Time and Date: Saturday, December 18 2021 - 2:15 pm EST
Broadcast Network: ESPN
Location: University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Spread: Fresno State -11.5, per DraftKings*
Point Total: O/U 51.5
ESPN FPI: Fresno State 80.1%
All-Time Series: Fresno State leads 8-3-1. UTEP won the last meeting 24-21 back in 2004.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
UTEP Miners Outlook
No one ever wants to admit it in sports, but sometimes the truth is it’s just nice to be there... UTEP has finally earned their first bowl berth since the 2014 season. No matter what happens on Saturday, this season has been a major achievement for Head Coach Dana Dimel and the Miners. UTEP was able to use a 6-1 start to their season to reach bowl eligibility despite winning just one of their last five games.
While the Miners have struggled against the stronger opponents on their schedule, they do have ample talent at key positions to keep this game close. Quarterback Gavin Hardinson has struggled with accuracy (56% completion) but has developed a strong connection with deep threats Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett. The duo has combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Tyrin Smith has also emerged as a thread deep threat as he’s totaled four touchdowns on a 17 yard per catch average.
Despite a strong season from junior Ronald Awatt (803 yards on 5.6 YPC), the Miners have been relative ineffective rushing the football. A lack of holes up front has prevented UTEP from picking up yardage consistently, leading Deion Hankins to be limited to 3.7 yards per carry this season after rushing for 4.9 yards per carry in 2020.
Defensively the Miners are led by a menacing defensive line. Praise Amaewhule and Jadrian Taylor are excellent pass rushers, while Keenan Stewart is a powerful run stopper. UTEP also has an excellent safety in Dy’Vonne Inyang. The senior JUCO transfer has picked off three passes this season while also collecting 49 tackles.
Fresno State Bulldogs Outlook
Sitting at 9-3 on the year with wins over #13 UCLA and #21 San Diego State, Fresno State has clearly seen a higher level of success on the field than UTEP this season. That said, we can more or less throw out that previous success heading into this game. After winning 16 games in Fresno over his first two seasons, Bulldogs Head Coach Kalen DeBoer has left the program to lead the Washington Huskies in the Pac 12. While Fresno State has brought former Head Coach Jeff Tedford back for their 2022 season, the Bulldogs will be playing under an interim coach this week.
Interim Head Coach Lee Marks will also have to decide on an interim quarterback. When news of DeBoer’s departure to Seattle broke, Fresno State star quarterback Jake Haener submitted his name into the NCAA transfer portal as rumors swirled that he would be following DeBoer to Washington, where Haener started his collegiate career.
While Haener has withdrawn his name from the transfer portal, it seems he will be missing the bowl game as he told Fresno State fans he would “see you in ‘22” in a recent video posted to Haener’s social media. As Haener collected 96% of the Bulldogs’ passing yardage in 2021, the team is left without a proven “next man up”. Logan Fife completed 7 of his 13 pass attempts this season, while freshman Jaylen Henderson went 5-8 in his game action.
With UTEP having one of the stiffest run defenses in the country, whichever starting quarterback Lee Marks decides upon will likely need to move the chains with their arm. Wide outs Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly lead the way for the Bulldogs’ passing attack, but 10 different players have caught a touchdown pass this season, leaving Fresno State with plenty of options out wide.
Fresno State’s running back duo of Ronnie Rivers (788 yards on 4.9 YPC) and Jordan Mims (545 yards on 5.6 YPC) will need to step up to take pressure off of the Bulldogs’ passing game.
A strong traveling UTEP fan base will give the Miners a boost, especially at the beginning of the game as a patch-work Fresno State coaching staff and offense attempts to find its footing. I think the Miners’ defense will really make life difficult on Fresno State’s rushing attack, but ultimately Fresno State’s edge in talent will be enough to give them a close win as UTEP covers the spread.
UTEP 23 Fresno State 27