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UTSA at UTEP: Game Preview

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Breakdown

Coming off a much needed bye week, UTEP comes back to a game week still searching for offensive answers, and an elusive first win on the 2017 season.

UTEP was shutout for the first time since 2012 two weeks ago at Southern Miss. and welcome another solid defensive squad into the Sun Bowl this weekend.

UTSA bounced back last week with a win against Rice after falling to North Texas and Southern Miss in consecutive weeks after a 3-0 start.

The Runners are led by a pair of seniors leading the offensive and defensive units.

On defense, rush end Marcus Davenport will become UTSA’s highest drafted player in school history to date this coming spring in the NFL Draft.

The reigning C-USA defensive player of the week leads UTSA in tackles, run stuffs, and TFL’s in the midst of a monster senior year. A defensive end leading the team in tackles is almost unheard of, but that’s how good the 6’7, 255 pounder is.

Offensively, Dalton Sturm’s career started as a no-name walk-on, but he has evolved his game into a tough gamer with a winning resume since he took over at QB.

Sturm has completed 66.5 percent of his passes this year, and is averaging nearly nine yards per scramble and has only been sacked 13 times in over 150 drop backs this season.

UTSA has one of the most explosive run games in C-USA, but injuries upfront along the offensive line has slowed down their rushing production the past few weeks.

For the second straight season, Frank Wilson has a legit one-two punch at running back with Jalen Rhodes and Tyrell Clay.

Rhodes has a 5.5 per carry average leading the team in rush yards, while Clay averages 5.9 yards per carry and have the Runners ranked 50th nationally in rushing success rate.

Josh Stewart, a 6’4 wide out has the most targets on the team, but UTEP can’t forget about Brady Jones, Kerry Thomas, and Marquez McNair as major play makers for the Runners in the passing game.

Thanks to Davenport, UTSA has the second best havoc rate among defensive lines nationally, but they also have solid safeties.

Nate Gaines, and C.J. Levine are hard hitting, and speedy ground covering roamers in UTSA’s 4-2-5 schemes. Where the Runners have struggled is against the deep ball inside their exclusive man coverage scheme which leaves their corners on islands with minimal safety help in some packages.

UTSA also has a deep linebacker gallery with La’Kel Bass, Josiah Tauaefa, and Marcos Curry who all have plenty of experience.

Tauaefa was a freshman All-American last season but has seen his production taper off a bit, and has been slowed down of late due to an injury.

UTSA also has some good sized big men up front on defense like Kevin Strong who has six run stuffs on the season.

UTEP has hung their hat on defense the past two weeks in terms of positive play to build on, but the Miner offense still sucks. (No other way to put it)

The Miners rank dead last in total yards nationally, and rank no higher than 122nd in passing advanced stat metrics.

Zack Greenlee or Ryan Metz? That’s the quarterback question Mike Price has to answer and it’s based off health more than production at this point of the season.

Quardraiz Wadley brought a small boost to UTEP’s offense, but has been hurt, leaving it up to Kevin Dove, Josh Fields, and now Ronald Awatt to help jump start UTEP’s run game.

On the defensive side, Alvin Jones, Devin Cockrell, and the Miners front seven have really turned the corner the past two games.

Jones leads the team with 10 run stops, and Cockrell is starting to cement himself as a sleeper NFL prospect with a strong senior season.

UTEP has nothing to play for the rest of the season other than pride, and that can be scary for a team like UTSA who is trying to secure their second straight bowl appearance.

The home team has never won in five meetings between UTSA and UTEP, can Mike Price change that, or will the Miners continue their winless ways in 2017?

Three keys for a competitive effort

Sustain drives

UTEP’s biggest offensive challenge has been to keep out of third long, and have success on early downs. Davenport could have another big game if UTEP doesn’t ID and contain him. UTSA could also shutout UTEP if the Miners are unable to sustain drives no matter who plays under center.

Make special teams special

With the offense struggling, Terry Juniel has provided something of a spark in the return game. Juniel may need to break off a special teams return for a score, or the Miners unit needs to create turnovers and momentum to help knock off UTSA.

Contain Sturm

UTEP struggles against quarterbacks who bail out of the pocket to extend plays, and Sturm is one of the best in C-USA in effectively doing that. Keeping him in a box amid UTEP’s multiple fire-zone blitzes will be key in Sturm not deflating the UTEP defense with a third down scramble that keeps a drive alive.

Key matchups to watch

  • Marcus Davenport vs. UTEP’s tackles
  • UTEP’s WR’s vs. UTSA’s corners
  • Mike Price’s vs. Frank Wilson’s game management
  • Alvin Jones vs. UTSA’s backfield

Prediction

This UTEP and UTSA series is weird to predict, and another weird game could happen.

If the UTEP defense of the past two weeks shows up, it will be a surprisingly close game, but if the Miner D cracks early, it could be an easy win for UTSA.

I think the same gritty defensive effort returns for a half or so, but the same offensive results return leading to another tough Miner loss, and another possible goose egg on the board.

UTSA 23 UTEP 0

S&P Projected final score: UTSA 38.8---UTEP 14.9