PUBG New Mexico Bowl: First Look At The UTEP Miners
The Fresno State Bulldogs will face an old WAC foe in this year’s New Mexico Bowl. Here’s our first look at how the UTEP Miners got here.
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Are the Miners a fluke or is the progress for real?
The Mountain West’s bowl season will kick off in Albuquerque on December 18 when the Fresno State Bulldogs take on the UTEP Miners. It’s something of a vindication for the Miners and El Paso, long one of the hardest places to win consistently in college football, as the program spent the last four years building to this point and took a lot of lumps in the process.
So what should the Red Wave expect when they start looking ahead to this matchup? Here is our first look at UTEP.
2021 UTEP Miners — Team Profile
Conference: Conference USA
2020 Record: 7-5 (4-4 MAC)
SP+ ranking: 90th (97th offense, 78th defense)
FEI ranking: 98th
Sagarin rating: 129th
Head coach: Dana Dimel (12-32 overall)
2021 in a nutshell: The Miners emerged in the first half of the season seemingly out of nowhere, racing to a 6-1 start that saw them take care of business against teams like New Mexico, Southern Mississippi, and Louisiana Tech which were on their way to down years.
The second half of the year wasn’t as kind and UTEP dropped four of their last five decisions, but the seven-win campaign represented the program’s best result since 2014 when, coincidentally enough, they earned a spot in this very same bowl. More to the point, it also surpassed the team’s combined win total from 2017 to 2020, so while the rebuild isn’t yet complete, it’s right on schedule.
Best wins: vs. Old Dominion (6-6), vs. Rice (4-8), at Southern Mississippi (3-9)
QB Gavin Hardison
Hardison wasn’t the most efficient quarterback in Conference USA, but he generated enough explosive plays to help the Miners keep defenses off-balance all year long. Among the 12 quarterback in the conference who had at least 200 pass attempts, the redshirt sophomore from Hobbs, New Mexico had the second-best yards per attempt average (8.9) and 31 total pass plays that went 30 yards or more. By way of comparison, Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe had 34 such plays, but he needed 307 more attempts to get them.
WR Jacob Cowing
When the Miners needed a haymaker, Cowing was their best bet to deliver one. According to Pro Football Focus, his 90.9 overall grade ranked third among FBS receivers, behind Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore and USC’s Drake London. In more traditional terms, he is also just one of two pass catchers in the country (Alabama’s Jameson Williams is the other) to have caught at least 60 passes while averaging at least 20 yards per catch. If nothing else, that established him as one of the nation’s premier deep threats.
Jacob Cowing just ran past the entire Boise State defense 🔥@UTEPFB is on the board in the second quarter pic.twitter.com/dskcfDVuMH
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 11, 2021
LB Tyrice Knight
Knight was one of two Miner defenders named to Pro Football Focus’s All-Conference USA team and, frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Among qualifying linebackers, his 79.1 grade ranks fourth in the conference because he proved able to do a little of everything on the field.
On the season, Knight picked up 87 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles, emerging as the defense’s most disruptive playmaker.
DT Keenan Stewart
Stewart was the other Miner defender named to PFF’s all-conference team for a much different reason: There were few players in Conference USA as capable of clogging up running lanes in the trenches. He finished the regular season with 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and two sacks, cementing his reputation as an interior force.
DE Praise Amaewhule
Another key cog in the Miners front seven, Amaewhule is more than capable of bringing heat from the edge and did so this year to the tune of 5.5 sacks and a team-high 13 tackles for loss. He also tied for the team lead with seven pass breakups, not an easy thing for a defensive end to do, and forced three fumbles, one of just five defenders in Conference USA to accomplish that feat.
Strip and score @Praise_2K (Praise Amaewhule) @breonh_ (Breon Hayward) gives UTEP a 21-7 lead over Southern Miss 💥
🖥️ > https://t.co/SlC4DTQFae (ESPN3) pic.twitter.com/EIg6Wj1eA0
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) October 10, 2021
The Miners made fairly significant strides in a number of ways from 2020 and averaged 5.95 yards per play during the regular season, good for fifth in Conference USA and their best such effort since 2016. The offensive line, while not stacked with all-conference performers, remained impressive in pass protection and allowed a sack rate of 5.1% (35th in FBS), which enabled Hardison to improve his YPA average by nearly two full yards from the previous season.
Cowing and fellow receivers Justin Garrett (49 catches, 650 yards, four TDs) and Tyrin Smith (30-509-4) give the Miners a reliable and dangerous trio who can stretch the field. On the other hand, the Miners ground game wasn’t quite as effective as it was the previous year. Deion Hankins, the team’s leading rusher in 2020, battled injuries throughout the season and averaged just 3.65 yards per carry.
Some of that was offset by Ronald Awatt‘s efforts, as he led the Miners with 814 rushing yards on 144 attempts, but UTEP enters the bowl game among the bottom ten teams nationally in stuff rate allowed and opportunity rate, which isn’t necessarily good news for a team which ran the ball about 58% of the time on early downs.
In terms of yards per play allowed, the Miners defense took a big step forward in 2021 by allowing one fewer yard per play than they had in 2020, finishing fourth in CUSA with 5.13 YPPA. According to Parker Fleming, UTEP ranked fifth in the country with a 35% success rate allowed, as well, but there’s little doubt they got pushed by tougher competition: In seven wins, the Miners allowed 4.48 YPP; in five losses, they allowed 5.97 YPP.
Most of the established talent is in the front seven, with Knight and all-conference linebacker Breon Hayward cleaning up where Stewart, Amaewhule and others cannot, but the Miners secondary knew how to be stingy, too, and allowed only 6.7 yards per attempt with an opponents’ completion rate of 54%. Veteran safety Dy’vonne Inyang (three INTs, seven passes defended) and sophomore cornerback Torey Richardson (one INT, seven passes defended) spearhead a unit that broke up 50 passes throughout the year, the second-most in Conference USA.