EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Just five games into the 2021 season, UTEP has already won more games than it has in any year since 2016.
After defeating Old Dominion 28-21 on Saturday the Miners are 4-1, UTEP’s best start since 2010, when they also started 4-1 en route to a trip to the New Mexico Bowl. Winning is a relatively new feeling for the Miners in the Dana Dimel era; UTEP (4-1, 1-0 Conference USA) won only five total games in Dimel’s first three seasons, but with a road win over Southern Miss (1-4, 0-1 C-USA) on Saturday, the Miners can get to 5-1.
As of Monday night, UTEP is a two-point road favorite over the Golden Eagles.
“For everybody in the league, it’s going to be a big deciding factor down the stretch run of who does well on the road. So, this is our first road test. It’s a gigantic game for us,” said Dimel at his weekly press conference on Monday.
UTEP is now just two wins away from achieving bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. Six wins would earn them that distinction and if they defeat Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, they would return home to host Louisiana Tech on Oct. 16 for a shot at a sixth win and bowl eligibility.
Not only are the Miners still learning how to win, they’re also still learning to turn the page after big victories. That’s an aspect that Dimel said he wasn’t very happy with last week.
After the Miners got to 3-1 with a 20-13 win over New Mexico on Sept. 25, Dimel said UTEP didn’t practice well leading up to its win over Old Dominion this past Saturday. It’s a point of emphasis this week, because the momentum of a season can shift very quickly, particularly as UTEP heads out on the road.
The Miners have not won a Conference USA road game since 2018, though they did snap a 15-game C-USA losing streak with the win over ODU.
In Dimel’s 3+ seasons, UTEP has learned how to bounce back after losses; now, they’re perfecting something new: the art of keeping a winning streak rolling.
“Handling prosperity is much harder than handling adversity. We’ve already learned how to handled adversity and done a better job of that this year,” Dimel said. “Now, we’re learning how to handle prosperity. So, the challenge to the team is that we have a huge game this week, we have to prepare better, turn the page and move on to the next week and not worry about what happened the week before.”
A victory over Southern Miss on Saturday would not only get UTEP to 5-1, it would give them a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2014, when the Miners finished 7-5 with a trip to the New Mexico Bowl.
The Miners may have a golden opportunity to snap a five-game losing streak to the Golden Eagles. In his first season as head coach at Southern Miss, Will Hall could be forced to start third-string walk-on quarterback Jake Lange for the first time due to injuries to Trey Lowe and Ty Keyes.
Lange came in for the injured Keyes in USM’s 24-19 loss to Rice last week, throwing for 304 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Keyes is still listed as the top quarterback on Southern Miss’s depth chart, but it remains to be seen if it will be Keyes or Lange.
The Miners have been growing into themselves in their 4-1 start to the season. CBS Sports has the Miners ranked as the 87th-best FBS team in the nation in their rankings of the 130 FBS football teams and multiple outlets currently have UTEP making a return trip to the New Mexico Bowl. The Action Network currently projects the Miners to play Fresno State, while Athlon Sports has UTEP playing Wyoming.
“We’re proud of where we are but at the same time we’re a humble and hungry team,” said Miners offensive lineman Robert Mervin. “We haven’t skipped a beat in practice. we’re still running and lifting like we should. We’re ready for the next one, ready for bigger and better things at all times.”
Dimel said UTEP came out of the Old Dominion game healthier than they have from any game all year. That includes starting quarterback Gavin Hardison, who was full-go in practice on Monday.
Dimel said the two-quarterback set-up they used in the fourth quarter on Saturday featuring Hardison as the predominant passer and Calvin Brownholtz as a better running option could be used even more in future weeks.
“It makes people prepare for it and we have a lot of stuff to prepare for,” said Dimel. “We practiced it a lot during the week because we like it. Once Gavin had to come out, it forced our hand. Once Calvin got in, we said, ‘these are good run plays.’ It allowed us to get more rhythm in our run game.”
Elsewhere on offense for the Miners, wide receiver Jacob Cowing currently ranks fifth in FBS football in receiving yards (585), sixth in yards per game (117/game) and third nationally in yards per catch (24.4 yards/catch). He continues to be a huge weapon for UTEP every week and recorded his ninth career 100-yard performance vs. the Monarchs.
Defensively, UTEP has been much improved through five games under the new scheme of first-year defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto. Currently ranked 31st in total defense in all of college football, the Miners have already forced eight turnovers (three interceptions, five fumbles) and recorded 11 sacks, while giving up just 23.8 points per game.
That number includes the 54 points UTEP allowed in its lone loss to Boise State, a 54-13 defeat on Sept. 10. Remove the Boise State game and the Miners are allowing just 16.3 points per game.
Additionally, that total turnover number is the same at the Miners managed in the entire 2020 season and just two less than the 10 they forced in 2019. The Miners are also already close to eclipsing their sack numbers from the last two seasons (13 in 2020, 12 in 2019) and they are no longer bleeding points the way they did in 2019 (35.9 ppg) and 2020 (31 ppg).
“As soon as coach Peveto got here, he started stressing more turnovers and as soon as he did that, we started forcing more turnovers,” said UTEP defensive back Dennis Barnes. Barnes said that if the Miners don’t get at least three turnovers every practice, Peveto makes them do up-downs as punishment. “That’s what we have to do to flip the momentum as a defense, because as we know, defense always wins championships.”
A balanced offense, an opportunistic defense and limiting mistakes have been the recipe for UTEP’s 4-1 start. If the Miners can continue it, a 5-1 record, plus much more, could be on the table.
It all starts with their first Conference USA road game at Southern Miss on Saturday. Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. inside M.M. Roberts Stadium.