Time and Date: Saturday, September 12 at 8 p.m. ET
Network: Longhorn Network
Location: Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium — Austin, TX
Spread: Texas (-43)
ESPN FPI: Texas has 99.8% chance to win
All-time series: Texas leads 5-0
Last matchup: Texas 41, UTEP 7 — September 10, 2016
UTEP picks up confidence-building victory
Only 14 FBS teams have played a game this season, yet the UTEP Miners have already tied their highest win total since 2017. After a pair of 1-11 seasons under head coach Dana Dimel, UTEP is back in the win column and starting 2020 off on the right foot.
The Miners defeated FCS program Stephen F. Austin in the Sun Bowl last Saturday, 24-14. It was the first double-digit victory of the Dimel era and UTEP’s first victory by more than one score since November 2016. But it didn’t come without any adversity.
Stephen F. Austin scored on two of its first three possessions to claim a 14-3 lead over UTEP, but the Miners struck back with two touchdowns in the final 2:08 of the second quarter. A fourth quarter interception by Duron Lowe in the end zone sparked the game-sealing Miners scoring drive, and 1-0 UTEP now turns it focus to Week 2.
Matching up with Texas
Week 2 won’t be nearly as easy. The Miners face their toughest opponent of 2020 and enter as 43-point underdogs to the Texas Longhorns on the road in Austin. Texas, 3-0 against UTEP since 2008, is led by quarterback Sam Ehlinger — a physical runner and adept passer posing as one of the nation’s hottest preseason Heisman candidates. Ehlinger has improved each season under center in Tom Herman’s offense, and he’s looking to build on his tremendous 2019 campaign which featured 32 touchdown passes and nearly 3,700 yards.
At the quarterback position, UTEP will try to match Ehlinger with Gavin Hardison. The junior completed 17/28 passes for 212 yards in his first collegiate victory. His growth as a quarterback has already accelerated since his 2019 season finale vs. Rice, and that progress showed Saturday, especially in the accuracy department. Unlike Ehlinger, who rushed for 16 touchdowns during his sophomore year, Hardison has not displayed mobility outside the pocket for UTEP’s offense.
Instead, the Miners rely heavily on their tailbacks to produce on the ground. That worked effectively against Stephen F. Austin, as Deion Hankins took over the contest with 113 yards and two touchdowns. While Hankins earned 17 carries, secondary halfback Josh Fields earned plenty of looks with 11 rushes. However, Fields only produced 24 yards on his opportunities. To find success against an adept run defense like Texas, both halfbacks will need to find success similar to what Hankins experienced last weekend.
Texas’ defense — which is switching from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 this season — presents a slew of problems for the Miners, and the centerpiece of the defense is future 2021 NFL draft pick Joseph Ossai. The defensive end/outside linebacker burst onto the scene in the 2018 Sugar Bowl against Georgia and hasn’t missed a beat since. Ossai finished with 5.0 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 90 total tackles as a sophomore in 2019 and won Defensive MVP of the Alamo Bowl. Not only will UTEP’s running backs have to be wary of Ossai, but the Miner offensive line must prevent him from excelling in the pass rush.
UTEP’s offensive line showed promise in Week 1 by allowing one lone sack, a vast improvement from the unit which yielded nearly three per contest a season ago. Not only do the Longhorns have Ossai, but defensive end Ta’Quon Graham was an expert at invading backfields in 2019. With 10.5 tackles for loss last year, the Miner offensive line will have a lot of talented defensive stalwarts on their plate when protecting Hardison and blocking for Hankins.
Texas recruits extraordinarily well in the secondary, and the Longhorns have an array of athletes at the safety positions. The duo of Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster brings a great deal of speed combined with powerful hitting to the secondary. While Sterns and Foster frequently enter the box, they’ll be tasked with handling Texas’ zone coverage as well. Combatting the Longhorn secondary is UTEP’s receiving group of Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett which combined for 12 receptions in the opener.
Cowing particularly made a mark in UTEP’s first outing, posting 116 receiving yards in the second-best showing of his Miner career. Garrett caught five passes including Hardison’s sole touchdown strike of the night in his 52-yard night. It was promising to witness both receivers on their game last week, especially for a UTEP team hoping to reverse the ineptitude of the passing attack from 2019 (104th in yards per game, 119th in touchdowns).
On the opposite side of the ball, Texas passing game heavily involved wide receiver screens in the past, which worked effectively with Devin Duvernay on campus. Duvernay finished third in the FBS in 2019 with 106 receptions, and Ehlinger must find a new favorite target for the 2020 season. Two candidates for this role are sophomore Jake Smith, who caught six touchdowns on 25 receptions as a true freshman and Tarik Black, a grad transfer from Michigan with 17 games of experience under his belt.
UTEP’s secondary rose to the occasion a week ago, limiting Stephen F. Austin to 133 yards through the air. Cornerback (and kick returner) Duron Lowe came up clutch with a fourth quarter interception in the end zone with an intelligent read on an underthrown pass. Lowe, an All-C-USA honorable mention in 2019, will be instrumental in stopping either Smith or Black from piling the receiving yards on the Miner defense.
The Miners also stifled the run game in the opener, limiting their opponent to under 100 yards on 23 attempts. Only five teams allowed more rushing touchdowns than UTEP a year ago, and the unit must prevent Texas running back Keaontay Ingram from having his sights set on the end zone Saturday. Ingram suffered ankle injury issues a year ago, but managed to average a hair short of six yards per carry. The Longhorn running back was no match for a sturdy Utah defense last defense, as he picked up 134 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 15 touches in the 2019 Alamo Bowl.
Winning a game by double-digits is outstanding progress for UTEP, a program which hopes to emerge from its stagnant 0-12 and 1-11 records and finally start playing competitive football. Unfortunately, Texas is a mammoth of an opponent for the Miners and we may not learn much more about Dana Dimel’s squad from this Week 2 matchup at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium due to the stark contrast between the programs.
In Sam Ehlinger’s last game against a C-USA opponent (Rice in 2019), he posted a near-perfect stat-line of 23/27 for 279 yards and three touchdowns. Protected by potential All-American left tackle Samuel Cosmi, Ehlinger should be comfortable all evening in the pocket and establish a rhythm quickly. Keaontay Ingram and the physical Longhorn offensive line should have their way against the UTEP defense, and Texas cruises to a blowout victory.
The spread is a gargantuan 43 points. Although UTEP is 2-22 in the Dimel era, the Miners haven’t lost by more than 35 points in Dimel’s two seasons. Only two of their 22 losses over the span have been by 30 or more points (2018 Southern Miss, 2019 Texas Tech).
If there’s any silver lining for UTEP, the Miners already have a game in the books to learn from, while Texas could potentially come out rusty, similar to talented programs like Navy and SMU in their respective openers.
Prediction: Texas 45, UTEP 7