On Saturday Southern Miss will make their 5th trip to the Sun City of El Paso and 1st since 2014. This game will mark the 9th time the two teams have met, with both winning four apiece. The first meeting took place in the Sun Bowl back in 1954. The last win in El Paso for Southern Miss came back in 2011 when the Eagles took down the Miners 34-13 under Coach Larry Fedora.
Last year, the two teams met for the "Halloween game" where Southern Miss wore their black uniforms and UTEP was in all orange.
UTEP comes in to their conference opener with a record of 1-2. They started the season with a 38-22 win over New Mexico State, then went to Austin, Texas and fell to the Longhorns 41-7. Last week, an effort to rebound in that game fell flat, as the Miners were stomped at home 66-14 against the option threat of Army. They look to rebound in conference play and under Coach Sean Kugler, (15-25 career) they've been pretty good at home in conference (7-2).
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The Miners were embarrassed last week by Army, and Coach Kugler admitted as much.
"There’s not a lot to say about that performance that we put out there on Saturday night," Coach Kugler said. "I would reiterate to the Miner fans, I’m very embarrassed as a head coach. We had such a great crowd with great energy with a lot of expectations and as a team we didn’t deliver. It was a very humbling experience. I want to apologize to the El Paso fans for our performance. I have been there before as a player and as a coach. You’re going to get your tails whipped sometimes and you’re going to get a game that gets out of hand sometimes, and you need to respond to that.
"The same thing I told the players Sunday in the team meeting, ‘If you get kicked in the groin, the last thing you probably need the next day is a coach coming in and kicking you again.’ We need to regroup, we need to focus and come together as a team because there’s a lot of season ahead of us."
It certainly doesn't get any easier for the Miners, with Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech (two teams expected to compete for the conference championship), coming in to El Paso in back to back weeks. They certainly know they have to regroup and play better to have any chance at turning things around this season.
UTEP on Offense:
The key to the UTEP offense is centered on their star running back Aaron Jones, who is off to a stellar start after returning from a bad injury last season where he tore ligaments in his ankle. UTEP features a more traditional offense where they want to establish things at the line of scrimmage and pound the defense with Jones, who is conference USA's current leading rusher at 439 yards overall. He also is 3rd in the nation in total yards rushing. Look for Southern Miss to see a steady diet of Aaron Jones as the big offensive line of the Miners will try and establish the run.
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UTEP totaled 239 yards against New Mexico State on the ground, 135 at Texas, and 103 vs Army, ranking them 3rd in Conference USA. Jones also is 2nd in the nation with 13 plays of over 10 yards or more on the ground. They'll run behind Will Hernandez, a 6'3, 330lb left guard who is one of the best in the conference. He's started three seasons for UTEP.
At Quarterback, Zack Greenlee leads the charge for the Miners. The Junior (6'1, 215) from California has not been the only QB to play however, as UTEP also has seen time from Kavika Johnson who has attempted 19 passes on the season. The passing game has struggled for UTEP, as they've actually rushed for more yardage then they have thrown for this season. Johnson offers a change of pace too at QB, as he is more of a scrambling QB who can beat you with his legs. While the QB's haven't been overly impressive through the air, they haven't turned the ball over, either. They don't have any INT's on the season to this point.
That number speaks both to the care of the QB's with the ball, but also the more conservative nature of the offense.
Leading the way at receiver is Cole Freytag, who has caught 7 passes for 129 yards. Interestingly, the second leading receiver has been Aaron Jones, who has caught 6 passes out of the backfield. The Miners simply look to put the ball in his hands in every way possible, and you can believe the Eagles will key on Jones all game long and in any situation.
UTEP ranks fifth in C-USA in third-down conversions (41.5 percent). The Miners have converted 17-of-41 third downs in 2016. Middle Tennessee leads Conference USA in conversions (25) and conversion percentage (51.0). Southern Miss ranks third in conversion percentage (42.9) and has converted 21-of-49 third downs.
UTEP On Defense:
UTEP runs a 3-4 defense, with two DE's and a big nose guard right in the middle. Their LB's are active and have good speed, and they love to disguise packages to get these guys in the backfield. The star of the defense is Dante Lovilette, a JuCo transfer who has been outstanding. He leads the team in tackles with 14 solo and 25 total, and he also has 1.5 tackles for loss.
The two middle linebackers are also really, really good. Alvin Jones, MLB, has 20 tackles, 8 solo, and Nick Usher has also been around for a long time and is a leader for the defense. He also has two of the Miners three sacks on the season.
Jayson VanHook, a freshman linebacker, made his first career start against Army on Saturday night. The start came after seeing extensive action at Texas on Sept. 10, while producing solid numbers. VanHook recorded seven tackles, along with his first career sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. VanHook has 11 tackles in 2016.
UTEP also has a pretty active secondary. They had 11 pass break-ups against New Mexico State in the opener, and they are led by Nik Needham and Brendan Royal out of the defensive backfield.
“Defensively, we didn’t get any turnovers," Coach Kugler said. "We’re -4 [turnover margin] on the year. At the end of the year, if we look at anything that’s going to tell the story of our season, a trend that we have to change is defensively, we have to get the ball, and offensively we can’t lay the ball on the carpet which we’ve done in the first three games. We had a goal to hold Army under 250 yards rushing, we did not accomplish that or come close. We only had two negative plays, both were by a freshman defensive lineman Gene Hopkins who actually played a very good game."
Overall, expect UTEP to try and get back to their formula, hard nosed, physical football. Their manhood was certainly challenged by Army, and there was nothing they could do to slow down that rushing attack.
“We have to, not only for this game but for the entire season," Kulger said.
"We’ve got to get back to playing UTEP football, being physical in the run game, being in manageable third downs, letting other teams make mistakes. We haven’t been playing UTEP football. We have been making our own mistakes and creating our own problems. Those are problems as a head coach that we have got to fix. I’m committed to doing that, I know the players are committed to doing that. I haven’t lost any belief in any of the players and any of the coaches. We just got our tails whipped. What do you do, do respond, do you curl up in a ball or do you fight back? Well, as a head coach I’m going to fight back and I know the players and coaches are going to do the same thing.”