Date: Saturday, November 6, 2021
Time: 9:15 PM (CT); 8:15 PM (MT)
Location: Sun Bowl; El Paso, Texas
Radio: KOFX 92.3 FM (UTEP); Ticket 760 AM (UTSA)
Providers: (TV) Cable, Sling TV, YouTube TV, Fubo TV
(Radio) TuneIn (UTEP); iHeartRadio (UTSA)
UTSA (8-0), Conference USA (4-0). Last game: bye
UTEP (6-2), Conference USA (3-1). Last game: loss to FAU 25-28
UTSA leads the series 6-2
Is it possible to simultaneously win and lose on a bye week? The answer is “yes” if you are the UTSA Roadrunners this season.
Since UTSA beat Louisiana Tech and entered its well-earned bye week, the Roadrunners saw: (1) this game against UTEP get picked up for national broadcast, (2) a massive jump in ranking to 16th in the AP Poll and 18th in the Coaches Poll, (3) unranked from the CFP Poll and removed from the Top 25 on ESPN, (4) a coaching search that threatened to pull head coach Jeff Traylor to Texas Tech in the middle of the season, and (5) a resounding commitment from Traylor to stay at UTSA with the signing of a 10-year, $28 million contract on par with the best of the AAC and the G5.
It seems bye weeks offer more than just rest and recovery. But rest and recovery still matter to sustain successful seasons and the bye week probably came at the perfect time for the Roadrunners.
Surprisingly, UTSA will face a resurgent UTEP Miners team that is having the most impressive season in recent memory. UTEP is 6-2 on the season and firmly in contention for the C-USA West division title, if not the conference championship. The two satellite UT System schools have dominated the Texas college football season, which is why this game was picked up for national television and will be the primary draw for its timeslot. The hype surrounding this game is real, and the fact that there was a chance that College Gameday would come to El Paso, no matter how slim, is astonishing given the state of the programs a mere two years ago.
Dana Dimel is in his fourth season as head coach for UTEP. He took over after the Miners went 0-12 for the 2017 season and in his first two seasons the Miners went a combined 2-22. Now, UTEP is 6-2 and boasts one the best defenses in C-USA. The Miners also have statement wins against rival New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech—not only winning but allowing only 3 points in each game. It is hard to overstate the complete turnaround the program has undergone under Dimel.
The credit behind this season’s success lies with UTEP’s defense, which has dominated in nearly every statistical category. In conference, the Miners rank 1st in total yards given up per game, 2nd in both passing yards given up per game and rushing yards given up per game, and 4th in points allowed per game. For comparison, UTSA’s defense ranks 1st in both rushing yards given up per game and points allowed per game, 3rd in total yards given up per game, but 11th in total passing yards given up per game. It is hard not to see why the teams are a combined 14-2 on the season.
The real difference between these teams lies in the offense. UTSA boasts an elite offense to complement its defense, but UTEP’s offensive output is less stellar. The Miners rank 7th in total yards per game, 8th in both passing yards and rushing yards per game, and 9th in total points per game. Conversely, UTSA’s offense is 2nd in both points per game and rushing yards per game, 3rd in total yards per game, and 5th in passing yards per game.
The Miners are led by sophomore quarterback Gavin Hardison. Hardison has already thrown for 1,876 yards and 10 touchdowns but has also thrown 9 interceptions. He has thrown more yards than UTSA quarterback Frank Harris (1,793 yards), but Harris has thrown more touchdowns (16) and less interceptions (3). Essentially, Hardison can keep up with Harris’s output but is prone to more miscues. In a defensive slugfest—a likely outcome for this game—a quarterback’s value becomes even more important if he can make the small plays. Harris has shown repeatedly that he can make those plays. It will be up to Hardison to do the same for the Miners to have a chance at winning.
UTEP also boasts a dynamic running back duo in Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins. Awatt averages 5.2 yards per carry while Hankins averages 3.8 yards per carry. Combined, the duo have amassed 826 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Jacob Cowing leads the Miners with 811 yards, averages an impressive 19.8 yards per catch, and 4 touchdowns. Cowing’s big play-making ability is evident and has exposed numerous defenses this season already when he and Hardison connect.
But UTSA’s offense boasts more playmakers, and a bye week should help ensure all of them are healthy for Saturday’s matchup. Running back Sincere McCormick alone has more yards than Awatt and Hankins have combined, having amassed 891 yards and 9 touchdowns on 190 attempts. Given McCormick’s usual workload and output he should eclipse the 1,000 yard threshold in El Paso. And in the passing attack, the Roadrunners boast three different receivers that are equally capable of having big games. Zakhari Franklin and Joshua Cephus have broken the 500-yard mark this season, and De’Corian Clark, who saw more action when Franklin was injured, is only 100 yards behind but with over 20 fewer catches.
The Roadrunners have shown time and time again that when one these weapons is neutralized the rest continue to march forward.
UTSA is technically unranked according to the CFP Poll, which is now the leading national poll to determine the collage playoffs. But in practice UTSA is a top 25 team, ranked as high as 16 in the AP Poll and 18 in the Coaches Poll. If UTSA wants to make it into the CFP Poll it will have to continuing winning, starting with UTEP. The Roadrunners have been overlooked before, and Traylor is on record explaining how those slights are motivations for the team. If so, then expect UTSA to come out strong and looking to prove it belongs in the national spotlight.
UTEP may have lost the opportunity to upset a “ranked” opponent but make no mistake, a win over UTSA would easily be the Miner’s best win of the season so far. Dimel has his team playing phenomenal football and UTEP has shown repeatedly that it plays its best games at home. (See New Mexico State and La Tech). A strong showing by the Miners, even without the win, could keep momentum going through the regular season by demonstrating that UTEP’s season is not a fluke.
I expect both teams to come out tough in all facets of the game. It will likely be a defensive struggle at first, as both teams will probably shut down the others’ offense, before UTSA begins to pull away. UTSA has not been stopped offensively all season and Harris has shown that he can make the big plays when it counts. UTEP’s strongest chance to win will be to force turnovers and make enough big plays to outlast UTSA’s offense. Unfortunately, that has been every teams’ best chance to beat UTSA but none have succeeded. The Roadrunners should be well prepared to overcome those challenges and stay undefeated.
Welcome to the Sun Bowl!
UTSA 37, UTEP 20