UTEP to host C-USA leader UAB

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THE KICKOFF

UTEP (0-7, 0-3 C-USA) hosts UAB (6-1, 4-0 C-USA) for the first time in nine years on Saturday in the Sun Bowl. Kickoff is at 5:30 p.m. MT. The teams are squaring off in the Sun Bowl for the third time since UTEP joined Conference USA in 2005. Previous matchups in the Sun City took place on Nov. 19, 2005 and Oct. 31, 2009. UAB maintained its first-place standing in C-USA’s West Division with a 29-21 victory over North Texas last Saturday in Birmingham. The Blazers have a one-game lead over second place LA Tech, which defeated UTEP, 31-24, a week ago in Ruston. The Miners will be home for three of their last five games, including hosting Middle Tennessee on Nov. 10 and Southern Miss on Nov. 24.

SATURDAY’S OPPONENT

Off to the best start in school history, UAB has followed up an 8-5 campaign in 2017 by making another run at the C-USA title. Last year the Blazers finished 6-2 in the league’s West Division, tying for second place and a game behind champion North Texas. UAB returned 53 letter winners and 20 starters (10 offense/seven defense/three specialists) from that squad. Included in the group of returnees are senior QB A.J. Erdely, the top two receivers from 2017 (seniors Andre Wilson & Collin Lisa) and last year’s 1,329-yard rusher, sophomore Spencer Brown. On defense, UAB has two of its top three tacklers back (senior S Broderick Thomas & junior LB Fitzgerald Mofor) as well as its sack leader from 2017 (senior DL Stacy Keely). UAB has won a school-record five consecutive games, including a come-from-behind 29-21 victory over North Texas last week in which it outscored the Mean Green 19-0 in the second half. The Blazers are allowing 15.1 points per game and have yielded seven or fewer in four of seven games. UAB leads C-USA in scoring defense, total defense (300.4 ypg) and pass defense (163.6 ypg). The Blazers are also first in the league in sacks (3.86 avg.) and opponent third down conversions (.241). The UAB defense rates in the top-10 nationally in sacks (second), third down conversion percentage defense (third), pass defense (seventh), scoring defense (eighth), total defense (11th) and passing efficiency defense (22nd/110.83). Senior DL Jamell Garcia-Williams is responsible for 6.5 of the Blazers’ 27 sacks. He also leads the team with nine tackles for losses. Senior LB Chris Woolbright has added 7.5 tackles for losses and is tops on the squad with 35 total stops. Erdely has completed 92-of-160 passes for 1,370 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Brown is on pace for another 1,000-yard campaign (591 yards in seven games), while three Blazers have 200+ yards receiving — senior Xavier Ubosi (371), Lisa (280) and Wilson (243). The Blazers average 24.8 yards on kickoff returns and 13.0 yards on punt returns. Junior PK Nick Vogel has converted 37-of-43 kickoffs for touchbacks, and he’s a perfect 31-for-31 on extra points. 

THE SERIES

UAB leads the series 4-1. After the visiting team prevailed in the first three matchups between the teams, UAB knocked off the Miners, 21-6, in Birmingham on Oct. 16, 2010. Last year, the Blazers defended their turf once again with a 28-7 triumph at Legion Field. The Miners are 0-2 all-time versus the Blazers in El Paso with a 35-23 loss in 2005 and a 38-33 setback in 2009. 

THE LAST MEETING

A.J. Erdely threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another as UAB defeated UTEP, 28-7, on a brisk Saturday afternoon (Nov. 25, 2017) at Legion Field. UAB put the first points on the board when it drove 43 yards on eight plays, capped by a Nick Vogel 40-yard field goal. UTEP took a short-lived lead as it answered with a 75-yard, eight-play scoring drive. Zack Greenlee connected with Josh Weeks for a two-yard TD pass. With the score 7-6 midway through the second quarter, Greenlee threw an interception to safety Broderick Thomas. That set up a 30-yard scoring pass fron Erdely to Collin Lisa on a third-and-10 play. The Blazers went up 21-7 at the seven-minute mark of the third quarter. The drive went 79 yards on 11 plays and ended with an Erdely 10-yard touchdown rush. The Blazers put the game away when Erdely threw his second touchdown pass, an 11-yard strike to Logan Scott with 4:23 to go in the third quarter, making the score 28-7. The Blazers outgained the Miners 334 yards to 208, as UTEP finished with 107 yards passing and 101 rushing. Alvin Jones, playing in his final game for the Miners, was the defensive star with three tackles for losses and two sacks.

CONNECTIONS

UTEP junior QB Kai Locksley, UAB senior DL Jay Chisolm, UAB senior S Mar’Sean Diggs, UAB senior OL Malique Johnson, UAB senior DL Stacy Keely and UAB senior CB D.A. Williams all played previously at Iowa Western College. UTEP senior OL Bijan Hosseini and UAB senior RB James Noble III are both products of Chaffey Community College. UTEP junior DT Chris Richardson and UAB freshman WR Kevin Davis both played their prep ball at Oak Hills (Calif.) High School. UTEP sophomore OL Gamaliel Barboza, UAB senior WR Sederian Copeland and UAB senior LB Tre’ Crawford all hail from Tyler Junior College.      

LAST GAME

UTEP took LA Tech down to the wire last Saturday in Ruston but Brandon Jones, on for the injured Ryan Metz, overthrew David Lucero in the end zone on fourth and 20 in the final seconds and the Bulldogs escaped with a 31-24 victory. The Miners knotted it at 24 on a 36-yard field goal by Jason Filley with 11:23 to go. On fourth and one at the UTEP 43 with under seven minutes remaining, LA Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith broke free for a 43-yard rushing score that proved to be the difference in the game. The Miners started their final drive at their own 49 with 1:47 to go following a 16-yard punt return by Terry Juniel.  They got to the Bulldog eight, but a 15-yard facemask penalty was a back breaker. LA Tech led 17-7 at halftime. UTEP put together an impressive drive to start the second half but lost Metz in the process. After he single-handedly accounted for 59 yards on the drive (22 passing, 37 rushing), he exited with a possible concussion and in came Jones for his first action of the season. The Bakersfield College transfer scooted in for the six-yard touchdown run to pull the Miners within three at 17-14. LA Tech pushed the lead back to 10 (24-14) on a five-yard touchdown run by Kam McKnight with 7:16 remaining in the third. But the Miners would counter once again with a 12-play, 78-yard drive, capped by a one-yard TD run by Jones to make it a three-point game (24-21) once again. UTEP tied it at 24 on a 36-yard field goal by Filley with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter. Metz completed 11-of-17 passes for 164 yards and Jones completed 7-of-15 passes for 98 yards. A.J. Hotchkins posted 11 tackles for the Miners, who had a season-high four sacks including two by Denzel Chukwukelu.

SO CLOSE

The Miners continue to zero in on their first victory since the 2016 season. UTEP has been in position to win in the fourth quarter in each of its last four games. Last Saturday at LA Tech, it was a 24-24 game with under seven minutes remaining. It marked the first time since the 2016 finale versus North Texas that the Miners were involved in a game in which they were tied or leading in the final period.

LOOK HOW FAR WE’VE COME

This chart illustrates UTEP’s overall improvement from 2017 to 2018.

Category 2017* 2018

Scoring offense 11.8 17.6

Scoring defense 36.8 31.6

Rushing offense 95.6 146.7

Passing offense 134.9 174.7

Total offense 230.5 321.4

Rushing defense 234.3 202.1

Passing defense 212.2 184.3

Total defense 446.6 386.4

Sacks 11 13

Punt return avg. 3.9 5.5

* Final stats for 12 games

OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT 

The Miners have had more yards than their opponent in three of the last four games — NM State (429-311), UTSA (297-278) and LA Tech (356-325). During the four-game span, UTEP has averaged 374.8 yards to opponents’ 335.5. The Miners matched their season high with 24 points in each of the last two contests versus C-USA West heavyweights North Texas and LA Tech. UTEP has scored 20+ points in four consecutive games for the first time since a seven-game run to close out the 2016 season. The 24 points at LA Tech were the most for the Miners against the Bulldogs since the 2013 season, and their most in Ruston since 2004 (44).

DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT 

The Miners gave up 325 yards to LA Tech, the fewest they’ve allowed to the Bulldogs in five meetings at Ruston since 1950 (previous low 343 yards in 2004). UTEP has allowed under 350 yards in three of its last four games. The Miners now rank 65th nationally in total defense (386.4 ypg); a year ago they were 107th (446.6 ypg). 

PASSING PARTICULARS

UTEP had a season-high 19 completions at LA Tech — its most since Nov. 9, 2016 at Rice (19). A season-high nine Miners caught passes against the Bulldogs. The Miners compiled 313 passing yards against North Texas (Oct. 6) and 284 at LA Tech, their most (597) in back-to-back C-USA games since October of 2012 when they had 604 combined versus Tulsa (376) and Tulane (228). The last time the Miners compiled 284 yards passing or more against consecutive C-USA opponents was in 2008 when they did so in each of the last six league games.

WINNING THE 2ND HALF

The Miners outscored LA Tech 17-14 over the final 30 minutes last Saturday. They also outscored UTSA in the second half on Sept. 29 (14-6). It marks the first time UTEP has outscored back-to-back C-USA opponents in the second half on the road since joining the league in 2005. The last time the Miners achieved such a feat in conference play was in 2004 as a member of the Western Athletic Conference (outscored San Jose State 24-13 in the second half, outscored Tulsa 28-13 in the second half).   

COMPETING ON THE ROAD

In UTEP’s two C-USA road games, the Miners were outscored 30-21 by UTSA and 31-24 by LA Tech for an average margin of defeat of eight points. This is significant considering that in their previous 12 league road games over the span of three seasons (2015-17), the average scoring margin was -18.1 points. The Miners have played back-to-back C-USA road games that were decided by nine points or fewer for the first time since 2016 (won 52-49 at UTSA, lost 35-31 at Florida Atlantic), and for only the second time since 2010.

SACK ATTACK

The Miners compiled a season-high four sacks at LA Tech, including two from junior DT Denzel Chukwukelu. The sacks were the first and second of his career. UTEP has 13 sacks in 2018, two more than it accumulated all of last season (11). Senior DE Mike Sota has a team-leading 4.5 sacks, matching the total of last season’s sack leader Alvin Jones.

SECOND HALF SQUAD

In their three C-USA games, the Miners have allowed 575 yards in the first half (242 rushing/333 passing), and 456 in the second half (152 rushing/304 passing). Opponents have averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first half (45 attempts), and 3.4 in the second half (45 attempts). The Miners have allowed 51 points in the first half, and 37 in the second. UTEP has also scored 45 of its 69 points in the second half of its league games, while accounting for 587 of its 1,070 total yards (176 rushing/411 passing) after the break.   

THIRD DOWN “D”

Aiding UTEP’s defensive efforts at LA Tech was a 1-for-10 performance by the Bulldogs on third down. The last time the Miners coerced their opponent into one third down conversion or less with a minimum 10 attempts was UTSA on Oct. 25, 2014 (1-for-14). No UTEP opponent has converted more than 50 percent of its third downs in 2018 after eight of 12 turned the trick last season.

MEET BRANDON JONES

With two quarterbacks — Kai Locksley and Ryan Metz — down due to injuries, UTEP turned to third-stringer Brandon Jones in the second half at LA Tech and he performed more than capably. The transfer from Bakersfield College completed 7-of-15 passes for 98 yards. After finishing off UTEP’s first touchdown drive of the second half with a six-yard scoring run, Jones later led the Miners to another TD and a field goal. Jones rushed for two touchdowns on the night. He is the second UTEP quarterback with multiple rushing touchdowns in a game this season, as Locksley achieved the feat at UNLV on Sept. 8. Overall QB’s have accounted for seven of the Miners’ 10 rushing scores this season, and the seven rushing TD’s by signal-callers are the most for UTEP since 2004 (eight) when Orlando Cruz scored five TD’s and Jordan Palmer three on the ground.

METZ’S DAY AT LA TECH 

QB Ryan Metz completed 11-of-17 passes for 164 yards with a touchdown last Saturday. His .647 completion percentage was his best since Nov. 26, 2016 versus North Texas (12-for-17, .706). For the fourth time in seven games, a quarterback led the Miners in rushing as Metz finished with 28 yards on 12 carries. He was the Miners’ leading rusher for the third time in his career and for the first time since Oct. 3, 2015 versus UTSA (26 yards).

FOSTER FINDS THE END ZONE

WR Keynan Foster (76 yards) has put together back-to-back big-time efforts, setting career highs for receiving yardage against North Texas (76 yards) and LA Tech (84 yards). He has also scored a TD in consecutive contests and leads the Miners with a pair of receiving scores this season. Foster picked up 73 of his 84 yards on the Miners’ first touchdown drive in the first quarter at LA Tech.

WOULD’VE, COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE

The Miners would like to get a few plays back in their last four games. NM State scored the game’s first points (Sept. 22) on a blocked punt return, and the end of the first half was disastrous as the Aggies tacked on another TD with a fumble return. That accounted for 14 of NMSU’s 27 points in a 27-20 Aggie win. Then on Sept. 29 at UTSA, the Roadrunners scored another 14 points off Miner turnovers — all in the first half — the difference maker in a 30-21 game. Against North Texas (Oct. 6), the Miners were driving for a score late in the first half before Ryan Metz threw an interception in the end zone, and Jason Filley missed a 53-yard field goal in the third quarter. UTEP spotted LA Tech the first seven points of the game when Metz was picked off deep in Miner territory. Of the 59 points off turnovers scored by the opposition in 2018, 45 have come in the first half, and the Miners have committed 10 of their 14 turnovers in the opening 30 minutes.  

LOCKSLEY’S 100-YARD GAMES

With 106 rushing yards at UTSA (Sept. 29), Kai Locksley is the first UTEP quarterback to rush for 100 yards twice in a season in 35 years. Locksley ran for 119 yards at UNLV on Sept. 8. Kevin Ward rushed for 100 yards in the first and last game of the 1983 campaign, gaining 125 yards versus New Mexico State and 109 against Weber State. Locksley is the fifth UTEP quarterback to rush for 100 yards in a game since 1980.

RECORD-HOLDER

Senior DB Nik Needham set the school record with his 26th career pass break-up in the second quarter against NM State. He now has 29 pass break-ups. The previous record of 25 pass break-ups was held by Jahmal Fenner, who played for the Miners from 2001-04. Needham’s five pass break-ups in 2018 lead the team.

HOTCHKINS’ SECOND CHANCE

LB A.J. Hotchkins has made the most of his move from Oregon to UTEP. The graduate transfer has led the Miners in tackles in five of seven games, including four double-digit performances against Northern Arizona (13), Tennessee (10), North Texas (career-high 14) and LA Tech (11). Hotchkins ranks 31st nationally and third in C-USA, averaging 9.9 tackles per game. He is on pace to tally 118 stops in 2018. UTEP has had a 100-tackle player just twice in the last eight seasons following a 25-year run with at least one Miner hitting the century mark from 1985-2009.  

SPECIAL TEAMS STAR

Terry Juniel now has 1,817 all-purpose yards (one rushing, 472 receiving, 336 punt returns, 1,008 kickoff returns) in his UTEP career. Juniel needs just 25 kickoff return yards to tie Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. (1,033 yards) for 10th place in school history. Juniel has gone over 100 all-purpose yards three times this season, and leads the Miners with 558 this season. Juniel is 21st in the nation in combined kick returns (393).

UNSUNG HERO

Gavin Baechle has been one of the more valuable newcomers on the 2018 Miner roster. The true freshman has handled kickoffs and has been sensational, converting 18 of 27 for touchbacks (Baechle is averaging 63.6 yards on his kickoffs). 

STELLAR SPECIAL TEAMS

The Miners are third in C-USA in kickoff coverage (43.9 net avg.) behind Rice (45.2) and UAB (45.2). Terry Juniel leads C-USA in punt return average (5.5) and he’s fourth in kickoff return average (19.4). Jason Filley remains perfect on his extra point attempts this season (15-for-15), and he’s 6-for-8 on field goals. Filley is 8-for-9 on field goal attempts from inside 40 yards during his Miner career and hit his career-long 37-yard field goal against North Texas on Oct. 6.   

CONTROLLING THE CLOCK

UTEP ranks 28th nationally in time of possession and fourth in Conference USA, averaging 31:59 per game. The Miners racked up a season-high 40:48 in possession time against NM State (Sept. 22), their top total since Oct. 11, 2014, versus Old Dominion (41:26).  

TRIMMING THE PENALTIES

The Miners averaged 8.5 penalties for 64.5 yards in the first four games of the season. But over the last three contests — all versus C-USA competition — they’ve averaged 5.0 for 42.3 yards, including season-lows for penalties (four) and penalty yards (26) versus North Texas on Oct. 6. 

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

There are nine programs in the FBS, including UTEP, that have sons playing for their fathers. UTEP first-year head coach Dana Dimel has his son, Winston, at fullback. The other eight programs include UAB (head coach Bill Clark and son Jacob), Colorado (head coach Mike Macintyre and son Jay), Tulsa (head coach Philip Montgomery and son Cannon), Navy (head coach Ken Niumatalolo and son Ali’i), TCU (head coach Gary Patterson and son Blake), Middle Tennessee (head coach Rick Stockstill and son Brent), Clemson (head coach Dabo Swinney and son Will) and Old Dominion (head coach Bobby Wilder and son Derek). Winston previously played at Kansas State (2015-17) where his father was the offensive coordinator. The younger Dimel earned a spot on the 2018-19 Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List after garnering All-Big 12 honors each of the last three years. 

THE GRADUATES

Eight players on the 2018 roster are graduate students. They are OL Jerrod Brooks, FB Winston Dimel, OL Derron Gatewood, LB A.J. Hotchkins, QB Ryan Metz, DL C.J. Reese, DL Michael Sota and TE Josh Weeks. 

GETTING IT DONE IN THE CLASSROOM

Twenty players on the 2018 roster were named to the Conference USA Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll this spring for sporting grade point averages of 3.0 or better. They are RB Ronald Awatt, DL Christian Buckingham, QB Alex Fernandes, K/P Jason Filley, RB Reynaldo Flores, LB Stephen Forester, WR Keynan Foster, OL Derron Gatewood, LB Kalaii Griffin, DL Christian Johnson, OL Robert Lazarin, FB Forest McKee, QB Ryan Metz, FB Jonathan Millan, DL Jimmy Quemado, LS Jake Sammut, DB Kahani Smith, LB Sione Tupou, LB Anthony Ulmer and K Brady Viles. Fernandes and Flores were recipients of C-USA Academic Medals for logging GPAs of 3.75 or higher. 

NEXT UP

The Miners will play at Rice on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 1:30 p.m. MT. The game will be streamed on ESPN3.

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