Surprise, Surprise! UTEP Football Leads the Pack (October 2020)

By Mark S. McDonald Sr., editor and railbird deluxe
 
No sooner had UTEP football taken a 21-0 second-quarter lead over Louisiana-Monroe last Saturday when the texts started flying:
 
“Are you watching this game?” wrote a former running back from the Texas Western days. {He was, and I was. He seemed incredulous. Maybe we both were.}
 
Former UTEP lineman now living on the West Coast wrote, “Moving the ball. Digging this.” {Growing up in the free-love era, so he knows love at first sight.}
 
“Impressive,” texted a former UTEP lineman retired to Indianapolis. {This, from an old Navy commander with Vietnam War combat service. He is not easily impressed.}
 
Yes, brethren, the same football program changed its school colors to cantaloupe and navy, has won as many games in September (3) as it had won in the three previous seasons. The 31-6 beat-down of ULM was not even as the lopsided score might indicate. It looked like two teams going in opposite direction, with the Miners on the climb.
 
To date — aside from a 59-3 loss to Texas, in which Longhorn coaches could have mailed in most any score they chose — the schedule has not been loaded with heavyweights. Okay, okay. Abilene Christian and Stephen F. Austin will not make much noise in their Southland Conference, not against the likes of Arkansas State. And and even Texas is likely to get a fender bender or two coming through a balanced, if not overly powerful, Big 12.
 
Still, when your favorite team has been stuffed for decades in the dungeon, with only brief rays of sunlight, you take your victories where you can get them. Consider:
 Louisiana-Monroe gives 85 scholarships, same as UTEP. Last Saturday’s win on the road has been a long time in coming.At long last, UTEP finally looked stable and competitive on offense, especially early when the Miners ran up a 24-0 lead. The Sun Belt Conference (which includes Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Troy, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and Georgia Southern) has improved dramatically in the past 6-8 years. Last winter, the Sun Belt led all conferences in bowl winning percentage. Watch UTEP’s banger Deion Hankins, No. 33 at RB. Check out No. 73 at OG — Bobby DeHaro has shoulders three axe handles wide, and is what his former teammate Derron Gatewood calls “aggressive and a hard worker.” Those two guys could play for anybody in the nation, including the SEC. Both Hankins and DeHaro are underclassmen, with upside personal potential and winning football ahead of them.Miners have two possession-type pass receivers — Justin Garrett and Jacob Cowing — both with a knack for snagging leather in tight spaces. Extra helpings of that, please.For dessert, get you some of this: QB Gavin Hardison looks like he was back in Hobbs, torching Carlsbad, by going 9-for-10 on third down passes, all for seven yards or more … Defense, first time in school history, holds the opponent without a third-down conversion (0-11) … Miners held ULM to 0.5 yards per rush, and managed to pressure to the passer with a four-man rush. Reality checks:

UTEP missed two field goal attempts, one from hand-shake range. In forthcoming conference games, gotta have those points. One recent year vs. LaTech, a missed FG into the wind proved fatal. QB Gavin Hardison is a sophomore and though he shows an arm and strong leadership traits, he is not a sprinter. A work still in progress, he will need a clean pocket to avoid mistakes. Coaches really like this guy, which forced a showy 4-star recruit to leave school, claiming asylum from the China virus. Every team needs a No. 2 QB who’s ready to play. Remember the name Calvin Brownholz. He comes from a deep football background, and you’re going to like him. More on Brownholz later.Among the three victories, none came against a team that played .500 ball last season. None is likely to do so this season either. Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian give 63 scholarships. Neither will contend for their league title. With the China virus forcing schools into rescheduling, UTEP was fortunate to fill those two otherwise empty dates. For too many years, the UTEP defense has not been dynamic enough to force turnovers and keep the Miners in games late. Can this D generate a pass rush, without blitzing? Gambling, of course, leaves the Miners vulnerable to yielding the big play. We are waiting. Show us.A winner at both Wyoming and Houston, neither to be confused with Notre Dame, Dana Dimel did not unlearn how to coach football when he got to UTEP. It only looked that way sometimes. More than once, I have questioned the offense, especially on third down-and-7s when the Miners complete a 5-yard pass. Under the old taskmaster, Coach Bobby Dobbs would have both the QB and the receivers running Sun Bowl Stadium steps. But after 30-plus years in the coaching dodge, Dimel has one of those long fuses. He has more patience than we do. Good thing, too. The 2018 recruiting class (Dimel’s first coming from Kansas State, assembled in a short time span) shapes up like a dud. If you watch closely, you know UTEP players have already proven to be young and impressionable. They can get caught up in distractions beyond football. These would include political gestures in games in support of anarchists looting and burning during street riots. After TDs, can we get back to sharing with teammates spontaneous celebrations? Spare us the predetermined ceremonies, with multiple players gathering in the end zone, their fists raised as if they would rather be raising hell in Portland. Think this is the 1968 Mexico Olympics? What do your personal politics have to do with UTEP winning football games? Fellas, keep the main thing the main thing. 

Prediction: Conference USA appears to be down a tad, just when the Miners are showing a pulse. After this open date, the Miners catch Louisiana Tech, coached by Skip Holtz, son of Hall of Fame dad Lou, as the most consistent program in the West Division. Even with a loss there, UTEP has winnable tests vs. North Texas, Rice and Southern Miss, plus a 50-50 shot at UT-San Antonio. Splitting those four, gives UTEP five total Ws. What if the Miners won five or six? It would stand as one of the sharpest U-turns in the nation. Even with four victories, this outfit appears to be trending upwards. 
 
Caveat: Typically, I roam the August practice field at Ruidoso, N.M., which gives me a field-level view of what the Miners are and are not. No Camp Ruidoso this year. The Miners stayed on campus due to the China virus and $$. 
 
Without having sniffed the sweaty jerseys this season, my perspective may be skewed. Where am I going astray here? What do you think?
 
Chime in at mark@DustDevilPublishing.com. Picks up and viva Miners.

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