EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – UTEP’s first bowl game in seven seasons will be old news for redshirt senior Walter Neil Jr. He’s about the only Miner that will feel that way.
As UTEP (7-5) gets ready to play Fresno State (9-3) in the PUBG MOBILE New Mexico Bowl on Saturday at 12:15 p.m. in Albuquerque, Neil Jr. is the only Miners player that has ever taken the field and seen action in a bowl game.
A native of Lawton Okla., Neil Jr. began his collegiate career at Kansas State, before rejoining Dana Dimel at UTEP as a graduate transfer for the 2021 season. While with the Wildcats, Neil Jr. traveled to three bowl games, playing in two of them.
Neil Jr. experienced two bowl victories with K-State – the 2016 Texas Bowl win over Texas A&M and a 2017 Cactus Bowl victory over UCLA. He saw action in the win over UCLA and also in the Wildcats’ 2019 Liberty Bowl loss to Navy. He was redshirting in 2016 when the Wildcats defeated A&M.
“It’s just another game in the season we prepare for, but the fandom is different,” said Neil Jr. “A lot of fans tend to come because it’s like a vacation for them. It’s cool playing a team you’d never play in your conference.”
Only one other player on UTEP’s roster has even been on a team that made a bowl game; wide receiver Nick Ast was a teammate of Neil Jr.’s in 2019 at K-State, but did not play in the Liberty Bowl.
It’s been on Neil Jr., then, to shed some light for the rest of the team about what to expect in a bowl atmosphere. From the on-the-field experience, to the off-the-field events, Neil Jr. knows better than anyone else what going to a bowl game is like.
“When we travel we have to emphasize that we know we’re going to win a game, not going on vacation. We’re going to play a football game so it’s definitely harder (to stay focused),” said Neil Jr. “It’s more fun. Of course you have to lock in like a conference game but it’s fun to play somewhere unfamiliar with guys going out and playing their games.”
Neil Jr. has been an immense boost to UTEP in his lone season in El Paso. He’s started every game for the 7-5 Miners, making 28 tackles with a fumble recovery as a lock-down cornerback. Opposing offenses have largely stayed away from him; he’s got just two pass breakups this season, which is as big of a compliment to his play in 2021 as any statistic would be.
Dimel and UTEP defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto have sung Neil Jr.’s praises all season and swear by him. With Neil Jr. shoring up one side of the field in the secondary, it’s made everything easier for the Miners’ defense.
“Walt’s been such a great addition to our team. The guys lean on him,” Dimel said. “Having him around, providing the experiences and being able to share what these guys will go through once we get to the bowl site is really going to be valuable for our football team.”
A member of the 2014 Oklahoma Class 5A state champion MacArthur Highlanders, as well as a bevy of really good Kansas State teams under Bill Snyder, Neil Jr. has done his fair share of winning in his career that has now extended into six collegiate seasons.
However, Neil Jr. is fully aware of what is at play on Saturday in Albuquerque, as UTEP looks to snap a 54-year bowl losing streak. Being a part of the Miners’ first bowl win since 1967, Neil Jr. says, would be more special than any other win he’s had in college.
This would be number one for sure. I’ve been to bowl games but with this one, there’s something more at stake for me personally,” said Neil Jr.
UTEP is an 11.5-point underdog entering its first bowl game since 2014. They’ll need Neil Jr.’s experience, plus his play on a solid Miners defense to help slow down Fresno State’s offense to finally win another bowl.
The Miners and Bulldogs kickoff the 2021 PUBG MOBILE New Mexico Bowl at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday afternoon at DreamStyle Stadium. UTEP will leave for Albuquerque on Wednesday morning and practice in the Duke City that afternoon, in addition to Thursday and Friday morning.