UTEP’s moved beyond just trying to break their season plus losing streak. The Miners fight for competitiveness week in and week out. They suffer growing pains, see the first half of Western Kentucky last week, but this team generally plays with effort. The Miners wrap up their 2018 season with a home date against the Golden Eagles of Southern Miss. Here are a few keys.
Who’s the Quarterback?
Kai Locksley needs bionic ankles at this point. The JUCO transfer struggles to finish games at this point because the of the banging he’s taken thus far. Few quarterbacks took the punishment and had as high a usage rate as Locksley. Last week was a low point. The Hilltoppers picked off Locksley’s first two pass attempts he completed more to Western Kentucky than to his own team in a one completion on nine attempts night with three total picks. Locksley's first ten dropbacks were either sacks, incompletions, or interceptions.
Brandon Jones threw for a sneaky wild 340 yards last week in relief/splitting reps with Locksley. 300 of those yards came in the second half on eleven completions out of nineteen attempts. He added two scores. Dana Dimel lists Locksley as his starter, but if Dimel’s playing the hot hand, he’ll turn to Jones.
Of UTEP’s three quarterbacks in 2018, including the recently retired Ryan Metz, Jones holds the highest QB rating and averages a robust nine yards per attempt. We suspect this will be Jones game on Saturday; he gives UTEP the best chance to win.
Farewell Jamar and A.J.
UTEP’s linebackers are as solid a duo as you’ll find in CUSA. Jamar Smith and A.J. Hotchkins will suit up in the orange and blue for the last time Saturday afternoon. Hotchkins, a grad transfer from Oregon sits in a tie for ninth nationally in total tackles at 117, 10.64 per game.
Jamar Smith, a senior transfer from Holmes JC in Mississippi by way of Georgia, stepped in as a starter earlier in the season and gives the Miners a nice compliment next to Hotchkins. He’s a bit more direct to the point of attack, but he’s a thumper.
The Miners, with the influx of Hotchkins and the development of Smith, linebacker is a position of strength, filling the void left by Alvin Jones.
As to the Game
For UTEP offensive success comes down to taking care of the football first and foremost. The Miners are -13 in turnover margin. UTEP isn’t good enough to lose the turnover battle and win the game.
Second, yardage on first down is critical. If UTEP can get ahead of the chains, they can create splash plays by using their entire playbook. UTEP’s quarterback play isn’t stellar, heck it’s below average, but they are light years ahead of last season. If Jones or Locksley stay in second and third and manageable, they are much more capable. Ask them to do too much, and UTEP doesn’t have a shot.
Jack Abraham will start at quarterback for USM. He’s been a bit of a revelation for the Golden Eagles. He missed the Marshall and UAB starts but returned last week, completing 83% of this throws. On the season he’s leading CUSA with a 73% completion rate and sits second in yards per game. Where UTEP may be able to make some hay is if they can force Abraham to throw picks. He’s thrown ten on the season, second worst in CUSA.
If you want a barometer, watch the USM’s rushing game. The Golden Eagles get a CUSA worst 28% of their yardage from the ground game. In wins, they rush for a paltry 3.5 yards a carry, but in losses, they fall off a canyon at 1.9 yards per attempt. In three November games, USM averages 1.3 yards a carry. If UTEP can stop the Golden Eagle's running game, that’s a big part of the winning formula.
One more thing, USM is playing for a bowl game bid. That motivation combined with the long road trip will make this an interesting psychological study.
We think the Miners can get another scalp this season on Saturday.