EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – On Saturday, UTEP will kickoff the 2022 season with a monumental Week 0 clash with Conference USA rival, North Texas.

Head coach Dana Dimel and his team have played some big games in the last couple years of the program, but the bout with the Mean Green is shaping up to be the most significant of Dimel’s tenure in El Paso.

UTEP has been trying to sell out the Sun Bowl for the contest for months and as of Friday night, less than 1,500 tickets remained. Expect a minimum of 44,000 fans in attendance; the Miners are hoping for their first sellout crowd since 2008 vs. Texas (capacity is 45,971).

The Miners are looking to build off of 2021’s 7-6 record and narrow defeat to Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. In terms of continuing the upward trend of the program, Saturday could say a lot about where UTEP is at.

Having not only a tough opponent in the Mean Green, but a lot riding on the outcome has been on the Miners’ minds all offseason. A win sets them up well for their nonconference slate; a loss all but guarantees an 0-2 start because the Miners get No. 9 Oklahoma next week.

The pressure of knowing a week 0 win is almost a necessity has helped UTEP get ready.

“I think it’s made us make the most of three-and-a-half weeks of our preparation that we’ve had leading up to this ball game,” Dimel said earlier this week. “We’ve got the team knowing we can’t come out and just cruise into our first game and just build as the season moves along. It helped our intensity throughout camp.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday night at the Sun Bowl. With UTEP ready to get rolling, here are five Major Keys for a Miner Victory:

  1. Harness the big crowd’s energy: It has been awhile since UTEP has had a crowd the size of what will be at the Sun Bowl on Saturday. In 2021, the Miners had around 31,000 when they hosted UTSA and appeared to come out nervous and tentative. Against North Texas, UTEP has to feed off the energy of the big crowd.
  2. Get off to a fast start offensively; Gavin Hardison must make plays: One way to harness the stadium’s energy, which will be at a fever pitch: get off to a fast start offensively. UTEP has done it in the past, particularly in victories in 2021 over New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech. Get a head early, play with a lead and let a very good defense go to work. Hardison will be the key here; the third-year starter at quarterback showed at times a year ago that he has what it takes to be an elite QB in Conference USA, but too many turnovers cut the Miners at the knees in a few games. To beat North Texas, Hardison needs to be at his best on Saturday. He says he’s made a lot of improvements in the offseason; UTEP needs that to be the case.
  3. Control the North Texas running backs and make Austin Aune beat them: North Texas has a solid stable of running backs they would like to rely on in Oscar Adaway, Ikaika Ragsdale, Ayo Adeyi and Isaiah Johnson; they rushed for 183 yards vs. the Miners in 2021. If UTEP lets them get loose on Saturday, it could spell doom. Instead, the Miners need to control the ground game and make North Texas quarterback Austin Aune beat them. Aune completed just 51% of his passes in 2021 and had nine interceptions.
  4. Force at least two turnovers: In six of UTEP’s seven wins a year ago, the Miners forced at least one turnover. If they can get two of them vs. North Texas on Saturday, it could spell success. The defense will be playing with a sellout crowd behind it making a lot of noise; that could help them get the job done.
  5. Get at least one big special teams play: UTEP’s kicking game was good in 2021, but they rarely got any big plays in the return game. If UTEP can get anything from its returners, block a punt, execute a trick play, etc. on special teams, it will help them get a victory. Anything in this category will be an improvement over 2021.

Prediction: North Texas is a 1.5-point favorite as of Friday night. In front of a raucous home crowd at the Sun Bowl, UTEP will come out strong and win a very close, competitive game.

Final score: UTEP 28, North Texas 24