After a blowout loss at Rutgers, Northwestern might have one of its best chances of the entire season to notch a win coming this Saturday. The UTEP Miners are heading to Ryan Field, and with the two teams never having played before, there’s a lot to learn about the 1.5-point road favorites.
600 ESPN El Paso’s Adrian Broaddus was kind enough to answer a few questions about UTEP and how its first two weeks have gone, as well as how head coach Dana Dimel’s team can come away with a win at Northwestern. Go give him a Twitter follow @AdrianBroaddus to learn some more about the Miners heading into Saturday afternoon!
INU: After rebuilding from the brutal 2017-19 stretch, what’s the general mood around the program right now? Has approaching bowl contention in ‘21 and ‘22 left fans satisfied with what head coach Dana Dimel’s done, or are there higher expectations this year?
Adrian Broaddus: The program has flipped from being in the abyss of mediocrity/poor football play to now having legit expectations around the program. There are obvious pros and cons to this. On the positive side, it has prompted this staff to recruit better players to UTEP and it has allowed the program to embrace loftier expectations. Conversely, the more fans expect a winner, the more frustrated fans will continue to get.
While bowl contention was exciting in 2021 for some fans, other fans would point out Coach Dimel’s overall record since he’s been at UTEP (18-41). Ultimately, fans aren’t going to be satisfied until UTEP is either competing for C-USA titles or out of C-USA altogether... conference realignment is another can of worms.
INU: The C-USA has clearly undergone some massive changes. How do you think that affects UTEP’s long-term outlook?
AB: There’s no secret about it: UTEP was left out of conference realignment and they are looking for any way to land into the Mountain West. With a rich history in the Border Conference and the WAC, UTEP fans have been barking about the Miners getting out of C-USA for years now. Their rivals — New Mexico State — recently joined the conference, which could allow for more meaningful games between the two schools. UTEP is focused on trying to be better in C-USA in athletics for now and if there’s an opening in the future for the Mountain West, the Miners will be the first in line.
INU: UTEP comes into this game as a 1.5-point road favorite. What are some of the strengths that the Miners have on both sides of the ball that make them well-positioned to not just win, but control the game?
AB: Offensively, they pride themselves on controlling the clock and establishing the run. UTEP feels like their offensive line is their strength on offense. Truthfully, they won’t have any sort of success unless they put up points. The Miners put up just 14 points at Jacksonville State two weeks ago and the biggest issue for them in that contest was missing out on opportunities when they put together long drives.
On defense, they need to find ways to get off on third downs. Their defensive line held strong in their first two games. However, they need to ensure their secondary is intact and ready for a balanced offensive attack. If their defensive line can push past a beefy Northwestern front, they could have success disrupting the quarterback and try to create turnovers.
INU: On the other hand, what are some of UTEP’s biggest defensive weaknesses that Northwestern’s offense could exploit?
AB: Up-tempo offenses typically hurt UTEP, but they were able to slow down FCS Incarnate Word in the second half of their 28-14 win last Saturday. In the second half of the win, Incarnate Word failed to put up more than 100 yards of offense (70) and were held scoreless in the third and fourth quarters thanks to the Miner defense. They’ve also struggled in creating turnovers consistently. If Northwestern can play turnover-free ball, they’ll have a chance to get points on the board against UTEP.
INU: Northwestern’s non-conference approach has traditionally revolved around running the ball to death and controlling the clock. Given that UTEP isn’t much worse than the Wildcats (if at all), do you think that’s going to be the case on Saturday? If not, how do you think the UTEP defense will force Northwestern to make adjustments early?
AB: I think it could be a fight in the trenches and a battle for time of possession. The UTEP model in non-conference play is similar to that of Northwestern’s approach. The Miners ran it almost 50 times last Saturday to just 13 pass attempts. However, in this game the Miners will need their passing game to be somewhat relevant.
INU: What’s been the biggest challenge for the Miners on offense this year as they adjust to a new coordinator, and who in particular could step up and build momentum for the group on Saturday?
AB: The biggest challenge on offense — or around their team — is adjusting to adversity and trying to have success on the road. UTEP is 12-3 over the last three seasons at home, but they are just 4-15 on the road in that same stretch. They are a completely different team when they leave El Paso, but a win on Saturday could change that.
The offensive coordinator swap isn’t a big deal. Scotty Ohara was simply promoted from being the sole receivers coach. But everyone around UTEP knows that head coach Dana Dimel calls all of the plays. This offseason, Dimel prioritized staying in quarterback meetings and working more closely with quarterback Gavin Hardison.
As for the entire team, it can draw momentum from its star players — running back Deion Hankins, linebacker Tyrice Knight and pass rusher Praise Amaewhule. When those three are playing well, usually good things happen for the Miners. Not to mention, the run game might’ve found a three-man tandem between Hankins, Mike Franklin and Torrance Burgess Jr. in last week’s win.
INU: Give us your score prediction — who wins and why?
AB: Northwestern 31, UTEP 28: I’ve been around this program all my life. They haven’t beaten a Power Five opponent since their 1967 Sun Bowl win against Ole Miss. Even though the oddsmakers favor UTEP slightly, there’s no way I can do it until I see it. This is more a pick considering the history rather than looking at UTEP and Northwestern on paper.