I had an opportunity to get with Alex Nicolas, senior editor of SB Nation’s Miner Rush. The UTEP football program has been dealing with the aftermath of a tough loss to Army last weekend and Alex was quite frank with his comments and opinions of the Miners’ chances against Southern Mississippi on Saturday.
Q1) One of UTEP's best defensive weapons seems to be freshman (rs) Gene Hopkins coming off the edge. Southern Miss has two new tackles who have played well but probably not seen anyone like Hopkins yet. What is Hopkins' health status and availability on Saturday after his ankle was injured against Army?
Yeah he's really came along strong the past two weeks, and his status is up in the air for Saturday with that ankle injury. UTEP has really struggled in creating pressure off the edge, but Hopkins has provided a boost the past couple of weeks, and earned his snaps as a projected starter going forward. Without Hopkins, expect more blitz looks, but UTEP is also looking to rectify their stagnant pass rush without blitzing if possible.
Q2) Southern Miss won last year's game in Hattiesburg 34-13 after Nick Mullens threw four touchdown passes. He now has at least one touchdown in his past 19 games and he's passed for over 200 yards in 30 straight games. Last year, D.J. Thompson had 10 receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns against UTEP and USM has since added Florida State transfer Isaiah Jones. How will UTEP try to stop Mullens and the Golden Eagles' effective passing attack?
They will try to stop all that offensive action with their base 3-4. I remember saying on a podcast that Southern Miss is the main reason UTEP switched to a more zone based defensive scheme as Mullens picked apart UTEP's exclusive man-to-man coverage last season.
UTEP did a decent job of protecting against the deep ball against Texas, and NMSU's spread attack, showing that the 3-4 zone coverages force passing games to earn their yards. Open field tackling could become a factor especially against speedsters with size like Thompson, Jones, and Ito Smith. I think UTEP's defense will actually fare well against Southern Miss if they can find something of a pass rush, and play keep away with their run game.
Q3) UTEP coach Sean Kugler mentioned on Monday that sophomore quarterback Ryan Metz would begin to see some playing time. Do you think that moves signals the winds of change at the position?
It’s fair to assume that.
Zack Greenlee will again start, but is not at 100% health wise, and Kavika Johnson has struggled as his backup through the first three games. A lot of people around the program think Metz is the Miners' best passing quarterback, and it appears he may finally get the opportunity to show that.
If Greenlee struggles mightily and/or gets dinged up again, I think you will see Metz, but it's clearly Greenlee's job to lose at this point.
Q4) Coach Kugler named USM's Xavier Thigpin as "probably NFL-ready” at defensive end. Last week, the junior standout had four tackles for a loss. It seemed like he was in on every defensive play. Do you think UTEP's offensive line can deal with Xavier without special help and, if not, what kinds of schemes might UTEP devise?
UTEP will make some adjustments along the defensive line for Thigpin this week, but also because the offensive line has been struggling in a lot of different areas so far.
The main thing that seems to be a concern is the Golden Eagles "radar" pre-snap scheme since UTEP has really struggled in picking up blitzes pretty much all season long. Pre-snap identification will be a big point of emphasis this week.
Scheme wise, UTEP might use quicker blocking techniques off the edge, and leave running backs to help keep Thigpin playing patty-cake, instead of punishing quarterbacks. But this is a major area that could play into another UTEP offensive struggle if this isn't cleaned up this week.
(Q5) On a personal note, what do you like the most about attending UTEP games? (My Xbox tells me its one of the best settings in the nation and fan blogs say facilities are beautiful; among the best. But maybe it's the hotdogs or tailgating.)
As a media member, the UTEP press box spread is one of the best in the nation.
As a fan, seeing the Sun Bowl come to life with tailgating, the diehard fans, and the pride people take in UTEP makes it special.
Of course the backdrop with the mountains, the sun set, and beauty of the UTEP campus, and athletic facilities is a sight to see, and the Sun Bowl just makes me feel at home since I have going to games since the early 90's as a youngster.
UTEP is a basketball first school, but for those of us who follow both, there is nothing like a Saturday evening of 80 degrees weather and live college football right in front of you.
Q6: How do you see this game going and what kind of final score do you think we're looking at?
I think UTEP's defense is still the strong point of this team, even though Army plowed right through it. I feel UTEP's defense can contain Southern Miss, but the biggest concern is UTEP's offense sustaining drives.
UTEP will start fast and pissed off on defense, but it's hard to see the offense getting back on track against a talented front seven like Southern Miss'
UTEP fights for a half or so, but Ito Smith closes it out in the second half.
Southern Miss 33 UTEP 14
I want to thank Alex Nicolas for giving us a look at the UTEP program and sharing his thoughts on how the Miners will fare against the Golden Eagles.
We will have a full preview later this week of the Southern Miss at UTEP game.