Congratulations to the Miners for breaking the longest losing streak in college football. Let us never speak of 2017 or most of 2018 again, starting in a few paragraphs.
Let’s take a look back at 2018, no we won’t just focus on the Rice game so maybe hide the kids for 11/12th’s of the rest of the season.
What Went Right…
Hats off to Mike Cox and the UTEP defense. The Miners showed tangible gains in 2018, improving in total defense from 108th in 2017 to 65th in 2018, allowing over 50 yards less per game. The Miners allowed fewer points, fewer explosive plays, and improved immensely on 3rd down.
Oregon transfer A.J. Hotchkins developed into one of the better linebackers in the country with 126 stops, good enough for thirteenth in the FBS. He teamed with fellow senior Jamar Smith to form a very serviceable linebacking group. The Miner secondary showed it’s age and experience with Nik Needham setting a school record with 33 passes defensed. Kalon Beverly and Kahani Smith put together strong senior seasons as well.
Chris Richardson and Mike Sota played well on the defensive front, Richardson doing so after sitting out last season. Trace Mascorro moved to defensive end and adjusted well by the end of the season.
On offense, UTEP quarterbacks played much better than in 2017, even if the level of play was still less than average. JUCO transfers Kai Locksley, and Brandon Jones both showed promise at times. Locksley’s usage rate was among the highest in the country as he carried the offense for most of the season until injuries caught up to him. Jones climbed up the depth chart and threw for 340 yards against Western Kentucky, the highest total for a UTEP quarterback since 2013.
Junior running back Quardraiz Wadley put together a solid season, becoming the Miners best big-play threat. Wadley had four games with over 90 yards rushing and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. UTEP found a reliable target in tight end David Lucero. The senior had a career season with 20 catches and a 16 yard per catch average.
On the offensive line, injuries decimated the Miners before fall camp ever broke, but several young players showed promise and depth will be better in 2019. Zuri Henry stood out as a true freshman playing left tackle for most of 2018, he showed a lot of upside. Redshirt freshman Bobby DeHaro made Honorable Mention All-CUSA at guard.
What Went Wrong…
For UTEP the gap between competitive and blown out, like most rebuilding teams, comes down to turnovers. UTEP couldn’t hang on to the football in 2018 to the tune of seventeen more turnovers than takeaways. 17% of Miner possessions ended with an opponent taking the ball away.
On offense, if UTEP wasn’t handing the ball back via turnovers, they were handing it back on third down at a higher than average clip. The Miners got behind the chains too often, allowing 92 tackles for loss including 42 sacks, 127th worst in the FBS.
You can chalk a lot those issues up to a young offensive line finding its way; you can also chalk it up to inefficient quarterback play. For the second season in a row, the Miners completed less than 50% of their passes. The FBS average is 60% completion rate.
The Miners still averaged less than the national average in yards per rush in spite of rushing the ball on nearly 60% of their offensive plays. While Locksley is an explosive player, the Miners must develop other ball carriers to limit the load. Locksley only played in nine games and injuries limited him in a couple of others, but he still carried the ball 111 times, second-most on the team.
In UTEP’s first five games Locksley rushed nineteen times per game, in his next four appearances he averaged just over three carries per contest. UTEP diversified its offense out of necessity, if Locksley’s the starter in 2019 they’ll need to find a balance between his explosiveness and becoming too predictable.
Defensively, the UTEP was on the field too long, both due to their inability to stop opponents and because their offense couldn’t sustain drives. Depending on how you judge turnovers, whether they are created, luck, or some combination, the Miners didn’t produce nearly enough of them, just 11.
Special teams are still an issue, field goal kicking remains an adventure, and the Miners took a step back in punt average. UTEP finished dead last in college football in field position, having to account for 74% of the field. The Miner offense averaged just 1.1 first downs per possession.
Checking Our Work…
At the beginning of the season, we projected UTEP’s 2018 football schedule, predicting two to three wins depending on the Rice game. The Miners ended up 1-11 beating pesky Rice. We missed on two of our presumed wins. FCS Northern Arizona boat raced UTEP 30-10 in the opener. The Lumberjacks finished the season 4-6. We also thought UTEP could take care of a rebuilding New Mexico State in El Paso. We were wrong. The Aggies won by seven, one of three NMSU wins in 2018.
As we close the book on this UTEP season, we are reminded of the depth of the pit that UTEP is climbing out of. Dana Dimel went through an unmanufactured year zero. From here he can start building to win on the field. To do that he’ll need another good recruiting class and to keep his coaching staff, by in large, in place.
Next season a rebuilt and more experienced offensive line, plus an experienced and underrated defensive front could form the framework for the rebuild.
(Cover photo via Rudy Gutierrez, El Paso Times)