Texas El-Paso Miners (4-6, 2-4 C-USA) vs FIU Panthers (4-6, 2-4 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, November 19, 4:00 PM EST/2:00 PM MST
TV: ESPN 3 (Play-By-Play: Erik Elken & Analyst: Jacob Boggs)
Radio: WQBA 1140 Univision Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst Corey Brooks)/KROD ESPN 600 El Paso (Play-By-Play: Jon Teicher/Analyst: Bernie Ricono/Sideline: Mando Medina)
Location: Sun Bowl, El Paso, TX
Betting Line: FIU -14 O/U 51
All-Time Series Record: FIU leads 3-1 (FIU won last matchup 32-17 in 2019)
There’s no two ways about it, the last two weeks have been a setback for Mike MacIntyre’s Panthers in his rebuild of the FIU program — and their surprising bowl hopes in MacIntyre’s first season at the helm.
After back-to-back wins over Charlotte and Louisiana Tech that saw the FIU offense score early and often, the Panthers have been outscored 104-21 — including a disparity of 45-0 in the opening quarters of those contests. During that stretch, the offense has 13 first-half drives that have gone five plays or fewer in the last two weeks with 10 of them ending in either three-and-outs or turnovers.
“Anytime you’re in a lot of third-and-longs, you’re not going to be successful offensively,” said Mike MacIntyre following last Saturday’s 52-7 loss to Florida Atlantic. “And it’s not always running, the short passing game, we just haven’t been able to do it as well as we were for a minute.”
Injuries on the offensive line have caused FIU to rotate several players in and out of positions throughout the season and Saturday shouldn’t be any different. Guard Jacob Peace was injured in the loss to FAU and right tackle Lyndell Hudson was dressed, but didn’t play. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Wyatt Lawson, who has stepped in at center with Julius Pierce in and out of the lineup and tackle Philip Houston, who has filled in at tackle.
Quarterback Grayson James is expected to make his 10th consecutive start after opening the season as the backup quarterback. The sophomore has thrown for 1,906 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but is in the midst of the toughest stretch of his young career — going 28-of-61 for 186 yards and four interceptions over his last two outings.
In order for James to get back on track, the offense as a whole will have to improve on early downs.
In the Charlotte victory, FIU averaged 9.9 yards per play on first downs (nine passes, five runs) en route to a 27-0 first-half lead. The following week against Louisiana Tech, the Panthers averaged six yards per play on first downs (20 passes, 10 runs) in the 42-34 overtime victory. The loss against North Texas saw the number dip to 2.5 yards per play on first down and against FAU, the offense averaged just 3.2 yards.
Keep an eye on wideouts Tyrese Chambers and Kris Mitchell, who are both dynamic threats downfield for the Panthers. Chambers, the Biletnikoff Award watchlist member is the team’s leading receiver with 49 receptions for 535 yards and four touchdowns. Mitchell is averaging 14.7 yards per reception, which leads the team.
Defensively, UTEP will have to account for an FIU pass-rush that’s been up and down during the season, but still features capable edge rushers in Shaun Peterson Jr. and North Carolina transfer Alex Nobles. The front-seven will have to improve on getting to the quarterback and not allowing the amount of time they’ve provided to opposing signal-callers over the past two weeks.
Linebackers Gaethan Bernadel and Donovan Manuel will be tasked with stopping the Miners rushing attack. Both players are among the top-15 in Conference USA in total tackles and tackles per game.
The FIU secondary will look to rebound after a North Texas outing that saw receivers get behind the unit on a pair of busted coverages. Safety Demetrius Hill has 76 tackles on the season, while cornerback Andrew Volmar leads the team in pass-breakups with six.
Dana Dimel’s Miners enter Saturday’s contest with a 4-6 record, but had more grand expectations entering the 2022 campaign following the team’s first bowl berth in several years.
Whether it’s been the departure of star wideout Jacob Cowing to Arizona, linebacker Breon Hayward not being given an additional year of eligibility or quarterback Gavin Hardison’s inconsistency, UTEP has been a seesaw team throughout the season. The Miners are also on a two-game losing streak, dropping a tough contest to Rice last week and falling to Middle Tennessee two weeks ago.
In order for UTEP to get back in the win column, it will start with their rushing attack. Running backs Deion Hankins and Ronald Awatt make up one of the league’s top rushing duos. The pair have combined for over 1,110 yards and five scores on the season and when UTEP’s offense is at it’s best, the run game sets up Hardison to convert manageable down-and-distance situations.
At 6-3, 225-pounds, Hardison has all of the physical tools to be one of C-USA’s top quarterbacks, but has struggled with consistency throughout his career. The three-year starter has a career 53% completion mark, which is right in line with his season numbers. He’s thrown for 2,044 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 52.1% completions.
Despite his up-and-down play, he’s still the best option for Dimel, who are looking at making a game-time decision between Hardison and backup Calvin Brownholtz. Dimel stated during his Monday availability that a decision would be made later in the week. Brownholtz has experience over his four seasons in El Paso, but is much more of rushing threat.
Redshirt sophomore Tyrin Smith has ascended to the number-one wideout spot with Cowing’s departure and is among the league leaders in receiving. The Texas native has hauled in 62 receptions for 882 yards and four scores.
Defensively, the Miners feature several premier players across the front-seven. Defensive end Jadrian Taylor is tied for the league lead in sacks with eight.
“They have a really big defensive line and probably the best pass-rusher in our league in Jadrian Taylor,” said MacIntyre during his Tuesday presser.
Alongside Taylor is Praise Amaewhule, who was voted as preseason Defensive Player of the Year by league media and linebacker Cal Wallerstedt, who is third in sacks with 6.5.
In what’s been a surprising season for FIU, MacIntyre’s team has shown several signs of growth during the season. James has shown flashes of the potential that he was assigned as a three-star quarterback recruit, while several young players have matured quickly while being asked to contribute immediately. With that being said, it may be a tough task to expect the Panthers to find another level in that growth process against a veteran UTEP team who are also fighting for their bowl lives.
This contest should come down to FIU’s ability to stop Hankins and Awatt and how will the offensive line fare against a talented pass-rush presence. Hardison’s availability will also be key. While dual-threat quarterbacks have given the Panthers issues, Brownholtz hasn’t shown any real ability as a passer during his spot duty.
Expect FIU to be more competitive than they were in recent weeks, but UTEP’s experience gives them the edge in the end.
Final: UTEP 27, FIU 20