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UTEP at LA Tech Game Preview: Miners hit the road searching for offense

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

UTEP Miners (1-3, 0-1) @ Louisiana Tech (1-3, 0-1)

Series Record: LA Tech leads 9-2-1

Kickoff: 5:00 p.m. Mountain Time

Streaming: American Sports Network

Vegas says: LA Tech -20, O/U 56.5

With their seasons, and bowl hopes on the line. UTEP and LA Tech meet in a C-USA West tilt that could sway the prospects for the rest of the season for both teams.

LA Tech is coming off a tough 38-34 C-USA road loss to Middle Tennessee in where they held a 27-7 second half lead. The Bulldogs will line up with one of the top passing attacks in the nation, as they rank 6th nationally in passing success rate.

Ryan Higgins who was the starter in 2013, has had a strong start in 2016 completing 63 percent of his passes with a 10-2 touchdown to interception ratio.

His number one target is one of the top wide outs in C-USA.

Trent Taylor had a field day against Middle Tennessee racking up 210 yards on 17 catches and two touchdowns. Taylor has a 79.6 percent catch rate on 54 targets and averages 11.7 yards per target this season.

Carlos Henderson is another speedy wide out who can cause issues for the UTEP defense. Henderson is second on the team behind Taylor in catches and targets and is a major vertical threat.

Replacing current Baltimore Raven Kenneth Dixon has gone smoothly with veteran Jarred Craft having a solid start. Craft averages 6.0 yards per carry, and is third on the team in catches boasting a 12 yard per catch clip.

LA Tech's offensive line has been stout, averaging a very low 3.7% sack rate on standard downs, and the big men upfront create 3.4 yards per carry on standard downs.

Where the Bulldogs are looking for major improvement is on the defensive side.

Teams have a 42.3 percent passing down success rate against the Bulldogs defense which ranks 126th in the nation. The infusion of new talent hasn't quite gelled to the execution level you would expect from a LA Tech defense.

Still, the Bulldogs virtually shut down Arkansas power run game, and have fared very well against the run all year.

Xavier Woods returns in the secondary, and has three interceptions in the past two games against UTEP. The future NFL prospect is third on the team in tackles and has an interception this year.

Jaylon Ferguson is another name to keep an eye on along the Bulldogs defensive line, and a pair of transfers have made minor impact dents at linebacker.

Former Iowa State transfer Jordan Harris leads the Bulldogs in tackles, and former Texas transfer Dalton Santos has two tackles for loss, and a half sack so far this season.

For UTEP, all eyes are on the quarterback position this week.

After Thursday's practice no starter was named, and it appears it will be a true game time decision.

UTEP ranks 116th nationally in passing success rate, and no pass catcher has double digit catches so far this season. Picking up first downs has been a chore, and play calling balance is in need of a major tune up.

Zack Greenlee has been playing through a few injuries, while Ryan Metz has inched up the Miners depth chart to push for the starting quarterback job. Metz gives UTEP a healthy option who has been adequate in mop up duties this season.

Most of Greenlee's struggles can be attributed to the three injuries he's playing through, but the Miners' vanilla game plan's so far this year haven't helped out the stagnant passing game.

Aaron Jones continues his record breaking pace. UTEP is first in the nation in rushing IsoPPP which measures explosive run plays. Jones is averaging 7.3 yards per carry despite continued struggles upfront.

UTEP's defense keeps improving, but the Miner defense will only be as good as the first downs the Miner offense can pick up.

Each week a different defensive player has rose to the occasion in terms of increased production. Last week it was defensive end Mike Sota who had nine tackles and was a huge cog in UTEP slowing down the run.

Dante Lovilette has been solid with Alvin Jones out, and true freshman Justin Rogers will probably get his first career start with Kalon Beverly nursing a hamstring injury.

Both teams can look at this as a get right game, but for UTEP, finding some success in the passing could be a win in itself on Saturday.

Three things we want to see UTEP execute

Protect the rock

The turnover bug has been a big issue among the Mount Everest level of UTEP's offensive issues. With UTEP struggling on offense, turnovers will continue to haunt and bury the Miners.

Get off the field on third downs

Nick Mullens carved out the UTEP defense on third downs, and it became a problem as the UTEP offense struggled. UTEP does a good job of forcing third-and-longs against spread attacks, but getting off the field on the first crack at a possible third down stop could use some major improvement.

Do something different on early downs

Teams have stacked the box, pinned their ears back, and stuffed UTEP's elementary first down runs the past three weeks. A play action, or vertical look will take pressure off Aaron Jones and the run game. UTEP has ran 72 times on first down this year, and UTEP's offensive improvement could start with better first down play calling.

Four to Watch

Trent Taylor, WR, LA Tech

Future NFL producer who can do it all from the slot. Will be interesting to see if UTEP decides to man-up with Taylor, or allow the zone coverage to dictate what he does.

Justin Rogers, corner, UTEP

Rogers saw extended action last week, and fared well against Southern Miss. He will go up against the most athletic group of wide outs he could possibly see the rest of the way in his first career start.

Nick Usher, OLB, UTEP

Usher continues his strong senior season. LA Tech could look to run more, which has been Usher's calling card this year in transitioning to outside linebacker.

Jaylon Ferguson, DE, LA Tech

Another future NFL-er who is fast, strong, and could give UTEP's tackles issues early and often.

Prediction

Just can’t see the passing game resuscitated in a week after being non-existent all year.

UTEP's defense again keeps it close early, but LA Tech bounces back, easily.

LA Tech 41 UTEP 14