In the good ole days, Pablo Villa and I wrote for the UTEP sports talk blog, Turn Up the Orange. Going through the archives, the prescient Pablo Villa, way back in 2009, wrote that UTEP needed to schedule UTSA early and often, before they joined Conference USA, so that UTEP could establish dominance and stay ahead in the recruiting battle.
UTSA shows up to El Paso on Saturday a full-fledged member of Conference USA. And if UTEP loses now, it’s not hard to see how that could be a crushing blow to the Texas recruiting efforts of new UTEP coach Sean Kugler.
So, four years after that 2009 post, what is Pablo’s prediction for Saturday? Here are his thoughts:
Before going into my spiel here, a tip of the hat to Jay is in order for renting out space on El Paso’s latest and greatest blog. Jay is one of the best at provoking thought and all-around rage with his writings. Hope all of you enjoy the stuff he shares.
Now with regard to Saturday, yes, I’ve deemed UTSA a threat to UTEP since it first announced it wanted a football program in February 2006. I expressed that notion on our old blog various times. I was called paranoid, an idiot and threatened with physical violence at least twice for even hinting that the Roadrunners could be on UTEP’s level someday soon. Guess what? That day has almost arrived.
The only thing left to ice it is a UTSA win on Saturday in its first-ever Conference USA football game. And the Roadrunners may be closer to that than many people think. So, in the vein of an old weekly feature on Turn Up the Orange (but with a legally distinct name), let’s look at Four Keys to the Game: UTSA.
— Don’t believe the hype about UTEP’s defense: Much has been made this week about the Miners’ marked improvement against the run — UTEP held NMSU to 99 yards on the ground in a 42-21 win last Saturday a week after allowing 395 yards to New Mexico in an overtime loss. A 296-yard improvement sure sounds great. But not when you realize NMSU ran the ball 38 fewer times than New Mexico. And the Aggies still averaged 5.2 yards per carry. That “improvement” was a product of facing a different offensive style, not shoring up your front-seven scheme. UTSA doesn’t solely rely on the run. But, behind a beefy offensive line, the Roadrunners’ Evans Okotcha, making his first career start, should be able to find some running lanes. And if success is allowed there, the passing game is sure to follow.
—About that passing game: UTSA has a solid aerial attack led by quarterback Eric Soza. The Roadrunners have averaged close to 300 yards per game through the air. And that’s with games against Oklahoma State and Arizona included. Arizona’s defense is particularly stout, currently ranked No. 23 in the country. However, Earon Holmes is the only UTSA wideout on the depth chart taller than 6-feet. If UTEP’s secondary can muster up some physicality, the Miners should be able to limit big plays. Cornerbacks Ishmael Harrison and Adrian James, both 6-feet tall, face a big task Saturday.
—But UTEP can move the ball, too: Coach Sean Kugler was touted as the man who’d bring a toughness never before seen to El Paso. That hasn’t been more evident than on the Miners’ offensive line. UTEP’s big uglies play nasty. Gone are the days of quick linemen who dart around slanting and trapping their way to create lanes for running backs. These guys come at you. And so far, they’ve cleared paths for the Miners’ running-back-by-committee to the tune of 286.5 yards a game. But they haven’t faced a defensive front as physical as UTSA’s. If the Roadrunners disrupt UTEP’s rushing attack, Jameill Showers must be allowed to run with the football in passing situations if the opportunity arises. Showers is a phenomenal athlete and can loosen UTSA’s defense if he is given leeway to run free.
—The X factor: Whether the players know it or not, this game has ramifications far beyond football. Yes, the winner lays claim to bragging rights and an edge in recruiting. But a UTSA win would damage the psyche of El Paso, a city that has to defend itself against ill-informed notions that it doesn’t match up socially and economically with its fellow state dweller 500 miles to the east. If UTEP loses, it has to live with the infamy of being the first Football Bowl Subdivision school in Texas to allow UTSA to visit its house and walk away with a win. Some argue that UTEP has been through these battles for Texas before, that Houston and Rice posed the same threat when they joined Conference USA as UTSA does. I don’t agree. Houston and Rice have had football programs for decades. Houston has a Heisman Trophy winner. Rice hosted a Super Bowl. Both schools are former members of the famed Southwest Conference. There’s history there. UTSA has no history. The Roadrunners are looking to write their own. And UTEP could be on the bad end of it. And what would that mean for the future? As of Wednesday, the Miners are 1-point favorites. Will they give El Paso the win it sorely needs?