Analysis: UTEP gives itself a chance for special football season
The UTEP football teams path to a successful season hinged on two parts of an equation.
First, the Miners had to bank some wins early against the most manageable portion of a schedule that toughens as the season progresses. After beating Old Dominion on Saturday to improve to 4-1, that's a big check mark.
Then UTEP had to turn that into belief, into momentum, into a knowledge that these aren't the same Miners.
That was a big takeaway in the aftermath. UTEP still has to put action to words, something they've done so far, but the Miners have come away with the message they needed to come away with.
"We can be in any predicament and we can find a way to win," said receiver Justin Garrett, who once again made the spectacular look routine with every catch he made. "That takes us far, it keeps us up. Find a way to win."
Coach Dana Dimel expounded on that.
"Our football team expected to win, that’s when you make a big turn," he said. "That’s a big stride for a football team. We’ve taken ourselves to that point where no matter what happens in a game, we expect to win. That’s gigantic."
What's notable about the last two victories is how UTEP overcame some bad situations.
Other than struggles to run the ball on first down, the Miners played almost as well as they can play for 29 minutes in bolting to a 17-0 lead on three long possessions.
That evaporated, starting with the Monarchs' 41-second, 75-yard touchdown drive against the clock to end the half, then two touchdowns in 60 seconds in the third quarter to bolt in front. The lead-taking touchdown was on a blocked punt, something ODU is singularly good at (four blocked punts in five games this year).
When the UTEP offense floundered for the first time all game on the next possession, the Miners were in trouble. The snowball was tumbling down the mountain, and in that situation, typical UTEP is to get flattened by it.
Instead, Dennis Barnes got his first career sack to give the Miners the stop they needed. UTEP stopped a snowball before it was an avalanche.
"A sudden change is something you can't help in a game," Barnes said. "You have to go out and fight for it. That blocked punt gave them a lot of momentum. The defense had to go out and make a play and we did.
"That was my first sack ever. That was a big play for the team. That was a great call by the DC (defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto). At that time a blitz was what we needed. That sack was big for us."
As for the winning touchdown drive, a general rule of UTEP football is that you've never seen it all, the Miners can always come up with something new and bizarre. Yes, there it was on the winning drive.
Starting quarterback Gavin Hardison departed to the locker room with what looked like an injured shoulder. Then he came back out as backup Calvin Brownholtz started running Wildcat plays. A UTEP run game that had been dormant came to life.
Then third and long, back came Hardison to convert it with a pass to Garrett. Brownholtz came back to engineer several productive runs, then Deion Hankins was at Wildcat for the score. The two-point conversion was Hardison to Garrett on another one of those plays where Hardison stayed calm for an inordinately long time in the pocket, waiting for something to come open.
That sequence defines "finding a way to win."
Hardison showed his toughness, and the assumption is he'll be fine next week against Southern Miss. As for Brownholtz, at one point the UTEP sideline was lobbying for a targeting call when he was clocked in the head. Brownholtz explained to Dimel that he likes getting hit in the head.
"It's great to see those guys gut it out, continually working hard," Garrett said. "Gavin is banged up, he's coming in delivering great balls. Calvin stepped up in a big way. It was a great team effort.
"Being that good o-line we have, no matter who is at quarterback, they can all make it happen. We have full trust in every quarterback on the roster. One guy gets in and makes the most of the opportunity, continue to fight."
More generally, Garrett said, "We have a lot of good leadership on our team. Positive leadership, and we had no doubts in our mind we were going to win that game, that nothing would keep us from winning that game."
Also helping was a vastly improved defense that continues to make plays while bringing blitz after blitz. Turnover and sack numbers are improving, and UTEP's base defense gave up 150 yards.
The other 132 yards were on two two-minute drills, which the Miners need to improve on. That bit them at the end of the first half last week against New Mexico as well.
Special teams had some struggles, but punter Joshua Sloan had two big punts in the second half to pin Old Dominion deep, both pivotal plays.
This is a team that feeds off each other. The offense inspired the defense with its resilience, the defense kept UTEP in it throughout, the special teams bounced back from adversity.
This is the mark of a good team. The Miners have more to do to prove they are good starting this week at Southern Miss, but there is a foundation.
"The locker room vibe is amazing after a win," Barnes said. "Everyone was dancing, singing, hyped about the win. But as soon as we leave the locker room, it's next game up. Southern Miss is going to be a big test for us."
UTEP is a maturing team, and while many more good things have to happen to get it to the New Mexico Bowl, the Miners are on that path.