As we start getting geared up again for the footballing, it's time to check in with our opponent and get a grip on what we're facing. This week we're joined by Alex Nicolas from our cousin SB Nation blog Miner Rush. If you missed it, you can also -- okay, I mean should -- check out our conversation on their podcast from Tuesday night.
Jon: Although the competition hasn't been stellar, the Miners have looked much improved the first three weeks, even in the loss to Texas Tech. Do you think they have the horses to make a run at the division title now, or do you still expect some in-conference growing pains?
Alex: It's hard to tell at this point, but with the West appearing to be pretty wide open so far, a good showing at Kansas State just may validate that. Health is a big concern going forward as UTEP is still building and short on depth at certain spots. A good showing and a clean or decent bill of health this weekend may validate UTEP as a possible division contender, but it's still a little too early to tell if UTEP is the real deal.
Jon: Are there any C-USA games you're looking forward to in the "this will be fascinating" sense? I'm personally looking at the Old Dominion game in a couple of weeks almost as though it will be a religious or political argument, the teams are so different.
Alex: Yes, there a few teams in conference like that and Old Dominion is one of them. At first glance ODU's win at Rice was pretty impressive, but when you look further we may be giving Rice more credit than deserved. Though no denying Old Dominion is a flashback of the explosive offensives of the past that C-USA was known for; a true fire meets steel tilt there.
Another one is the road game at UTSA. UTEP has a good chance of going into the Alamodome with a good overall record, and good start to their conference record, making it a defacto West division playoff game. Frankly the team and the fan base including us at the Rush are pretty salty after they came in and pissed all over our rug in our house last year, so that is one that should be interesting and is certainly circled with an orange marker.
Jon: We know Sean Kugler's a guy with a lot of experience as an NFL assistant, but other than that he's sort of a cipher. What sort of guy is he, and as a coach what does he seem to value?
Alex: Character, production, and a huge pair are some things Kugler values. Schematically he wants his offensive and defensive lines to be the catalysts, and UTEP fans should expect at least 12 mixed on both sides of the ball lineman signings each recruiting class. Kugler has come in and brought in guys who not only fit the system, but also buy into it. Another thing is there is no waiting for "Kugler's Guys"; 60 players on the roster and few more guys who are red-shirting were brought in by Kugler, showing he is on the fast track to get the character, production, and physicality his style needs to win now. He is very family-oriented and the team has taken on his aggressive but personable attitude on the field. Practices are fun to watch. You never know what punch line or f-bomb-laced rant Kugs will come with. All in all Kugler is just flat out a pure football guy who has extreme passion, knowledge of the game and what he wants to do with the program. It's good to have one of our own at the helm as well.
Jon: Obviously we're going to see a lot of Aaron Jones (549 yards, 8.0 per carry) on Saturday. What else can you tell us about the Miner offense?
Alex: Well, from the running game standpoint, UTEP runs the same four or five run plays, though you will see so many packages with different sets of backs that can all make a difference and eat yards. Nathan Jeffery has been the physical punisher to Aaron Jones' highlight runs. Though guys like Autrey Golden and Josh Bell will also see carries. Golden is one the top kick returners in the nation, and will surely be in the NFL one day.
The passing game is still a complete enigma. UTEP used the running backs (mostly Golden) more against New Mexico State in the passing game, though a deep rotation of receivers was also shown against NMSU as an adjustment to the struggling passing game. The million-dollar question here is can a receiver step up and be a consistent play maker/chains mover. Kugler has really challenged Jameill Showers and the pass catchers the past couple of weeks, and something has to give soon in where UTEP has the balance it wants, though right now the running game is paying the bills.
Jon: When UTEP has the ball, what are your biggest concerns on the other side of the line of scrimmage? Anything you've noticed specifically that the Miners will have trouble with?
Alex: I think dealing with Kansas State's front seven. UTEP's offensive line is very young, and though they have had a really solid start, they haven't seen the physical animals y'all have inside the front seven. I think that is the matchup to watch when UTEP has the ball. UTEP hasn't yielded too many negative plays, though I can see Kansas State challenging that with their physical athletes upfront against our young offensive line.
Jon: We're still mostly in the dark as far as the Miner defense, other than noting they're not too shabby. Who stands out there, and what formations should we be expecting to see?
Alex: It's really been a group effort, with different guys stepping up and making plays, though the last game sophomore defensive end Nick Usher made a huge stride in solidifying himself as an impact starter. He and his opposite end junior Roy Robertson have become a force on the defensive line, even forcing Davis Webb into a case of happy feet. Both are moved around alot along the front so those are guys to keep an eye on.
The defense has gone from facing a triple option to a pass-happy spread to a balanced spread attack in the first three games, so the defense has shown tons of looks. UTEP runs a base 4-2-5, and the most effective scheme against the pass has been the dime with Alvin Jones (Aaron Jones' twin brother) as the playmaking linebacker. He has really sped ahead of the curve from transitioning from high school quarterback to a defensive back and now linebacker.
UTEP was exposed in the secondary a bit against NMSU with a soft zone they used while just utilizing the front four for pass rush, so I would expect some physical man-to-man early in the game. That's something that was effective at times against Texas Tech.
UTEP has a lot of depth in the secondary, and at linebacker, so expect a bunch of different packages and looks from a versatile and speed-heavy defense which is starting find an identity of forcing turnovers.
Jon: The obvious answer to this question is always "Tyler Lockett", but any other major concerns you have with stopping the K-State offense?
Alex: UTEP has had trouble with athletic quarterbacks, and Jake Waters does scare me a bit. If K-State runs the option or zone read, UTEP hasn't done well with quarterbacks or any runners at all once they hit the edge. Containing Waters and making him pick apart the secondary instead of just running wild over the defense is a key in my mind. Giving up the big play to Lockett and Curry Sexton are huge concerns for me as well.
It's like a game of pick your poison with those two cats, and UTEP is giving up almost 15 yards a competion, so K-State's capable parts all around in the passing game have me worried quite a bit. Sexton impressed me last week against Auburn; if he or Lockett have the ball in space that is going to be problematic for UTEP.
Jon:As is customary, we'll close with this: what's going to happen Saturday?
Alex:I think UTEP comes out with some fight and energy, and actually grabs a brief, home-crowd quieting lead early on. But Kansas State should be able to dictate the line of scrimmage and big play count as the game wears on. UTEP has to put up more than 35 points for an upset IMO.
Kansas State 38, UTEP 17. (This coming from the dude who said Texas Tech would roll all over UTEP, so we'll see...)
Huge thanks to Alex and his crew for not only this session, but the podcast invite and also their written questions to me.