Football Breakthrough? UTEP Miners End Dry Spell with Key Late Plays

Game days in the Sun Bowl Stadium have a new look – and sound. Just ask the visiting Houston Baptist team. The UTEP band, along with the student section, are now strategically located, so they can be more easily heard by the visiting team.  

By Mark S. McDonald, Senior Analyst, Railbird Division

Thinking, back and forth: By the end of August 2019, UTEP already has won as many games this year as it has the past two seasons, combined. Recognize progress when you see it.

Back: For 3½ quarters, the Miners entertained a Sun Bowl Stadium crowd of 34,646, with an erratic offense and a defense just good enough to nose ahead of Houston Baptist. Then, as prime-time entertainers do, the Miners closed out their teeter-totter performance with a 36-34 comeback victory that left the sweaty audience watching through parted fingers.

Forth: These are competitive matches the Miners tend to lose. But in front of the largest opening crowd since the Mike Price era, UTEP just might have found a new placekicker, a bony sophomore named Gavin Baechle who nailed a 35-yard field goal for the go-ahead points. It was his first-ever attempt as a collegiate. Clutch.

Back: Normally reliable Walter Dawn gargled a second half Houston Baptist punt on the UTEP 10, with the Miners already trailing 25-20. UTEP faithful winced and tried to shake recent memories of similar meltdowns.

Forth: Seconds later, the Miners, unlike so often before, showed a flair for the dramatic, holding the visitors to a field goal. Denying a near-certain TD, this left UTEP’s deficit still manageable at 28-20. Next, the Miners scored back-to-back TDs to retake the lead many thought was gone for good.

Back: HBU has a QB from Victoria named Bailey Zappe who can make all the throws you will ever see on an ESPN Saturday Game Day. His acrobatic receivers caught 27 of Zappe’s 37 attempts. At times, UTEP’s mix of zone and man-to-man defenses was made to look allergic to white jerseys.

Forth: HBU drove toward the go-ahead points with six minutes left when the UTEP defense, poked and pestered most of the night, came up with a massive play. Senior Chris Richardson — at 6-3, 298 one of the few Miners D-linemen who looks like a true Division 1 body — burst into the windshield of a red-hot Zappe, stripped him of the ball. Teammate Justin Rogers curled around the precocious pigskin. End of the most immediate threat.

Back: This is where UTEP’s offense so often has withered, stalling and/or making a crucial mistake. Not this time. Led by a rebuilt O-line, the Miners hogged the ball the final 5:58, converting two third-and-long situations. It is telling that the Miners protected a slim lead by driving the ball, melting clock, forcing the opponent to burn times out. The ending was any O-lineman’s dream — with your team camped in enemy territory, and clock winding to 0:00. Hugs all around.

Forth: The Miners appear to have better team speed, a major bugaboo since winning their first home game since 2016 (vs. North Texas). Receiver Tre’Shon Wolf may not be an Olympic sprinter, but he’s faster than HBU defenders, as he proved in an 80-yard TD catch that gave UTEP an early lead. More of the same flavor, please.

For Houston Baptist last Saturday, returning kicks against UTEP’s high-impact James Tupou was a hair-raising experience. (photo by Briana Sanchez, El Paso Times)

Back: Reckless sophomore linebacker James Tupou of Allen covers kicks as if his hair is on fire. In his case, there’s plenty of fuel for the flame. Miners senior QB Brandon Jones has waited for this moment, to play behind a healthy O-line. He threw an interception returned for a Huskies TD, but eluded the pass rush to finish 10-for-20, for 268 yards. That’s 13.4 yards per attempt, good enough to win in just about any man’s league.

Forth: Houston Baptist gives 63 scholarships, UTEP 85. These are contests the Miners are supposed to win. Gotta have these. But remember last year, when UTEP lost a similar matchup vs. Northern Arizona? This time, fans left the stadium last chanting — “UTEP! …Miners! … UTEP! … Miners!”

Back: The risk is to place too much value on this opener. Conference USA relevance might not be attainable this season. It may be 2020 or even 2021, before the Miners play meaningful league games in November.

Forth: A Lubbock appointment with Texas Tech, now coached by Matt Wells, looms ahead on Saturday. UTEP fans will remember Wells from the New Mexico Bowl when, then at Utah State, he fielded a cohesive unit that relied on blocking and tackling. Miners fans can expect the same from Tech.

Only this Tech team has a QB named Alan Bowman who’s the best pure passer this side of the NFL. Bowman torched Montana State for 40-for-55 for 436 yards. If the Miners don’t burn some clock with an efficient running attack of their own, Bowman might go for 600 yards.

When the football team gathers in front of the marching band and UTEP dance team, it can only mean the Miners have just won. The band is directed by Kenneth Capshaw.

Summary: With the band blaring, the crowd engaged, the stadium alive … the new-look Sun Bowl still under construction looked and felt like D-1 football. In only his second year, the ideas of Athletic Director Jim Senter and his bright-eyed staffers appear to be taking root. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, these Miners give the inkling that, in Coach Dana Dimel’s second year, UTEP has begun to climb out of the college football dungeon.

It is written. May it be so.

New Tailgate Regs & the Gag Reflex

Let the whining resume. Already, World Headquarters here has received multiple complaints about UTEP’s new restrictions (and the cost) of game-day tailgating on campus. Such gnashing of teeth is rarely heard beyond the Washington, D.C. Beltway.

You would think UTEP was alone in searching for ways to compete in the arms race of intercollegiate athletics. Administrators are working every angle po$$ible.

Our crack research staff is reminded of TCU fans kneeling at the Wailing Wall when informed they must — gasp! — start paying for parking at the Amon Carter Stadium.

Now that the Horned Frogs are firmly entrenched in the Big 12 (Minus 2), free parking rests peacefully in the same drawer of pleasant purple memories as Bob Lilly and Jim Wacker. Winning cures the bellyache.

It says here UTEP football remains a bargain for the entertainment dollar. Sixty bucks — for the season. Go to a Cowboys game at Jerry’s World and see what $60 will get you.

For the full list of UTEP’s 2019 football game day fan and tailgating policies, visit <tailgating.utep.edu>. Health advisory: Tedious lawyered-up language ahead. Reading the regs has been found to cause cancer in laboratory rats.

{The editor is a UTEP grad and two-year football lettermen. Teammates had to remind McDonald that helmet and shoulder pads were for playing tackle football, not two-below. To comment or smother him with email praise, write mark@DustDevilPublishing.com.}

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s