EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Two weeks ago, it felt like the sky was falling around UTEP football, after the Miners fell to 1-3 on the year with a 27-10 loss to New Mexico.
What a difference 14 days make; entering week seven, the Miners are 3-3 and 1-1 in Conference USA after back-to-back wins. First, they secured a massive upset of Boise State on Sept. 23, then they picked up their first-ever win in the Eastern Time Zone on Saturday night, 41-35 over Charlotte.
They’ve done it by showing a resolve and a toughness that they hadn’t shown during the 1-3 start. It has also come as head coach Dana Dimel has shown a willingness to completely change the Miners’ offensive play-style the last two weeks.
“I feel like our guys handled it really well because I felt like we probably played one of our very best games of the year. Boise was our best, but I think Charlotte was real close because again, Charlotte’s offense can be really explosive. They have played a lot of good teams,” Dimel said. “I felt like we went out and handled that long trip. It was a long trip. It was a difficult schedule getting up early and we handled all that well. So, I was pleased with that part of it. Now our guys, more than anything, need to continue to realize that the work’s going to be better this week and that’s how we handle it. Our work is going to be better this week than what it was last week and the week before. We got to really raise our game up for this game.”
In the first four games of the season, UTEP threw the football over 60% of the time; however, in the last two wins, the Miners have switched to running the ball on 80% of their plays vs. Boise State and Charlotte and succeeding in doing so. It was perhaps with good reason that Dimel made that change; the Miners are now 6-1 since 2020 when they rush for over 175 yards.
Behind Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins, UTEP has rushed for 225.5 yards/game the last two contests. Awatt has carried 30 times for 140 yards (4.7 yards/carry) in that span; Hankins has rushed 41 times for 198 yards (4.8 yards/carry), including his first 100-yard outing since 2020 vs. the 49ers on Saturday (112 yards vs. Charlotte).
With the run game finally being effective, a considerable amount of pressure has been taken off of quarterback Gavin Hardison. In UTEP’s first four games when they threw the ball 60% of the time, Hardison completed just 47% of his passes and turned the ball over four times, compared to just two touchdown passes.
However, in UTEP’s last two wins, Hardison is 21-25 (84%) for 296 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. On far fewer passing attempts, Hardison has been far more efficient and consistently made the right decision.
What’s more, wide receiver Tyrin Smith (33 receptions, 568 yards, four touchdowns) is currently fourth in FBS football in receiving yards. Against Charlotte, two of his four catches went for touchdowns, as he eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the third time this season.
While the offense has been much more efficient in the last two games, the UTEP defense has been strong as well. The Miners held Boise State to just 177 total yards, then forced three turnovers and scored two touchdowns vs. Charlotte.
UTEP is currently second in Conference USA in total defense behind UAB, allowing 349 yards per game. They’ve done it in different ways, too. They proved they could shut down an offense vs. the Broncos; against Charlotte, they showed that they could be opportunistic and make big plays when they needed to.
Kobe Hylton, Tyrice Knight and Cal Wallerstedt all rank in the top 10 in C-USA in tackles for loss and defensive end Jadrian Taylor is second in sacks. Knight and Taylor also scored UTEP’s two defensive touchdowns vs. Charlotte.
The Miners scored a third non-offensive TD vs. Boise State, as Marcus Bellon returned a punt 47 yards for a touchdown. During its two-game winning streak, UTEP has done its job in all three phases of the game.
Next up for UTEP is a trip to Ruston to face Louisiana Tech, a place the Miners narrowly lost in both 2018 and 2020, before beating LA Tech 19-3 in El Paso last year. The Bulldogs are 1-3, but their three losses have come at the hands of Clemson, Missouri and South Alabama, the latter of which nearly upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl last month.
Perhaps by virtue of that, LA Tech is currently a 1.5-point favorite over the Miners, despite UTEP having a better record. UTEP’s rough start may have scared the oddsmakers off the scent.
If UTEP can continue to do what it has done in the last two games, the Miners will give themselves a chance to emerge victorious in Ruston and get above .500 for the first time in 2022 entering their bye week.
For a Miners team that has big goals and aspirations of returning to a bowl game, beating Louisiana Tech should be considered a necessity.
Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. MT next Saturday on ESPN+.