UTEP MINERS (3-2, 0-1 C-USA) vs. CHARLOTTE 49ERS (1-2, 1-1 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, October 24th, 12:00 PM ET
Location: Jerry Richardson Stadium, Charlotte, NC
Fan Capacity: 1,072 (7%)
Betting Line: Charlotte -14.5 (O/U 49)
All-Time Series Record: Charlotte 1-0
Previous Matchup: The 49ers rattled off 21 unanswered points in the second half to overcome a 21-7 halftime deficit and sealed the victory with a goal line stand to keep their late-season win streak alive.
Dana Dimel’s unit has already tripled their win total from the 2019 season and has been the surprise story of C-USA thus far. The Miners offense has struggled to find an identity but the defense has put this team in position to win in four of their five contests.
Last week, the Miners battled with Louisiana Tech but 12 penalties and two turnovers late in the fourth quarter kept them out of the win column in C-USA play. Stephen Forester and Praise Amaewhule spearhead the Miner defense that is giving up just 326 yards per game, the second-best in C-USA, behind only Marshall.
The biggest strength of this team is the run defense, which ranks third in the conference giving up 101 yards per game. Dimel’s unit has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher in 2020. The front four of Amaewhule, Keenan Stewart, Jadrian Taylor, and Kelton Moss have accounted for seven sacks and 48 QB pressures. Expect the Miners to get after Reynolds without blitzing as the 49ers have allowed eight sacks in three games.
The offense has been abysmal scoring just 18 points per game, ranking last in C-USA. The Miners have scored just 10 points total in the first quarter this season and that won’t cut it against a 49ers’ unit that has scored first in every contest.
UTEP’s passing game has only accounted for two touchdowns through five games as sophomore quarterback Gavin Hardison has struggled to find his rhythm. The 6-3 signal-caller has a 3-4 record as a starter and is completing 52% of his pass attempts. Hardison is more of a pocket-passer which is a relief for Charlotte, as last year’s starter Kai Locksley gashed the 49ers both through the air and on the ground.
The majority of Hardison’s success has been with short, quick passes as he’s completing only 37% of his passes that travel 10-yards or more in the air.
This team is coming off of back-to-back one win seasons, so winning three of their first four in the weirdest season of college football to date has provided a great confidence boost to both the players and staff.
Winning the turnover battle is something that UTEP has done only once in 2020. Giving the offense short fields and executing on special teams will give them the best chance to head back to El Paso with a victory.
The 49ers are gearing up for their third attempt at a home-opener with a much improved UTEP team coming to the Queen City. Contact tracing and covid cases have canceled or postponed three of the last four scheduled games for the 49ers, with the most recent being FIU last weekend.
Charlotte looked like a complete team for the first time in 2020 against North Texas two weeks ago as the 49ers secured their first victory and conference win with a 49-21 domination of the Mean Green. The energy and momentum that comes with the feeling of victory took quite a hit as Charlotte yet again found out in the eleventh hour that they wouldn’t be playing, but positivity and good energy remain the pillars of this unit.
“We’ve got really good leadership, and I think that they players have handled it that way. Let’s go be our best, and let’s go play the best 60 minutes of football that we’ve played,” head coach Will Healy said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Regardless of whether it’s this week or next week, at some point in time we’re going to get to strap it up again, and when we do we better be willing and ready to take advantage of it based on our preparation.”
In last season’s matchup with UTEP, Charlotte was without their workhorse, Benny LeMay, but quarterback Chris Reynolds put the team on his back accounting for 445 of the team’s 483 total yards, willing the team to victory.
The running back room showed out against North Texas behind the best offensive line performance we have seen this season. With Jonathan Timmons out, Penn State transfer Hunter Kelly started at Center and Jaelin Fisher moved over to LG. The group found their rhythm and created lanes for over 300 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
The matchup in the trenches will be one to watch as UTEP’s front-four is the focal point of a top-15 defense in the nation. The key for the 49ers will be getting the ball out early and having extra guys in protection if needed.
Cameron Dollar played the best game of his career against the Miners last year with nine catches for 157 yards. While he didn’t record a catch in the game against North Texas, his blocking ability as a receiver is top-notch. Expect him to get back on track with a solid showing this week.
Missing games and not being rewarded for full weeks of practice is draining to the players and staff, but you can expect them to be ready to roll Saturday at noon.
Charlotte currently has only two shots at defending home turf in 2020, and I can’t see them not bringing their A-game this Saturday. A one-win UTEP team pushed the 49ers to the brink last year and I think they took that personally. The Miners are only scoring 18 points per game and will need to double that if they plan on staying in this one late in the second half. I’m going with Charlotte 31, UTEP 17.