Football: UTEP's best chance may rest on ground

UTEP's lack of resistance against pass-happy Kentucky and Oklahoma is reason for UH fans to smile, but ...

UTEP struggling against

bomb squads 

Proud Miners won't be pushover,

could use ground attack to slow UH




By Paul Honda

Senior Writer

Friday, Sept. 20, 2002


It was just a few weeks ago, during halftime of the Hawaii-Eastern Illinois season opener at Aloha Stadium.


Robert Kekaula, radio color man for UH football (and also a veteran sports anchor at KITV), were remarking on Tim Chang's first half. A strong performance, which started slowly, but turned into a potential masterpiece. By the game's end, it certainly was. Chang's injured pinky showed no sign of curtailing his effectiveness, and in fact, his touch on passes deep, across the middle and on sideline routes was just right.


I remember thinking to myself, this guy hasn't missed a beat.


Yet, while Kekaula and I conversed while waiting in the line at the stadium pressbox restroom, a familiar figure exited a stall. "You guys are way too critical of Timmy," bellowed a voice I've known since my childhood. Dick Tomey was right. All the attention—and commentary—about sophomore quarterback Chang does border on micromanagement. Is it the nature of the UH offense that lures fans and media into scrutinizing a Run and Shoot gunslinger?


I've been thinking about Coach Tomey's words and wondered, are we really too focused on the quarterback of any team? It's possible, of course.


It was just two seasons ago when Rocky Perez-to-David Natkin was a phenomenal connection for the suddenly-resurgent UTEP Miners. This squad, under David Nord, turned into a WAC contender, and Perez was en fuego. Take Perez away, as well as Natkin, and the Miners have fallen upon hard times again.


Chang, not entirely healed from the pinky fracture, has completed 39 of 82 attempts for 651 yards. With three touchdown tosses and five picks—all in the loss at BYU—his efficiency rating is 114.13. That isn't bad at all, but even Chang knows his better days are ahead.


UTEP has, even in their "Bottom Ten" days as the "Texas-El Paso Minors," had the quickness to stay with UH for at least a half. Playing host to the Warriors Saturday doesn't hurt the Miners, either. And with Jason Whieldon's status still uncertain—he will definitely not be in uniform at the Sun Bowl tomorrow, Chang will regain duties inside the red zone.


As the short-yardage and red zone signal-caller, Whieldon was highly effective. His weren't overly impressive: five carries for 18 yards rushing and 7 of 13 through the air for 86 yards. But he was efficient. His pass rating is 185.57—a whopper by any standard. And his ability to execute the option opened up, well, options, for a UH offense that sometimes stuttered and stalled inside the 10 for lack of a consistent running threat.


Critical? Perhaps. But as Chang develops into a multi-faceted player who can overcome his second injury in two seasons, the Warriors will return to the form that last season's squad showed at the close. The elements and weapons are there.


Factor in two weeks of rest, and the Warriors may show signs of consistency this week. Woe be to any team facing them this weekend.


Mike Bass, with 127 yards rushing in just 13 attempts, is averaging 9.8 yards per attempt, while Thero Mitchell has 45 yards in 17 tries (2.6 per carry). Does this mean Bass should get far more snaps now?


Not necessarily. Mitchell remains the better pass blocker—a major factor in Hawaii's four-receiver set—and is the stronger inside runner. If there is any other question, it may be whether Chad Owens is getting enough touches to exploit his breakaway potential.


True, the sophomore from Roosevelt leads UH with 11 receptions (11.6 yards per catch) and has a long of 64 yards. Still, in the midst of a tight game, it might be worth the risk to let one of the nation's best—if not the very best—kick returners get his opportunities.


Longtime UH fans have seen it before. UH travels to the mainland, lines up against a team that has been blown out of the water by recent opponents, and watches the home team play its best game of the year. If the current era of Warriors doesn't remember, well, fans certainly do. And almost certainly, June Jones hasn't had to motivate his squad after the BYU defeat. The effort was truly there, as he said after the game, and that won't change this weekend.


But strange things happen on the road. And despite UTEP's 68-0 loss at Oklahoma, the Miners (1-2) are not about to surrender to UH without a fight. Nord, a former defensive coordinator, is well aware of what to expect.

"I believe Hawaii is the best team in the conference, with the ability they have to score points. You've got your hands full when you face one of the top offenses in the country," he said.

"I think Hawaii is the best team in the WAC because of their ability to score points. And they may have the best defense in the conference. At WAC Media Day, June Jones said their defense is the best they've had since he has been there. He said their four wideouts were as good as any he's coached, including with the Falcons in the NFL.


"They have outstanding speed at the wide receiver position, they have a scheme which is tough to defend, and they have a quarterback who can get it to the open receivers. They have the best punter in the WAC too, according to the preseason prognosticators. They're a pretty solid football team. Their small guys, they actually call them the smurfs over there because the tallest one is 5-9. They're very similar to Sherman [Austin] and Jahmal [Fenner] out there on the edge, with the same quickness and speed."

UTEP, which opened the year with a 42-12 win over Sacramento State, has been gagged lately. Prior to the loss at Oklahoma, the Miners were scorched 77-17 at Kentucky. The Wildcats and Oklahoma feature pass-heavy offenses, which spells a bad omen for UTEP. The best defense the Miners have may well be its rushing offense, which is averaging 204.3 yards per game.

Matt Austin, a freshman, is in tandem with senior Sherman Austin, senior Sherman Austin and sophomore Howard Jackson. Despite the crushing defeats, the four Miner backs are averaging no less than 5.8 yards per attempt.

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