UTEP looks to snap 20-game losing streak at Rice

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 THE KICKOFF

UTEP (0-8, 0-4 C-USA) squares off against Rice (1-8, 0-5 C-USA) on Saturday in Houston. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. MT. The Miners and the Owls join the WKU Hilltoppers as teams seeking their first C-USA victory. Rice has dropped eight consecutive games since opening the season with a 31-28 triumph over Prairie View A&M in Houston. UTEP is pursuing its first win since Nov. 26, 2016, versus North Texas, and its first road win since Oct. 22, 2016 at UTSA.

SATURDAY’S OPPONENT

Rice is 1-3 at home, with the aforementioned victory over Prairie View A&M and losses to Houston (45-27), UTSA (20-3) and UAB (42-0). Saturday is Homecoming for the Owls. Rice is last in C-USA in passing defense efficiency (175.8) and the Owls have generated 12 sacks, fewest in the league. The Owls are 12th in C-USA in scoring offense (18.9 ppg), total offense (317.9 ypg), passing offense (170.7 ypg), pass defense (270.3 ypg) and passing efficiency (105.9), and 13th in scoring defense (39.0 ppg) and total defense (447.2 ypg). Rice, however, has been solid in the special teams area as it leads C-USA in punting (41.0 net average) and ranks second in kickoff returns (26.3 avg.) and kickoff coverage (45.0 net avg.). Rice has two of C-USA’s top-10 rushers in junior Emmanuel Esukpa (63.3 ypg/sixth) and senior Austin Walter (59.7 ypg/10th). Walter also leads the league in all-purpose yards (146.7 avg.) and kickoff returns (27.3 avg.). Esukpa rushed for 100 yards versus Prairie View A&M (173) and at Hawaii’i (104), and Walter gained 165 yards at Wake Forest. True freshman Wiley Green took over as the Owls’ starting quarterback at North Texas last week. He completed 21-of-37 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown in Rice’s 41-17 loss to the Mean Green. The game was tied at 17 late in the third quarter before North Texas caught fire and scored the game’s last 24 points. Sophomore WR Aaron Cephus has accounted for five of the Owls’ 10 receiving touchdowns in 2018 and added another at North Texas. Junior DT Zach Abercrumbia and sophomore DB George Nyakwol have been credited with 39 and 38 tackles, respectively, to lead the Rice stop troops. Mike Bloomgren is in his first season as the Owls’ head coach. He previously spent time in the NFL with the New York Jets (2007-10) before serving in multiple roles on offense at Stanford (2011-17), including as Associate Head Coach the last four years.     

THE SERIES

Rice has won 10 of the last 12 games between the Texas rivals and leads the series 14-7. The Owls are 9-2 versus the Miners in Houston with victories in the last six meetings at Rice Stadium. UTEP’s last victory at Rice came in the Miners’ first year as a member of Conference USA, 38-31, on Oct. 29, 2005.

THE LAST MEETING

Samuel Stewart rushed for 89 yards, and Rice piled up 306 on the ground to top UTEP, 31-14, in the Conference USA opener for both teams on Sept. 9, 2017, in the Sun Bowl. The Owls scored the game’s first 17 points and, after the Miners drew within 10 late in the third quarter, put it away with a 10-play, 87-yard drive, capped by Jordan Myers’s three-yard scoring run. Myers was one of three Owl backs to find the end zone, along with Sam Glaesmann and Nahshon Ellerbe who had scoring runs of five and three yards respectively. Rice quarterback Glaesmann accounted for two touchdowns in all. His 52-yard pass to Aaron Cephus early in the third quarter gave the Owls the 17-0 lead. The Owls led by 17 three times at 17-0, 24-7 and 31-14. UTEP pulled within 10 for the second time (24-14) on a one-yard run by Ryan Metz with 4:56 remaining but couldn’t recover the onside kick. The Miners were flustered offensively for the most part with 229 yards on 57 plays (4.0 average). Rice gained 437 yards on 67 plays (6.5 average). Rice had 192 yards at the half but UTEP was able to stay within striking distance at 10-0. The Owls opted to go for it on fourth and one at the UTEP six-yard line late in the second quarter, but Glaesmann fumbled at the five and the Miners’ Nik Needham recovered to help keep it close. Glaesmann finished 10-of-18 passing for 131 yards. Metz completed 18-of-33 passes for 203 yards for the Miners. He threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Warren Redixwith 3:47 left in the third quarter. Walter Dawn Jr. led UTEP with 24 yards rushing on nine carries, and Kavika Johnson was the top receiver with six catches for 67 yards. Metz was sacked four times, and the Owls tallied eight tackles for losses with six quarterback hurries. Treyvon Hughes and Dante Lovilotte led the Miner defense with 11 tackles apiece. Alvin Jones had two quarterback hurries despite playing only the second half.

CONNECTIONS

UTEP secondary/safeties coach Keith Burns worked at Rice as defensive pass coordinator and special teams coach from 1989-92. UTEP Assistant Athletic Director for Football Operations Nate Poss is a Rice graduate and was a defensive back for the Owls (1973-76) when former UTEP head coach Charlie Bailey was the defensive coordinator. UTEP has five Houston natives on its 2018 roster (junior WR Camryn Curtis Dozier, freshman WR Jonathan Patrick, sophomore DT Dedrick Simpson, sophomore DL Blake Thompson, freshman TE Trent Thompson), and two more players from surrounding areas (freshman DE Praise Amaewhule/Katy and junior OL Darta Lee/Missouri City). UTEP senior DB Adrian Hynson and Rice freshmen TE’s Jaeger Bull & Brendan Suckley all played at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi. UTEP freshman WR Ricky Baker, Rice freshman QB Wiley Green and Rice sophomore RB Collin Whitaker all played their prep ball at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano.  

LAST GAME

UTEP held Conference USA West Division leader UAB to a season-low 19 points, but a depleted Miner offense was held scoreless on Oct. 27 in the Sun Bowl. The Miners limited the Blazers to 357 yards. The 19 points were the fewest scored by UAB versus a Conference USA opponent in its remarkable two-year run since reinstating its football program. The UTEP offense, however, was only able to generate 120 yards, including 19 rushing, against a stout Blazer defense that has now surrendered seven points or fewer in four of five league games. The Miners started three freshmen on offense including true freshman left tackle Elijah Klein, who was playing in his first collegiate game. Still, UTEP was in it in the fourth quarter for the fourth time in as many C-USA games. The Blazers held a 12-0 lead heading to the final frame and were held to two touchdowns on the night. The Blazers put 10 points on the board in the first quarter off a 15-yard scoring run by Spencer Brown and a 36-yard field goal by Nick Vogel. The Miners lost starting quarterback Kai Locksley in the second period when he re-injured his ankle, leaving Brandon Jones at the controls of the offense for the second straight week. The Miner defense made a tremendous goal line stand in the third quarter as Brown was stuffed for a one-yard loss on fourth down at the one. However, the Blazers scored a safety on the next play when Quardraiz Wadley fumbled, Jones recovered and was tackled in the end zone. A 36-yard field goal by Jason Filley in the third quarter was taken off the board by an illegal formation penalty on UTEP. His corresponding 41-yard attempt was wide right. The Blazers put the game away with a 12-play, 63-yard TD drive late in the fourth quarter. UAB backup quarterback Tyler Johnston III made it 19-0 with a four-yard rushing score. Brown rushed 21 times for 103 yards for UAB, which ran for 265 yards as a team. Locksley (7-for-11, 52 yards) and Jones (5-for-9, 49 yards) combined to complete 12-of-20 passes for 101 yards for the Miners. UAB piled up 12 tackles for losses, including 2.5 each by Fitz Mofor and Chris Woolbright, contributing mightily to UTEP’s low rushing total. A.J. Hotchkins racked up a career-high 15 tackles for losses for the Miners, and Jamar Smith added 10 stops.

EXTINGUISHING THE BLAZERS

The UTEP defense put together another stellar effort against C-USA West Division leader UAB last week. The 357 yards by UAB were the second fewest for the Blazers this season (333 versus Charlotte).  The 92 passing yards were the second-fewest for the Blazers against a C-USA opponent since returning to football in 2017 (49 passing yards at UTSA last season). The 19 points were a season low for UAB, and its fewest versus a C-USA opponent since returning to football last year. Overall the 19 points were the fewest surrendered by the Miner defense since Oct. 7, 2017 versus WKU (15), and it marked only the second time in its last 20 league games (dating back to the 2016 season) that UTEP gave up fewer than 20 points.

UTEP’S “D” IN C-USA PLAY

The Miners have allowed 107 points (26.8 ppg) in their four C-USA games, but that number is misleading. The UTSA Roadrunners scored 14 points off turnovers that enabled them to start drives inside the red zone. Seven more of the points were scored off a pick-six (at LA Tech), and two off a safety (against UAB). Deduct those 23 points and the defense has surrendered 84 points (21.0 ppg). Last year in its eight league games, the Miners allowed 32.0 ppg and 410.9 yards against league competition. This year UTEP is giving up 347 yards per game versus C-USA opponents. UTEP is fifth in C-USA in total defense for league games only (347 ypg) behind UAB (245.4), Southern Miss (280.5), Charlotte (299.4) and FIU (319.3).

EXPENDED OFFENSE

Injuries have ravaged UTEP’s offensive unit. The Miners started their seventh offensive line combination in eight games against UAB. The Miners had two first-time starters on offense in freshman left tackle Elijah Klein and freshman fullback Trent Thompson. Overall UTEP started three freshmen on offense, including true freshmen Klein and Thompson. Klein was playing in his first game for UTEP. Third-string quarterback Brandon Jones saw the bulk of the action against UAB with Kai Locksley and Ryan Metz both out due to injury. The top two fullbacks (Winston Dimel & Forest McKee) are also down due to injuries. All these factors contributed to the Miners getting shut out at home for only the second time versus a C-USA opponent against UAB. On Oct. 6, 2012, UTEP was blanked by SMU, 17-0, in the Sun Bowl.

JONES TAKES OVER

Bakersfield College transfer Brandon Jones took the reins of the UTEP offense after Kai Locksley re-injured his ankle against UAB. In two appearances this season (at LA Tech, versus UAB), Jones has completed 12-of-24 passes for 147 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He has rushed 17 times for 15 yards (0.9 avg.) with a pair of scores. Jones directed Bakersfield College to a 7-4 mark in 2017, completing 62.7 percent (116-of-185) of his passes for 1,248 yards with 11 TD’s and only three interceptions.

QUARTERBACK RUSHING

UTEP quarterbacks are responsible for 420 of the team’s 1,046 rushing yards (40.2 percent) in 2018. The 420 yards are more than last year’s leading rusher, Joshua Fields, compiled in all of 2017 (362). Quarterbacks have accounted for seven of the Miners’ 10 rushing scores this season, and the seven rushing TD’s by signal-callers are the most for UTEP since 2004 (eight) when Orlando Cruz scored five TD’s and Jordan Palmer three on the ground. This is the first time since 2006 that three UTEP quarterbacks (Brandon Jones, Kai Locksley, Ryan Metz) have rushed for a touchdown in a season. Twelve years ago, Lorne Sam, Palmer and James Thomas II all turned the trick. Locksley and Jones both have games with multiple rushing touchdowns this season. Overall a quarterback has led the Miners in rushing in five of eight games this season, including Jones versus UAB (16 yards) last week. 

NO TURNOVERS

The Miners had zero turnovers in a game for the second time this season against UAB. They were also error free at Tennessee on Sept. 15. UTEP played a turnover-free first half for the first time in four C-USA games. It ended a streak of six consecutive league games dating back to the 2017 season where the Miners threw at least one interception in the first half. Here’s why this is so important: of the 59 points off turnovers scored by the opposition in 2018, 45 have come in the first half, and the Miners have committed 10 of their 14 turnovers in the opening 30 minutes. 

HANGING IN THERE

UTEP has been in position to win in the fourth quarter in each of its last six games. It was a two-possession game (12-0) heading into the final frame against UAB last Saturday. On Oct. 20 at LA Tech, it was 24-24 with under seven minutes remaining. It marked the first time since the 2016 season finale that the Miners were involved in a game in which they were tied or leading in the final period.

DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT

Could UTEP end the season with a top-50 defense? The Miners rank 60th nationally in total defense (382.8 ypg); a year ago they were 107th (446.6 ypg). Northwestern is 50th in the country in total defense (366.8 ypg). The Miners have climbed from 76th in the nation in total defense to 60th over the last two games. Over the final four games, UTEP will face offenses currently ranked 122nd (Rice), 107th (Middle Tennessee), 101st ( WKU) and 47th (Southern Miss) in the country.

DEFENSIVE STANDOUTS VERSUS UAB

The blocked field goal by junior DT Denzel Chukwukelu in the second quarter was the first for the Miners since Nov. 19, 2016, at Rice. Chukwukelu had a career-high eight tackles and two quarterback hurries. Senior LB Jamar Smith registered his second career double-digit tackle game with 10 stops.  He had 11 tackles versus North Texas. Senior DB Nik Needham recorded the Miners’ second interception of the season. It was the third of his career.

COMPETING ON THE ROAD

In UTEP’s two C-USA road games, the Miners were outscored 30-21 by UTSA and 31-24 by LA Tech for an average margin of defeat of eight points. This is significant considering that in their previous 12 league road games over the span of three seasons (2015-17), the average scoring margin was -18.1 points. The Miners have played back-to-back C-USA road games that were decided by nine points or fewer for the first time since 2016 (won 52-49 at UTSA, lost 35-31 at Florida Atlantic), and for only the second time since 2010.

SECOND HALF SQUAD

In their four C-USA games, the Miners have allowed 780 yards in the first half (383 rushing/397 passing), and 608 in the second half (276 rushing/332 passing). Opponents have averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the first half (65 attempts), and 3.8 in the second half (72 attempts). The Miners have allowed 61 points in the first half, and 46 in the second. UTEP has also scored 45 of its 69 points in the second half of its league games, while accounting for 635 of its 1,190 total yards (173 rushing/462 passing) after the break.  

THIRD DOWN “D”

Over the last two games, UTEP opponents are 6-for-23 on third down conversions (26.1 percent). During that stretch the Miners have risen from 101st in the nation in third down conversion defense to 65th (.388). UTEP’s third-down conversion defense for C-USA games only (.346) ranks fifth in the league behind UAB (.190), LA Tech (.300), Marshall (.308) and UTSA (.345). No UTEP opponent has converted more than 50 percent of its third downs in 2018 after eight of 12 achieved the feat last season.

LOCKSLEY’S 100-YARD GAMES

With 106 rushing yards at UTSA (Sept. 29), Kai Locksley is the first UTEP quarterback to rush for 100 yards twice in a season in 35 years. Locksley ran for 119 yards at UNLV on Sept. 8. Kevin Ward rushed for 100 yards in the first and last game of the 1983 campaign, gaining 125 yards versus New Mexico State and 109 against Weber State. Locksley is the fifth UTEP quarterback to rush for 100 yards in a game since 1980.

DEFLECTING DUO

Senior DBs Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly have combined for 50 pass break-ups in their careers. Needham set the school record with his 26th career pass break-up in the second quarter against NM State and now has 29 pass break-ups. The previous record of 25 pass break-ups was held by Jahmal Fenner, who played for the Miners from 2001-04. Needham’s five pass break-ups in 2018 are tied for the team lead. Beverly tallied his third PBU of the season versus UAB and now has 21 in his career, tied for the 10th-top total in the Miner record book.

HOTCHKINS’S SECOND CHANCE

LB A.J. Hotchkins has made the most of his move from Oregon to UTEP. The graduate transfer has led the Miners in tackles in six of eight games, including five double-digit performances against Northern Arizona (13), Tennessee (10), North Texas (14), LA Tech (11) and UAB (career-high 15). Hotchkins ranks 19th nationally and second in C-USA, averaging 10.5 tackles per game. He is averaging 11.3 tackles in C-USA games, second in the league behind Middle Tennessee’s Reed Blankenship (11.4). Hotchkins has 84 tackles and is on pace to tally 126 in 2018, which would be the most by a Miner player since Jeremy Jones had 130 in 2005.

SPECIAL TEAMS STAR

Terry Juniel now has 1,854 all-purpose yards (one rushing, 495 receiving, 350 punt returns, 1,008 kickoff returns) in his UTEP career. Juniel needs just 25 kickoff return yards to tie Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. (1,033 yards) for 10th place in school history. Juniel has gone over 100 all-purpose yards three times this season, and leads the Miners with 595 this season. Juniel is 28th in the nation in combined kick returns (407).

SPECIAL TEAMS BITS

The Miners are third in C-USA in kickoff coverage (44.3 net avg.) behind UAB (45.2) and Rice (45.0). Terry Juniel leads C-USA in punt return average (5.6) and he’s fourth in kickoff return average (19.4). Jason Filley remains perfect on his extra point attempts this season (15-for-15), and he’s 6-for-9 on field goals. Filley is 8-for-9 on field goal attempts from inside 40 yards during his Miner career and hit his career-long 37-yard field goal against North Texas on Oct. 6.  

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

There are nine programs in the FBS, including UTEP, that have sons playing for their fathers. UTEP first-year head coach Dana Dimel has his son, Winston, at fullback. The other eight programs include UAB (head coach Bill Clark and son Jacob), Colorado (head coach Mike Macintyre and son Jay), Tulsa (head coach Philip Montgomery and son Cannon), Navy (head coach Ken Niumatalolo and son Ali’i), TCU (head coach Gary Patterson and son Blake), Middle Tennessee (head coach Rick Stockstill and son Brent), Clemson (head coach Dabo Swinney and son Will) and Old Dominion (head coach Bobby Wilder and son Derek). Winston previously played at Kansas State (2015-17) where his father was the offensive coordinator. The younger Dimel earned a spot on the 2018-19 Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List after garnering All-Big 12 honors each of the last three years.

THE GRADUATES

Eight players on the 2018 roster are graduate students. They are OL Jerrod Brooks, FB Winston Dimel, OL Derron Gatewood, LB A.J. Hotchkins,QB Ryan Metz, DL C.J. Reese, DL Michael Sota and TE Josh Weeks.

GETTING IT DONE IN THE CLASSROOM

Twenty players on the 2018 roster were named to the Conference USA Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll this spring for sporting grade point averages of 3.0 or better. They are RB Ronald Awatt, DL Christian Buckingham, QB Alex Fernandes, K/P Jason Filley, RB Reynaldo Flores, LB Stephen Forester, WR Keynan Foster, OL Derron Gatewood, LB Kalaii Griffin, DL Christian Johnson, OL Robert Lazarin, FB Forest McKee, QB Ryan Metz, FB Jonathan Millan, DL Jimmy Quemado, LS Jake Sammut, DB Kahani Smith, LB Sione Tupou, LB Anthony Ulmer and K Brady Viles. Fernandes and Flores were recipients of C-USA Academic Medals for logging GPAs of 3.75 or higher.

NEXT UP

UTEP meets Middle Tennessee on “Fan Appreciation Day” Saturday, Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. MT in the Sun Bowl. Special fan rewards will be given away throughout the game, and fans will be invited onto the field postgame. 

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