clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Know Your Opponent: UTEP Miners

The Miners will look to secure their second bowl bid in three years after coming one quarter short in 2022.

UTEP v UTSA Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Eleven more days until Rutgers Week, and 11 more teams for us to break down. We’ll keep on moving down Northwestern’s schedule with the first non-conference opponent on the docket: the UTEP Miners.

The Basics

Returning Production: 65% overall (67% percent of offense, 63% of defense) (55/133 overall)

2022 Record: 5-7 (3-5 C-USA)

Coach: Dana Dimel

The Stats (via ESPN’s Bill Connelly)

2022 SP+ Overall: 98th

2022 SP+ Offense: 95th

2022 SP+ Defense: 92nd

2022 Capsule

UTEP was coming off a seven-win season in 2021, which ended a seven-year bowl game drought that included a 2-34 stretch. With 71% of their production set to return the following year, it seemed like there was a good chance the Miners could keep the fun going in 2022.

They came a win short of making that happen, partially due to some inexplicable losses. After starting 0-2 with losses to North Texas and Oklahoma, UTEP beat New Mexico State and headed to New Mexico for a chance to reach .500. Instead, it lost by 17 points to a team that would go on to finish 2-10.

Quarterback Gavin Hardison and the offense caught fire in the next two games to take down Charlotte and a 10-win Boise State squad, only to follow that up with a 41-31 loss to 3-9 Louisiana Tech. That bumpy rhythm only got rougher through the final couple weeks; the highs were nice, but the lows plunged remarkably low. Hardison suffered a season-ending injury with three games to play, and a loss to Middle Tennessee cast bowl game chances into doubt.

Yet, with just 38 minutes left in its regular season, UTEP seemed to have steadied the rollercoaster. It had routed FIU for its fifth win a week earlier, and led 24-0 on the road against a UTSA team that would go on to notch 11 wins. The Miners were on track for their first victory against their rivals in six seasons. Even better, it would give them the chance to secure consecutive six-win seasons for the first time in almost two decades.

UTSA didn’t even need the fourth quarter to make that all come crashing down. A 70-yard touchdown pass evened the score at 31, the ensuing UTEP drive ended in a red zone interception and the Roadrunners completed the comeback with a field goal as time expired.

It was one game, but a microcosm of the season nonetheless. Dana Dimel’s team flashed signs that indicated it would sustain its 2021 success, but couldn’t perform consistently enough to position itself in the upper half of Conference USA. With three All-C-USA Second Team players, Hardison and his leading receiver in Tyrin Smith set to return, the Miners still have a chance to make that happen in 2023.

Offensive Overview

Outside of Smith, who racked up 1,000 receiving yards, UTEP’s offense wasn’t awesome last season. Hardison, who will be a senior this year, slightly regressed in almost every statistical category compared to 2021. The team finished second-to-last in the conference with 24.4 points per game, and ranked near the bottom in offensive efficiency and touchdowns.

While Hardison and Smith will return, the offense could suffer due to the loss of All-Conference First Team right tackle Jeremiah Byers. He transferred to Florida State this offseason, which could hurt the run game drastically. Further, the Miners will lose Ronald Awatt — the leading rusher of their two-back committee — leaving Deion Hankins as the undisputed lead tailback. Even with limited carries, Hankins was an All-C-USA Second Team honoree in 2022, so unleashing him as the bell cow could do wonders.

Whether UTEP throws the ball a ton or continues to be multidimensional, it will have to sustain consistency through the air. That’s not just from game-to-game, but from play-to-play; Hardison completed just 52.1% of his throws. No quarterback in the entire FBS who tossed more than 300 passes last season had a lower completion percentage. Having his top pass catcher back — who transferred to Texas A&M and then back again in the same offseason — can’t hurt.

Dimel will also have a new offensive coordinator in Scotty Ohara. The former receivers coach got promoted after Dave Warner retired following his two years with the staff.

Defensive Overview

The Miners will lose a little more talent on the other side of the ball. Their two-leading sack-getters from last year, Jadrian Taylor and Cal Wallerstedt, had stellar senior seasons. Wallerstedt, in particular, had a remarkably impressive breakout with 95 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks after barely seeing the field in his first few seasons in El Paso.

As for the positives, fellow linebacker Tyrice Knight will be back. He’s already started nearly three full seasons for UTEP, and has excelled both against the run and the pass. Knight is widely projected as an All-C-USA First Team lock, and he was even selected to the Nagurski and Butkus Award Watch Lists earlier this month.

Cornerback Ilijah Johnson and lineman Praise Amaewhule should also spearhead a Miner defense that surrendered the fewest yards per game in the conference. Kobe Hylton, who totaled 10 TFLs and two forced fumbles as a corner, should add even more depth to the secondary. If UTEP can end up on the right side of turnover luck — it only forced five interceptions in 12 games in 2022 — some more one-score wins (potentially including one in Evanston...) could be on the way.

Three Players to Know

WR Tyrin Smith

As mentioned above, Smith was an 1,000-yard receiver in 2022, as well as the C-USA’s third leading pass-catcher in that category. Standing at 5-foot-7, the rising senior was the slot machine who could bring home Texas-sized jackpots for the Miners on every play. He’s a constant deep threat, and can also utilize his speed to turn bubble screens and short routes inside into big plays.

Smith transferred to Texas A&M in January, but then decided to return to UTEP in June after participating in spring practice with the Aggies. Newly-minted offensive coordinator Scotty Ohara should be thrilled to have the centerpiece of his receiving corps back as his primary weapon. The nation has taken notice of Smith, too; he was named to the Biletnikoff Watch List earlier in the month.

Northwestern’s secondary is one of the team’s best position groups, but it will be interesting to see how it will stop Smith. Wisconsin’s Chimere Dike — albeit six inches taller than Smith — had somewhat of a similar skillset inside the numbers, and he ate the ‘Cats alive with big plays last October. Obviously, David Braun can’t let that happen for NU to secure one of the most winnable games on its schedule.

LB Tyrice Knight

By most accounts, Knight is UTEP’s best player. The accolades above don’t lie, and neither do his numbers. Knight just missed out on his second straight 100-tackle season with 95 in 2022, put up five pass defenses and forced two fumbles. While his sack total may not have shown it, the linebacker is a strong pass rusher on the outside. He could get some more opportunities to pressure quarterbacks since Wallerstedt and Taylor are both gone now.

Knight should be a good test for Northwestern’s offensive line, regardless of whether he lines up on the edge or at the second level. Given UTEP lost the bulk of its pass-rushing corps, the Wildcats will be in a good position to win on Sept. 9 if they can take him out of the equation.

OG Elijah Klein

Playing next to arguably the best tackle in the conference means it’s almost impossible to stand out. That’s been the case for Klein, who started at right guard next to the FSU-bound Byers. But now, he’ll be the face of UTEP’s offensive line.

Klein has started the last 33 games for the Miners, and he’s earned All-Conference USA Honorable Mentions in 2021 and 2022. The California native was a really great run-blocker last year, especially, as he helped UTEP record an average time of possession of 33:34 per game. That was good enough to rank 18th in the nation, and UTEP’s 1.46 sacks allowed per contest came in at 21st in 2022.

Klein is one of the most experienced linemen in the NCAA with 44 games already under his belt, which isn’t great news for a Northwestern front that lost a ton of its pieces this offseason. According to the spring rosters, he has at least 35 pounds on every NU defensive lineman besides P.J. Spencer, Reginald Pearson, Dylan Roberts and Carmine Bastone. It’s not too likely that any of those four guys will start out of the gate, which makes it all the more important that Northwestern gets off to a quick start in Week Two to prevent Klein from dominating in the run game.