UTEP faces a tall task in Norman against the seventh ranked Sooners. For Sean Kugler 2017 is a pivotal year. Will UTEP's patience hold for another sub .500 year? For Kugler, it's best not to find out. The Miners were an improved team at the end of 2016, just not enough to get to a bowl game. They lost Aaron Jones, Hayden Plinke, and Cole Freytag to graduation.
With those losses and a rebuilt roster, UTEP travels to Big 12 favorite Oklahoma. If the Miners are going to keep it close, here's what might help.
Use Your Greatest Asset
UTEP's offensive line is big, physical, deep, and talented. Sean Kugler has built and groomed this unit. All-American Will Hernandez is the headliner, but the rest of the group aren't bad either.
At times, Brent Pease gets a little cute offensively. A trip to Norman isn't the time for cute; it's time to line up UTEP's best group and see if they can push Oklahoma around. Which brings us to our second point...
Shorten the Game
Lincoln Riley and the Oklahoma offense will try to run upwards of 80 plays on Saturday. They want to go fast and capitalize on as many possession as possible. Riley is also a bit of a boutique play caller. He lost the plot last season against Houston and let his two best offensive assets, Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon, sit idle. Instead, he placed the ball in the hands of Baker Mayfield. We've talked about Brent Pease's tendency to get too cute, Riley demonstrates that trait as well.
For UTEP to match Oklahoma possession for possession is a recipe for a body bag game. The Miners need to run the ball, move the chains, and eat clock. Leave Mayfield and his talented offensive line on the bench. Any play UTEP can drain that keeps the Sooners under eighty is a step in the right direction.
Win First Down
If UTEP is going to keep it close in Oklahoma, they'll need to put the Sooners behind the chains. Early last season Mayfield forced passes and made poor decisions. The Miners will need to keep Oklahoma as one-dimensional as possible and limit the playbook.
Simplify and Run to the Football
UTEP's defense is chock full of young, unproven, but talented front seven players. The defensive line features three second year players, but the Miners are bigger and more athletic if not seasoned. Perhaps the best group on defense is UTEP's linebacking group led by inside backers Alvin Jones, Dante Lovilotte. Outside the Miners are raw but athletic with Dylan Parsee and Wake Forest transfer Julian Jackson turning heads.
If you're raw and athletic on defense, then the best course of action is to simplify your scheme and turn your athletes lose. Tom Mason needs to minimize thinking so his players can maximize their freedom to run to the football and make plays.
UTEP is replacing All-Time Leading Rusher Aaron Jones who accounted for 80% of the Miners Rushing Yards in 2016.
Oklahoma is replacing Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon who accounted for 76% of the Sooners 2016 Rushing Totals.
Dede Westbrook, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was targeted on 28% of Sooner passes in 2016, the next highest Sooner receiver was Mark Andrews at 13%.
UTEP's 2016 3rd down defense ranked 83rd in the FBS (41%).
Oklahoma's 3rd down defense ranked 94th in the FBS (43%).