UTEP sets sights on Conference USA title after clinching bowl eligibility

UTEP

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – The sounds of the exuberant UTEP football team could be heard echoing around the Sun Bowl deep into the Borderland night on Saturday.

“Bowl game! Bowl game! Bowl game!” For the first time since 2014, the Miners will be bowl-bound, after dominating Louisiana Tech, 19-3, to improve to 6-1, 3-0 in Conference USA with still five games left on the 2021 schedule. UTEP is currently in a three-way tie for first place in C-USA with UAB and UTSA.

The Bulldogs came in with a potent offense and an interesting five-game start to the season, with a trio of close losses to Mississippi State, North Carolina State and SMU. They were a touchdown favorite at kickoff; instead, the Miners put them to bed early in front of over 18,000 fans, scoring two first quarter touchdowns and allowing a suddenly-lights out defense to do its thing, holding LA Tech to 287 total yards and just three points.

“That might be the best defensive performance that I’ve ever been a part of as a coach. Unbelievable. Crazy to see this happen,” said UTEP head coach Dana Dimel.

UTEP is suddenly off to its best start since 2005, when the Miners began the year 8-1. Riding a four-game winning streak into a bye week, the sky is now the limit for the Miners in C-USA. For a team that won just five games from 2017 to 2020, all things seem to be possible.

And it now must be said: on Oct. 17, 2021, the UTEP Miners are firmly in the hunt for a Conference USA championship. As wild as it may have seemed before the season, it is now a possibility that has to be taken seriously.

“We had the record but I don’t know if anyone really wanted to give us any credit, but now you can’t take it away from us,” said Dimel. “They’re a team that went toe-to-toe with SEC schools and no one played them like we played them. That’s credibility for our team.”

UTEP’s offense, particularly wide receiver Jacob Cowing (9 receptions, 166 yards) sliced up Louisiana Tech and would have scored more than 19 points if not for four turnovers, all coming in moments in which the Miners appeared to be marching down the field with confidence to score again.

The aforementioned defense, under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto, forced three turnovers of its own, recorded four sacks, and a safety for the second week in a row. It’s a destructive unit that now ranks 14th nationally in FBS football in total defense, ahead of top-25 programs like Alabama, Cincinnati and Iowa.

“We’re not to be played with; we’re hard working,” said defensive back Tyson Wilson, who recorded one of UTEP’s three interceptions. “We’ll hit you in the face, stop your run game, and we’ll cover you like it’s nothing.”

“We’re here,” added defensive end Jadrian Taylor, who had 3.5 sacks vs. the Bulldogs. “They thought it was a fluke but we just beat a good team, a very respectable team. We held them to three points and that’s a stamp for the conference.”

UTEP clinching bowl eligibility now means that Dimel will be due a $60,000 bonus for leading them there. The fourth-year head coach has led one of the more impressive turnarounds in college football in recent years.

When Dimel arrived from Kansas State in December, 2017, the Miners were fresh off an 0-12 season. Things didn’t get much better in his first two seasons, as the Miners went a combined 2-22. However, there were many flashes that things were improving.

UTEP went 3-5 in the crazy 2020 season that featured just two home games and multiple games canceled or moved out of El Paso due to COVID-19 concerns. The Miners began the year 3-1, before the wild nature of 2020 caught up with them. Dimel felt the entire year that UTEP was close to turning the corner that it has turned this fall.

It has all come together for the Miners in 2021. While Dimel has acknowledged multiple times that UTEP still has plenty of areas to improve upon, the proof is in the pudding; his rebuild has been successful and UTEP could compete for a league championship as soon as this year.

Now in the fourth year of his initial five-year contract at UTEP, Dimel has proven he deserves a contract extension from Director of Athletics Jim Senter, to expand and improve upon the foundation he and his staff have built in El Paso.

With five games left on the 2021 slate, everything is on the table for the Miners. After a bye week on Oct. 23, UTEP will travel to face Florida Atlantic (3-3, 1-1 C-USA) with the chance to improve to 7-1. The Owls have been one of the better teams in the league of late, but appear to be down in 2021. It’s certainly a winnable contest, but perhaps a trap game for the Miners.

Why? Because immediately following that trip to Boca Raton, Fla., UTEP returns to the Sun Bowl Nov. 6 to host No. 24 UTSA (7-0, 3-0 C-USA). If the Roadrunners are still undefeated and the Miners manage to beat FAU to get to 7-1, it would set up an electric showdown in El Paso that afternoon.

The winner would put itself in the driver’s seat to win the C-USA West division with three weeks left. It is without question the toughest game remaining on UTEP’s schedule and for that reason, the Miners must remain focused on beating FAU first.

After the UTSA game, the Miners will play two teams currently under .500: 1-5 North Texas and 2-4 Rice. Those are two very winnable games for UTEP, before they close the season the day after Thanksgiving on the road at UAB. The Blazers (5-2, 3-0 C-USA) are currently tied atop the West division with UTEP and UTSA.

There is still plenty of time for the season to change course for the Miners, but they’ve done enough already to get a benefit of the doubt that they haven’t received in recent years. Don’t be shocked if UTEP is still in the hunt for a conference championship a month from now.

“They better keep their heads up and know how we coming from now on out,” said linebacker Tyrice Knight. “It’s a whole new era around here.”

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