5 Things We Learned About UTEP in Their Disappointing Opening Loss to North Texas
There's no sugarcoating it. Despite a solid start, the UTEP football team disappointed the fan base on Saturday night in front of a packed house, falling to North Texas, 31-13.
The city of El Paso held up its end of the bargain. The announced attendance of 45,971 fans at the Sun Bowl became UTEP's first sell-out crowd since the Longhorns came to face the Miners in 2008. The fans even showed up despite a one-hour lightning delay. Due to their letdown loss, there's a case that the Miners will struggle to draw a crowd even close to this all year.
Though it’s only the first game of the season, there were some distinct red flags from the Miners’ performance.
Let's jump into the five things we learned about UTEP in their season opener.
“The overall summary of the game is that we just didn't finish,” UTEP Head Coach Dana Dimel said. “We moved the ball right offensively, but we didn't finish drives. Then defensively I think we got a little bit frustrated. We weren't good enough on third down defensively and after a couple of those drives, we gave up some critical third down conversions for them."
In the first half, the Miners had three missed opportunities where they could've put points on the board. It started on the first drive when kicker Gavin Baechle missed a 42-yard field goal. On their next drive, the Miners drove down to the North Texas 1-yard line and turned the ball over on downs. In an effort to score a touchdown before the end of the half, wideout Tyrin Smith dropped a wide-open pass inside the 5-yard line.
The Miners went into the first half trailing 14-13. They had no business being down at the half considering how they dominated early on.
Out of the half, the Miners failed to score a single point. After North Texas scored on its opening drive in the third quarter, quarterback Gavin Hardison fumbled upon a tough hit by defensive lineman Fatafehi Vailea. Then, on back-to-back drives where they needed points, UTEP turned the ball over on downs in Mean Green territory.
UNT quarterback Austin Aune threw for 236 yards on 16-of-29 attempts and ended with three touchdowns. Their running backs totaled for 41 carries for 163 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The Breon Hayward loss was felt in a big way
Linebacker Breon Hayward didn't suit up on Saturday. The graduate senior is hoping he can get an NCAA waiver to grant him an extra year of eligibility. Unfortunately, the process has dragged on and, despite the team hoping he would be available by week zero, this process could drag on for a while longer, per sources.
Instead of James Neal at the linebacker spot—who was also unavailable—the Miners went with redshirt freshman Jerome Wilson at the MIKE linebacker spot in place of Hayward. Wilson played a fine game, ending with four tackles and a quarterback hurry. However, he isn't Hayward, who was last year's leading tackler and instrumental in the defense's success.
Miner defense needs to be better on 3rd downs
In the first half, North Texas dragged on their drives, converting 4-of-6 on third down. They averaged 7.7 yards per third down. On the other hand, the Miners failed to convert on third downs in the first half, only making 3-of-9 in the first half. The worst one that the Miners let go came late in the second quarter when Aune hit Tommy Bush on third and goal for a 7-yard touchdown strike to give the Mean Green the go-ahead halftime lead.
On the Mean Green's first two drives to open the second half, they made key third down conversions to put this game away. In fact, they scored on a third and goal situation via an 11-yard pass from Aune to Jake Roberts. It felt like North Texas made every important third down conversion that they needed to make in this game.
UTEP gained 399 yards of total offense, and UNT finished with 400. UNT ended up 6-of-12 on third downs, but they started off 6-of-8, which made all the difference.
UTEP might struggle to run the ball all season
Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins combined for just 18 total carries on Saturday night. Awatt led the way with 36 yards on 10 attempts, while Hankins totaled 27 yards on eight carries. The stats showed that the Miners struggled mightily when it came to establishing their ground presence.
Their offensive front failed to create opportunities for the running backs to get out in space. Instead, UTEP had to rely on gimmick run plays, such as the double reverse play that they ran with Tyrin Smith. If tonight was any indication of how the season could go, running the ball could be a weakness of the offense.
The thing we learned about QB Gavin Hardison is...well... not much
We didn't learn much about quarterback Gavin Hardison tonight. Fans will argue that Hardison played an awful game. They'll blame his inconsistent passes, especially in the second half. However, his receivers had their share of drops and the offensive line didn't hold up the way they expected.
Hardison finished the night completing just 21-of-48 passes for 293 yards (44% completion percentage), one touchdown and one fumble. As the game went on, Hardison tried to do too much, which can easily be corrected. He doesn't have to be the hero to the offense. He just has to be consistent.
We didn't learn much from Hardison tonight. We might not learn more in the Oklahoma game. But as this season progresses, we will be able to see if Hardison is ready to take the next step and help this team become a winner without former standout widout Jacob Cowing. Finishing drives in important moments is something Hardison and the offense failed to do on Saturday. I will hold him and the offense accountable for finishing drives in the weeks to come, especially improving their red zone offense.
Next on the Radar: UTEP will face No. 9 Oklahoma on Saturday, Sept. 3 in Norman. The kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. MST and it will be televised nationally on FOX.