The Game: UTEP vs. Southern Mississippi
When: Saturday, Sept. 24 – 7 pm CDT
Where: Sun Bowl, El Paso, TX
Radio: Southern Miss IMG Sports Network
Stream: CBS Sports Network
Series: Tied, 4-4
Last season: Southern Miss 34, UTEP 13
Odds: Southern Miss -9.5 (o/u 59)
Two teams coming off of unexpectedly hard losses collide in El Paso on Saturday when Southern Mississippi’s Golden Eagles (2-1) take on the UTEP Miners (1-2).
Although many thought that Southern Miss would enter Saturday’s game undefeated, Troy used a strong running attack last Saturday to beat the Golden Eagles, 37-31.
UTEP also lost last week as Army marched all over the Miners in front of 37,000 home fans. The final score was an embarrassing 66-14.
Army was 2-10 last year.
Golden Eagle coach Jay Hopson said that despite the loss he was proud of his players because “they fought for the entire 60 minutes” while UTEP coach Sean Kugler said he had no intention of hammering his players when it seemed evident they were struggling to regain confidence after a humiliating loss.
Two teams coming from disappointing setbacks. Two teams determined to get on track. Two teams with the same plan for success.
When asked how he plans to get UTEP ready after being routed by Army, coach Kugler said, “We’ve got to get back to playing UTEP football, being physical in the run game, being in manageable third downs, letting other teams make mistakes. We haven’t been playing UTEP football."
Those are not the best words for Southern Miss folks to hear because it was Troy’s physical run game that did them in a week ago. In fact, Troy didn’t need to get all fancy with schemes to the outside because the Trojans found great success in just ramming Jordan Chunn into the heart of the Southern Mississippi defense. Chunn executed the plan to the tune of 176 yards on 36 carries.
The Miners have the conference’s top rusher in Aaron Jones and they are committed to putting the ball in his hands and turning him loose. That means that Southern Miss coaches have their hands full in shoring up a defensive front that Troy exposed last week.
Coach Kugler thinks UTEP can be effective running the football but he is also realistic about how hard that task will be in the face of a Golden Eagle defense that has some dynamic athletes.
“Number 32 (Xavier Thigpen) is extremely long and he leads the conference in tackles for losses,” he observed. “He is a very athletic, probably NFL-ready, defensive end that’s a junior. And they’ve got a safety (D’Nerius Antoine) who is second on the team in tackles. He’s their downhill guy. He’s 6-0, 215. He’s more like a linebacker in there. He is heavily active in the run game.”
Kugler referenced his dissatisfaction that UTEP is minus-4 in turnover margin but, at the same time, he sees that as a potential opportunity because Southern Miss is minus-3 (after being plus-5 last year).
“In my mind they are the best team in Conference USA. They were the Conference USA West champions. They return most of their starters on both sides of the ball. Offensively they are very balanced. They are the number one rush offense in Conference USA.”
Kugler is intent on getting pressure on Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens but he was quick to point out that Southern Miss has only given up three sacks all season.
UTEP openly states its commitment to the run and perhaps that is because the Miners haven’t had much success through the air. In fact, the lack of a passing attack is the reason why Kugler plans to give playing time to sophomore quarterback Ryan Metz. Metz was a high school star in El Paso, but he has only thrown nine passes this season.
When I asked Alex Nicolas of SB Nation’s “Miner Rush” if the decision to play Metz was a signal of a change at quarterbacks, Nicolas’ responded, “It would be fair to assume that.”
If the pinata of a perfect Saturday falls generously on UTEP, then the Miners will win the turnover margin and Aaron Jones will carry the ball 7.2 yards each time he touches it and fans will fiesta long into the night.
Southern Mississippi Outlook
How will USM’s ball carriers do against UTEP’s defense?
Last week against Army, the Miners gave up 419 yards on the ground. Yes---just on the ground. Once you know that, then it’s easy to understand why the men of the military had the ball for over 41 minutes while UTEP had it for less than 19.
The Golden Eagles’ rushing attack is also quite capable of controlling the ball. Ito Smith has carried the ball for over 100 yards in all three games. And, remember how we mentioned that Troy’s Jordan Chunn had 176 yards on 36 carries against Southern Miss? Well, George Payne is USM’s second running back and so far this season, he has 247 yards on 35 carries.
USM coach Hopson is concerned about UTEP’s determination to run the football and he knows the Miners have the ability to do just that.
“They have two really good running backs and certainly we have the upmost respect for Aaron Jones. They’re a good football team. They run the ball well.”
Then, he talked about an even bigger concern. “The biggest thing is we’re on the road in conference. I worry about us more than anything. We’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of our business and being precise in what we do.”
Being precise is not an apt description for the six interceptions that quarterback Nick Mullens has thrown in just ten quarters of play. Nonetheless, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson took the blame for much of Mullens’ slow start, saying it was his (Dawson’s) job to get Mullens into better situations.
“A lot of these guys weren’t here last year. To say that’s not a factor, I’d be lying to you,” Dawson said. “Ultimately, with quarterbacks and wide receivers, it’s about trust.”
If that trust shows up on Saturday and if the game goes anything like last year when Mullens was 23/33 for 277 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, then the all conference quarterback might look back on the weekend in El Paso as the re-launching point of his senior season.
I asked Alex Nicolas of “Miner Rush” how UTEP planned to stop Mullens after failing to do so last year and he told me that because of that game, UTEP changed it’s defensive structure.
“UTEP switched to a more zone based defensive scheme as Mullens picked apart UTEP's exclusive man-to-man coverage last season. 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.”
Both teams are determined to bounce back from those hard losses by running the football.
UTEP has Aaron Jones, the top-ranked running back in CUSA but USM has Ito Smith as the second-ranked.
Southern Mississippi ranks 14th among the nation’s best rushing teams while UTEP is 66th.
It’s vital that UTEP has success on the ground because if the game becomes one of passing, the Miners have little chance of winning as they rank 113th in the nation for passing yardage.
Southern Mississippi is higher in national team rankings as well as in most primary statistical categories.
The Golden Eagles are aware that their turnover margin has gone from plus-5 last year to minus-3 and that it now opens a window of opportunity for UTEP. Coach Hopson has made it clear that his team must take care of the ball. UTEP’s great hope is that Southern Mississippi will continue its reckless ways for one more week.
Southern Miss players are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. “I’m angry!” fumed defensive lineman Dylan Bradley. “I want to go out and dominate this week in all phases. I know pretty much everybody feels the same way.”
AC Index (aciventura.com) has predicted Southern Miss, 45-24. Because I expect Southern Miss to dominate time of possession, I’m going to say . . .
Southern Mississippi 45, UTEP 17