EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – After a much-needed bye week that helped multiple key players get healthy, UTEP will square off with New Mexico on Saturday in what could be the biggest game of the Dana Dimel era to date.
At 2-1 entering its fourth and final nonconference game of 2021, the Miners will get what amounts to a litmus test against the Lobos. New Mexico (2-1) is in year two under Danny Gonzales and appears to be an evenly-matched opponent; the Miners are slim 1.5-point favorites as of Monday night.
UTEP and UNM have played similar schedules. Both have wins over New Mexico State and FCS programs – Bethune Cookman for UTEP, Houston Baptist for the Lobos – to go along with losses to opponents that completely overpowered them (Boise State and Texas A&M). For two programs on the rise, Saturday will be an indicator of how good they are, or how far they have to go, entering conference play.
In 2020, the Miners managed to achieve a 3-1 start, but getting to the same place this fall would feel much different. A year ago, UTEP beat two FCS teams (Abilene Christian and Stephen F. Austin) and a struggling UL-Monroe team. This time around, a 3-1 start would feature two of the best wins Dimel has had in his fourth season with UTEP.
“I think it’s a big game for us because we just see what a win can do for us right now. A win could put us at 3-1 again opening up another season. It would be gigantic for us,” said Dimel. “It would get us heading to [Conference USA] play with a big, a big momentum swing. So, I think it’s a big game that way.”
If UTEP starts 3-1 for a second straight season, it would be the first time since 1987-1988 that the Miners have accomplished that feat. It would also set them up for even more.
After the Lobos come to town, the Miners will play host to Old Dominion to open C-USA play. The Monarchs are currently 1-2 on the season, but did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19 after a 1-11 campaign in 2019. A win in that game appears to be a distinct possibility. After that, UTEP will hit the road to face Southern Miss (1-2) on Oct. 9. The Miners played the Eagles very tough in their last meeting in 2019.
All told, if UTEP can defeat New Mexico in a difficult, but very winnable game at the Sun Bowl, a 5-1 start is not out of the question. They’re taking it one game at a time, but the Miners seem to be very aware of how pivotal Saturday vs. the Lobos will be.
“We’re playing it like it’s the Super Bowl, like always,” said Miners senior wide receiver Justin Garrett. “Coach Dimel continues to challenge us to play our best game. We’re three games in and still yet to play our best game, with four quarters of dominating and doing what we’re supposed to do.”
In UTEP’s last outing against Boise State on Sept. 10, the Miners lost 54-13 thanks in large part to six turnovers, four of them by quarterback Gavin Hardison. Simply put, Hardison has to be much better against the Lobos for the Miners to win and Dimel acknowledged as much at his press conference on Monday.
If Hardison can take care of the football, UTEP’s receiving corps has been dynamic, particularly Jacob Cowing, who has 13 receptions for 293 yards and three touchdowns this season.
New Mexico will bring a talented roster to El Paso. Quarterback Terry Wilson is a graduate transfer from Kentucky who began his career at Oregon. The running back combo of Bobby Cole and Americas graduate Aaron Dumas has proven to be a dynamic duo through three games for the Lobos.
“They’re very multiple in what they do offensively, we have to be very sound to be able to defend against them, they have a lot of different ways they can attack you,” said Dimel. “They have a quarterback that played at the SEC level and a bevy of running backs. They’re very talented running backs that are difficult to stop, so they’ve got some good depth in the backfield.”
Dumas was the Lobos’ leading rusher with 10 carries for 49 yards in UNM’s loss to Texas A&M last Saturday. El Paso’s single-season rushing touchdown record holder will certainly be motivated to have a big game playing in his hometown.
UTEP will get its own Sun City prep star back against the Lobos. Deion Hankins will be back in the lineup on Saturday after missing two games with an injury. Hankins leads a loaded Miners rushing attack that also features Ronnie Awatt, Willie Eldridge and Quardraiz Wadley. Even without Hankins for two games, the Miners lead C-USA in rushing (596 yards, 198.7 per game) and are 31st nationally in that regard.
Dimel said at his press conference Monday that UTEP should be nearly at full health against the Lobos. The only player he ruled out was safety Justin Prince, who hasn’t played since the season opener at New Mexico State.
UTEP is hoping for a big crowd at the Sun Bowl in its first showdown with the Lobos since 2014. The Miners will be wearing slick Texas Western throwback uniforms that were unveiled on Monday.
“It’ll be a huge momentum builder for opening conference play at home. It’ll be a great crowd and a great atmosphere. I’m looking forward to that,” said defensive end Praise Amaewhule.
While a week four game certainly won’t decide the outcome of UTEP’s season, 3-1 looks a lot better than 2-2 and will undoubtedly set the Miners up well for the weeks to come. Win on Saturday and the possibility of a bowl game is all the more feasible.
“Everyone thinks this is an evenly-matched game,” said Dimel. “For us, it’s a huge challenge to get another Mountain West team in here and have a chance to play against that level of competition. It’s a huge opportunity for us but also a big challenge.”
UTEP and New Mexico will kick off at the Sun Bowl at 7 p.m. on Saturday, with the winner putting itself in a fantastic position entering conference play.