagles punt returner, and has taken one back to the house this season.

Mullens has done a great job of spreading the love around in the passing game with seven receivers garnering eight targets or more so far this year.

The true difference maker inside the Southern Miss offensive attack is running back Ito Smith.

Smith is second in C-USA in rushing yards behind our Aaron Jones, and is averaging 6.8 yards per carry, and spearheads a rushing attack that ranks 45th in the nation in rushing success rate.

Defensively, the Golden Eagles have received some top of the nation production from their front seven.

Led by Dylan Bradley, Southern Miss' defensive line owns an 11.8 percent havoc rate which is the third best in the nation through three weeks of action.

Xavier Thigpin is another stud upfront that the UTEP offensive line will have to handle. Linebacker D'Nerius Antoine has two pass break ups, and has the Golden Eagles line backing crew sporting a 6.5 havoc rate which is the 23rd best in the nation.

Southern Miss continues to recruit lengthy and athletic athletes in the secondary as they have a 30.6 pass deflection to incompletion percentage this season. But where they have struggled so far as a defense is stopping the downhill run game.

For UTEP, after back-to-back stagnant offensive performances, can the Miners get back on track against one of more athletic defensive units in C-USA?

Aaron Jones continues his strong pace, despite being held out of the fourth quarter in the Miners last two games. Jones is averaging 7.1 yards per carry, and is averaging 9.1 yards on big plays or highlight yards so far.

41.9 percent of Jones' runs have gone for big yards when the offensive line creates five yards or more, which has been UTEP's only means of offensive explosion.

The Miner passing success rate is a poor 35.4 percent, and the Miner offensive line has surprisingly struggled in the last two games.

Army ran over, around, and threw over the top of the UTEP defense last week, and we'll call that an anomaly, for now.

UTEP fared well against NMSU's spread attack, and for a half slowed down Texas and Shane Buechele showing the switch to the 3-4 should be effective against the spread.

But Southern Miss will be the ultimate test as their balanced spread attack has them in the top-60 in the nation in terms of offensive efficiency.

Alvin Jones looks to be a game time decision dealing with that ankle injury, but his absence has opened up production for JUCO transfer linebacker Dante Lovilette.

Lovilette has posted back-to-back double digit tackle games with Jones out, and senior outside linebacker Nick Usher has also been stout. Freshman defensive end Gene Hopkins has been a bright spot along a struggling UTEP front three, but is also questionable with an ankle injury after a strong showing the past two weeks.

The reality of a possible 1-4 start to the season is staring UTEP right in the face, how will the Miners respond to some early season adversity?

Three Keys to a UTEP win

Force turnovers

UTEP has only forced one turnover this year in 12 quarters of football. That has to change as UTEP has a -3 turnover margin on the season. Mullens has shown he can be turnover prone early in games this year, so UTEP has to be opportunistic in creating turnovers all while flipping the field for the offense.

Sustain drives

This seems to be an every week key for UTEP. Of course UTEP needs to avoid second and third and longs, but putting drives together, and taking some time off the clock is a main key. This is an important job for the UTEP offensive line of identifying and picking up blitzes which has been a weak point so far. Aaron Jones can do it all, but it would be nice to see some variety in terms of getting others involved in the Miners play calling now that conference play has arrived.

Pressure Mullens into mistakes

It's almost imperative that UTEP piles up a minimum of three sacks in the this game, but putting pressure on Nick Mullens in order to create some mistakes is how the UTEP defense can become a major factor. Southern Miss' offensive line has only gave up three sacks this season, so it's easier said than done. But this is a key factor in UTEP slowing down a balanced, and high powered Southern Miss offensive attack.

Matchups were watching closely

Ito Smith vs. Aaron Jones

Two of the top running backs in the league (nation?) square off, and battle for C-USA running back supremacy. Not much to breakdown here, just sit back and watch these two talents do work.

UTEP's front seven vs. Southern Miss offensive line

Southern Miss boasts one of the best offensive lines in the conference through three weeks, and UTEP's defensive line has put up some poor havoc rate numbers through three weeks. If UTEP can turn a corner in this area, it bodes well for the rest of the season. But it's not going to be easy against an experienced, and athletic offensive line Southern Miss lines up with.

Southern Miss wide outs vs. UTEP's zone coverage

You get the feeling that one of the main reasons UTEP switched to a 3-4 was the NSFW things Nick Mullens and his talented wide outs did to UTEP's man coverage looks last year. UTEP's secondary ranks 49th in the country in forcing pass break ups and incompletions. UTEP has the speed to contain Southern Miss, but for how long will be the main question.

UTEP's tackles vs. Southern Miss edge rushers

This has been a big issue for UTEP in slowing down long, athletic pass rushers. As previously mentioned, Southern Miss does a great job of creating pressure with their defensive line. They also employ a radar pre-snap scheme which makes it hard to identify blitzes and stunts with virtually the entire defensive line standing around like they are confused. If the Miners take a big step forward offensively this week, it will be because of improved offensive line play.

Prediction Time

UTEP's defense ran into a buzz saw last week, and this matchup is somewhat favorable despite the depth and talent Southern Miss has on offense.

It's hard to see UTEP's offense making a big jump after two flat out disappointing performances against respectable defensive units. If the Miner offense can sustain drives, itcould be a close game, but right now it's hard to predict a full offensive turnaround for the Miners.

I feel the UTEP defense actually keeps it close early, but it's up to the UTEP offense to answer the defense's early stops.

Southern Miss 34 UTEP 17