With most mid-major schools utilizing the out-of-conference games to prepare them for the conference season, Price wanted to see what his program was made out of. After two challenging losses against two BCS opponents, Price got his answer last Saturday.
After losing at home to then-No.4 Oklahoma and at Ole Miss to start the season, UTEP dominated New Mexico State, 41-28, and saw its offense orchestrate four scoring drives covering over 60 yards and score touchdowns on four straight possessions for the first time since 2009.
"I think it was kind of a confidence builder," Price said of playing the Sooners and Rebels. "When you play those schools, they're bigger and stronger and faster. You get used to play at that tempo and that speed. The game is faster. You speed up your game and your intensity. It's great to play schools that are a little bit better than you are."
That philosophy will continue on Saturday when UTEP travels to Wisconsin for an 11 a.m. kickoff in both team's nonconference finale.
Having been at the school since 2004, Price is in the final year of his contact and his looking to lead UTEP to its first winning season since 2005. Knowing that, imagine his frustration when Nathan Jeffery was deemed out after straining his groin in a standout performance against Oklahoma, rushing for 177 yards and returning a blocked punt 24 yards for a touchdown.
But thanks to the tough schedule, Price was able to throw in sophomore Josh Bell (two scores against NMU) and freshman Autrey Golden (leading rusher last two games) into the mix and get them some experience.
"Those guys played tremendous in place of Jeffery," said Price, who said Jeffery is expected to play this week. "That was a good experience. They matured and got better in just one week. Golden played 22 plays on special teams and was our special teams player of the week. You don't even notice that."
For the second straight week, Wisconsin is facing a quarterback who was awarded his conference's offensive player of the week honor. After completing only 37.5 percent of his passes for 252 yards and one touchdown in his team's first two games, senior Nick Lamaison threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in UTEP's 41-28 victory over New Mexico State.
A preseason all-conference selection, it was Lamaison second 300-yard passing game of his career, as he completed five passes longer than 30 yards and has yet to throw an interception on the season.
"Mike Price is a phenomenal football coach," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "He had a lot of success obviously at Washington State. Now the transition against UTEP he knows how to win games, they have an experienced staff if you watch the special teams they're going 100 miles an hour. They play a lot of people. So that allows them to play fast."
And play aggressive. Against New Mexico State, the Miners finished with 10 pass breakups, the most since 2005, and most of those were batted down at the line of scrimmage by the front seven.
"We got after the quarterback," said Price, whose team added four sacks. "Whether we sacked him or not, he felt pressured. We rushed him, we changed up our coverages, we were breaking on the ball and we were tackling really well.
"They certainly have provided me with more confidence. What I thought going into this season is the way they are. They're tough and smart, they're mature and ready to play each week. For the most part their leadership is outstanding. They kind of fit just about where I thought they'd be fitting. I'm pleased with the progress we're making."
Price recognizes there is a lot to prepare for in playing a team like for Wisconsin. For starters, the Miners have to clean up the penalties, as UTEP was whistled 10 times for 129 yards on Saturday. UTEP will also have to try and counter a Wisconsin team that outweighs them by 60 pounds.
"They're massive and they're good," Price said. "Their defense is sound and they have the best returning running back in the country. They're kind of finding their way offensively … Their defense is fundamentally sound and you're going to have to block them and knock them down. With their offense, you know where they're going to run but you have to defeat that blocker who is bigger and stronger than you are and tackle that All-American running back.
"We'll have to be smart in what we do. We'd like to get our guys 20 pounds heavier and get them to bench press 100 pounds more this week."
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