UTEP students, alumni, and fans: It’s football season! On Saturday, the Miners will visit #7 Oklahoma in Norman. This will be quite a tall task for UTEP.
Here are five things we will be paying attention to:
- The one thing UTEP has received a lot of recognition for this preseason is the offensive line. I want to see how these guys do against a Big-12 caliber defensive line. If they can hold their own, then there is a reasonable expectation that this line will be as good as advertised, and should be able to handle the front seven of any C-USA opponent.
- What will the run game look like post-Aaron Jones? Look for Walter Dawn Jr. and Kevin Dove to get most of the carries. The offensive line will certainly open up some holes for these guys, so opportunities will be there. How deep does Kugler go will be the main question with guys like Josh Fields, and Ronald Awatt ready for FBS action as well.
- If the run game stalls, look for the Miners to rely on the passing game more. This will be a very tough and athletic defense to go against, but I hope Ryan Metz will get a chance to showcase his improved pocket presence this offseason, and prove that this is his offense and team.
- What will the defense look like? Last season, the defense had more holes than the shotgun-blasted road signs I often see on many old County roads. The general consensus is that the defense will be improved. Expect the same 3-4 system as last season with more blitzing from a number of angles. Mainly, I think the defense will need to do better at limiting explosive plays, and putting pressure on signal callers.
- Many of the wide receiving corps will be returning players, so I am optimistic about this position. However, who will replace tight end Hayden Plinke, the leading receiver from last season? Look for Josh Weeks or David Lucero to fill this role. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease says he expects Lucero to become a go-to-guy sooner than later.
On Oklahoma’s side: Which players for OU should concern us? Probably the vast majority of them, or their entire roster. However, veteran Baker Mayfield was a Heisman finalist last year, so he’s pretty good and will be a name talked about all season among national pundits. He will command an offense that is anticipated to run the ball a lot, while questions remain about which receivers will emerge as playmakers. I still expect a lot of passing as well as OU looks for go-to-guys of their own before they face Ohio State next week.
If we think the Miners have a sturdy offensive line, OU’s is supposed to be one of the best in all of college football, including 6’8”, 345 pound left tackle/man-beast Orlando Brown. They return the most experience along the offensive line in all of college football.
If you watch highlights of hybrid DE/LB Obo Okoronkwo, he reminds me of The Terminator, he simply does not stop going after his target. He plays on both sides of the newly-established 4-3 defense that OU is trying this year, so it will be important for the UTEP offensive line to pick him up at all times, wherever he lines up. He is dangerous and the Miners pre-snap recognition will be tested.
UTEP outlook: The Miners will be ushering a new stable of running backs, and a lot of new and shiny parts of the defensive side of the ball. Sean Kugler gave realistic expectations for this game, saying winning the one-on-one battles on both sides of the ball will be key, and give confidence going forward.
Offensively, that means trying to get open in the passing game against an athletic defense, and being able to control the clock with the running game, all while protecting the ball, and avoiding self-inflicting penalties.
UTEP’s defense was the main strength coming out of camp, but will the Miners depth, speed, and personnel upgrades hang with one of the top quarterbacks, and offensive units in the nation?
Look for the regular contributors like Alvin Jones, Devin Cockrell, and Dante Lovilette to make plays, but the Miners front three will have the biggest challenge of facing one of the top offensive lines and a quarterback who can move in and out of the pocket.
Defensive production is an improvement mark that is needed in 2017, and flashes of that against OU will bode well for the rest of the season.
Bottom Line: Keep in mind that due to the caliber of opponent the Miners will face this Saturday, it may be difficult to gauge where this team is at and what UTEP really has. Realistically, we may not start to get our answers until week two against Rice.
According to ESPN, UTEP is currently a 43 point underdog to the Sooners, and their Football Power Index gives the Miners a 0.5% chance of winning. So how likely is a Miner upset? Probably about as likely as a snowball surviving an El Paso summer. But, we will get our first glimpse of this team in 2017, and there will surely be some positives to take away. And, you just never know what might happen (think Appalachian State vs. #5 Michigan in 2007). This is why we watch the games.