With 10 guys out with injuries, and a 0-2 start where nothing has gone right, UTEP will try to pick up the pieces and give a better effort against Arizona Friday night.
The Wildcats (1-1) come off a tough loss to Houston last week after putting up gaudy rushing numbers and 62 points in their season opener against an FCS foe.
Arizona has one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the nation through two weeks with some speedy backs who can burn the UTEP defense with one block, and one cut.
J.J. Taylor, a 5’6 180 pound back leads the team with 131 yards rushing, and a 5.0 yard per carry average. The Cats will also give carries to Zach Green, and the health of starting running back Nick Wilson is in question.
Wilson is their stud back who is listed as questionable, and missed the Houston game with injury. Wilson be a major factor if he’s cleared to play.
Arizona had a mild quarterback controversy earlier this week, but Brandon Dawkins will be the starter.
UTEP could also see Khalil Tate take some snaps, as both are athletic quarterbacks who could use this UTEP game to sharpen up their execution in the passing game.
The 6’3 Dawkins has a 6.0 yard per carry average on 20 carries this season, but has fumbled twice. Tate has ran for 93 yards on nine carries, and is a big play threat.
Dawkins has attempted more passes than Tate so far this season, and the Cats rank 63rd nationally in passing success rate. Staying sound against the read-option will key in defending these two versatile athletes.
Tony Ellison is their highest targeted wide out through the first two weeks, and 6’5 wide out Shawn Pointdexter is their second highest targeted pass catcher. Arizona has a bunch of smaller/speedy slot receiver types in which they may try to matchup with UTEP’s linebackers to create matchup problems against UTEP’s 3-4 defense.
Tight end Bryce Wolma is another name to watch in the passing game as a medium-to-short option in their passing attack.
Three freshman lead the Wildcats in tackles through the first two weeks, but junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has been the tone setter with three interceptions so far.
Arizona is +3 in the turnover margin department, but have struggled against the run according to advanced stat metrics.
UTEP will roll out Zack Greenlee at quarterback, as UTEP looks for offensive answers after back-to-back weeks of inept offense. Greenlee will replace the injured Ryan Metz at quarterback making his first start his season.
UTEP will also have new starters at center with Tanner Stallings, and at tackle with Jerrod Brooks filling in for starters. Both Stallings and Brooks have previous starting experience, but UTEP’s depth behind their starters on the offensive line is very young.
Sean Kugler hinted at switching up the running back rotation, giving Josh Fields and Ronald Awatt more looks along with Walter Dawn, and Kevin Dove. Fields took a 19-yard shovel pass for a first down last week, showing some much needed juice to hopefully jump start the offense.
Drops have plagued UTEP’s passing game with 10 drops ending 10 different drives so far this season through two weeks of action.
UTEP will be without starting free safety Michael Lewis, giving JUCO transfer Kahani Smith a chance to produce at the free safety spot.
The Miner defense has been battered and beaten the past two weeks, and facing another athletic option/rush attack will be challenging to a unit who ranks last in defending opponents rushing success rate.
Three keys UTEP needs to execute to keep it close
Bring the energy level up a few notches
A Friday night ESPN game should fire up Sean Kugler’s group, but constant energy could help this UTEP team overcome a slow start to the season. This is where UTEP’s leadership will be tested, UTEP looked flat against Rice and can’t afford to get behind early due to a lack of energy.
Arizona could keep the ball on the ground for the majority of the game, so the Miners need to be disruptive behind the line of scrimmage, and try to create turnovers to create momentum. This hasn’t happened at all this season, and will be key if UTEP wants to turn things around.
Efficient balance on early downs
Stretching the field, running outside the tackles, or just something different needs to happen for UTEP on early standard downs. With Greenlee at quarterback, it will be interesting to see how much UTEP opens up the playbook. But UTEP needs some life on offense, and changing the game plan on early downs could be a good start.
It’s hard to see a complete turnaround in a short week, but the Miners have a lot to rally around, and the hope is the effort is much improved.
Arizona’s rushing attack will have a huge advantage, and if UTEP struggles against the rush it will be a long night for the Miners once again.
UTEP has to control the line of scrimmage, and also hit on a few big plays, but in the end, Arizona’s rush attack just might be way too much.
Arizona 52 UTEP 14