EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – After UTEP’s 41-31 loss to Louisiana Tech on Saturday in Ruston, the Miners enter their first bye week of the 2022 season at 3-4, 1-2 in Conference USA play.
After Dana Dimel’s squad went to the New Mexico Bowl in 2021 – UTEP’s first postseason appearance in seven years – expectations were through the roof for the Miners this fall.
A 1-3 start did away with a decent amount of the positivity, but UTEP went a long way towards getting it back with back-to-back wins over Boise State and Charlotte. After the loss to LA Tech, though, the Miners are in an interesting position if they’re to make it to consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2004 and 2005, and just the fourth time in program history.
First, a look back at the loss to LA Tech. In its wins over Boise State and Charlotte, the Miners rushed for 199 and 252 yards, respectively. From the early outset of the game, UTEP was able to control the tempo and both games were played at the Miners’ preferred pace.
The Miners ideally want to run somewhere between 55 and 70 offensive plays in a game; in their three wins, they’ve run 57 (New Mexico State), 65 (Boise State) and 59 (Charlotte) plays and won the time of possession convincingly in all but the NMSU game.
However, vs. the Bulldogs, UTEP fell behind 20-3 early in the contest and therefore had to start throwing the ball in order to get back in the game. UTEP still ran the ball 38 times for 181 yards, but quarterback Gavin Hardison was just 23-51 for 320 yards, two touchdowns and three costly interceptions, including a pick-six.
Overall, UTEP had four total turnovers, after they hadn’t turned the ball over vs. Boise State or Charlotte. LA Tech had three scoring drives under 1:35 and their pace forced UTEP to play into the Bulldogs’ hands. The Miners ran 89 total plays, far more than they have in their clock-controlling wins.
Hardison was extremely efficient vs. Boise State and Charlotte; he went 21-25 for 296 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over in those wins. When tasked with a larger workload because of the large deficit, however, Hardison was forced into some turnovers vs. LA Tech.
The Miners’ defense, which has been outstanding for much of the season, played a big role in digging the early hole. LA Tech scored touchdowns on its first three drives, two of which were over 70 yards. Parker McNeil went 18-27 for 266 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Entering a much-needed bye week, the Miners now have an opportunity to get healthy and right the ship with five games to play. They’re one of – if not the – only teams in college football to play seven straight games without a bye and it no doubt weighed on UTEP and may have factored into the loss at LA Tech.
With five games remaining, UTEP will need to go a minimum of 3-4 to reach the FBS minimum of six wins for bowl eligibility. Out of its bye week, UTEP will host Florida Atlantic (2-4) on Oct. 22 at the Sun Bowl, then welcome Middle Tennessee (3-3) on Oct. 29.
After that, the Miners have a short week before a Nov. 3 road trip to face Rice (3-2) on a Thursday night in Houston. After another bye week, UTEP will host FIU (2-3) for Senior Day on Nov. 19, before closing out the season at C-USA favorite UTSA (4-2) on Nov. 26.
The Roadrunners have been a thorn in the Miners’ side for years and even before the season began, it figured to be one of the most difficult games on the schedule, particularly in the Alamo Dome. Expecting a win at UTSA may not be rational, so it’ll be up to UTEP to go 3-1 in its first four games out of the Oct. 15 bye week.
FAU is certainly a winnable game for the Miners, especially with the long trip the Owls have to make to El Paso. They’re just 2-4 on the year and have been erratic, much like the Miners. UTEP narrowly lost to FAU in Boca Raton, Fla., last year, so a win could certainly be in the cards, but this one feels like a coin flip game for UTEP.
If they lose, the Middle Tennessee game on Oct. 29 will take on immense importance. The Blue Raiders have been almost as puzzling as UTEP so far this year. They won on the road at Miami, but followed that up with losses to UTSA and UAB in conference play. Of the two home games UTEP has out of the bye, this one could be the most difficult of the two.
UTEP showed it was capable of beating anyone when it upset Boise State back on Sept. 23, and they’ll have to channel that energy vs. both the Owls and Blue Raiders. The Miners have the talent to get wins in those games; they also have the ability to implode, like they did in road losses to New Mexico and LA Tech.
After the MTSU game, UTEP has the short week road trip to Rice. The Miners easily handled the Owls last year in El Paso, but Rice has been much-improved this season with wins over Louisiana and UAB and a narrow loss to Houston. This game is no longer the easy win it appeared it could be for UTEP before the season. As with FAU and MTSU, at this point in the season, the Rice road trip appears to be a coin flip game for the Miners.
After Rice, UTEP has another bye week Nov. 12, then closes out its home schedule vs. FIU on Nov. 19. The Panthers just won an FBS game for the first time in three years on Oct. 1 over New Mexico State, but the Miners should be favored to win this game. It would be a massive failure if they don’t get the win over FIU.
All that leads into the game at UTSA, which will be the toughest of UTEP’s remaining games. The Miners would certainly prefer to be bowl eligible before they play that game and not leave anything to chance in the final week of the season.
The 3-4 start to the 2022 campaign – especially the stunning loss at New Mexico – means that no game can be considered a given for UTEP the rest of the way. Still, with three of its next four games at home coming off a bye week, the Miners are in a good position to get the three wins necessary to get bowl eligible. This is certainly the most favorable part of UTEP’s schedule; they need to make the most of it in order to achieve the big goal of back-to-back seasons of bowl eligibility.
Prediction: Wins vs. FAU, at Rice, vs. FIU; Losses vs. MTSU, at UTSA. UTEP finishes the regular season 6-6 and goes to a bowl game for a second year in a row.