Five decades of bowl failure for the UTEP Miners could well revolve around a last-minute decision by the Fresno State Bulldogs.
So who's it going to be at quarterback, (interim head) coach (Lee) Marks? The dynamic but out-of-favor Jake Haener, or one of your team's two freshman quarterbacks?
The Miners would love to know. So, too, would the fans.
"We're not going to share that information," Marks told reporters in the lead-up to Saturday's PUBG Mobile New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium in Albuquerque.
Haener seems the obvious choice for the Bulldogs, who went 9-3 in the regular season, going 6-2 to finish behind San Diego State in the Mountain West's West Division.
But in what's been one of many twists and turns in a roller-coaster ride the past few weeks with the Fresno State program, his start has not been confirmed by Marks, who is leading the Bulldogs following the departure of former head coach Kalen DeBoer to Washington.
Haener was seemingly poised to DeBoer in Seattle, putting one foot into the NCAA's transfer portal before having a change of heart when it was announced Jeff Tedford, who coached Fresno State from 2017-19 before resigning for health reasons, would be taking back the reins. But in doing so, the QB was jeered by Fresno State fans and even branded a turncoat by some — a sheet was hung from a goal post with the words, "Haener Is A Traitor."
The senior apologized for his actions via social media, but that came after Marks announced that either freshman Jaylen Henderson or redshirt freshman Logan Fife would start in the bowl game.
And so this decision from the interim head coach greatly impacts the chances of UTEP, who went 7-5 (4-4 in Conference USA) in its bid for its first bowl victory since 1967. The Miners are making their first postseason appearance since 2014, which also was in the New Mexico Bowl. Overall, UTEP and Fresno State are both 0-2 in this bowl game, so history will be made for one of these programs on Saturday afternoon.
PUBG Mobile New Mexico Bowl: UTEP (7-5) vs. Fresno State (9-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 18, at 12:15 p.m. ET
Where: University Stadium (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Spread: Fresno State -11.5
When UTEP Has the Ball
Never mind that UTEP hasn't won a bowl game in 54 years, it's only been in one other in the last decade — that being in 2014, losing to the Utah State Aggies in the New Mexico Bowl.
But the Miners have earned this invite by sporting a much-improved defense than in recent years and being able to move the ball explosively under the leadership of quarterback Gavin Hardison.
Indeed, the offense has had its moments. In this second full year at the pivot position, Hardison has had them, too. He's been able to help move the Miners up and down the field with big-chunk plays, totaling nearly 3,000 passing yards. Hardison's 17 touchdowns through the air aren't overwhelming, especially against the 12 interceptions he's thrown. But he's game.
And the sophomore from the Albuquerque area (Hobbs), has a difference-maker in young receiver Jacob Cowing, who was named a first-team All-Conference USA after a sparkling 1,330-yard campaign.
"We feel like Jacob is one of the best receivers in the country, if not the best receiver in (the) country," UTEP head coach Dana Dimel has told reporters. "We sure think he is. He's brought our offense to a whole new level."
The sophomore Cowing is getting help from fellow receivers Justin Garrett, a senior, and Tyrin Smith, also a sophomore, with respective 659- and 509-yard seasons.
But against a strong and rugged Bulldogs defense, UTEP needs its run-game to step up as well. And it's had its success with Ronald Awatt running to 803 yards and a 5.6-yard average per haul, while freshman Deion Hankins has 425 yards on the year.
A lot of the Miners' offensive success is due to the staunch offensive line, which has been healthy all year in helping all five starters earn All-Conference USA honorable mentions. That's good support which will be needed again Saturday.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
With Haener at the controls, he should be able to shred the Miners' defense.
Not because UTEP is bad on that side of the ball — it's actually not, allowing just 24.8 points per game, which is fourth-best in the conference — but because Haener is one of the best QBs in the nation. The future NFL draftee has thrown for 3,810 yards and 32 TDs against nine INTs this season while completing 67.5 percent of his passes in being named to the All-Mountain West second team.
But whether he starts under Marks is the biggest of all bowl questions.
"Right now, we're going to keep everything in-house of how we're going to handle those things (at quarterback)," Marks, also the team's running backs coach, told reporters. "So far in the quarterback room, all those guys are doing a really, really good job with the plan right now."
What we do know is that with offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb following DeBoer to Seattle, it'll be wide receivers coach Kirby Moore doing the playcalling in Albuquerque.
Yes, that represents even more change for Fresno State. But what hasn't changed is the weapons at their disposal.
Ronnie Rivers has run for 788 yards and caught 364 more. Fellow senior Jordan Mims has 545 rushing yards and a team-high 5.6-yard per-carry average. Then there's a dynamic receiving crew led by junior Jalen Cropper (827 yds.), sophomore Josh Kelly (786), and senior Keric Wheatfall (582).
And Marks is focused on keeping things upbeat in the midst of major post-season upheaval.
"It's been going really, really well," Marks said of the team's preparation. "The excitement that is in the program right now, to be honest with you, is electric. Coming out to practice, guys are moving around and bouncing around and they are really, really excited for a chance to play against the Miners. We are appreciative to be in this position and also know we earned a spot to be down here and do what we need to do to make sure we finish the right way."
Finishing against the UTEP defense, however, isn't what it used to be.
The unit is much-improved, featuring a difference-maker in senior safety Dy'vonne Inyang and a tackle monster in junior linebacker Breon Hayward, whose 97 tackles led the team.
Fresno State and UTEP match up for the first time since 2004, which marked the last year the Miners were in the now-defunct WAC. And the Bulldogs lead the all-time series 8-3-1.
But that's yesteryear stuff.
This bowl now represents a reward for UTEP's marked improvement in 2021 after just five wins in the previous four years. UTEP's overall upswing was especially noticeable in the early part of the schedule, as it opened with a 2-6 record, losing only to the host Boise State Broncos.
But that loss foreshadowed a late-season swoon, when up against mostly higher-end teams — including the UTSA Roadrunners and UAB Blazers — the Miners fell to land with a pedestrian 4-4 conference mark.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs finished 6-2 in what was a pretty testy Mountain West season.
So it seems UTEP is in for a tough afternoon.
But don't underestimate the power of a rare bowl appearance and a chance to erase 50-plus years without a Christmastime win.
"For them, that leaves a legacy if they get a win," Dimel told reporters. "We'll be challenged to do that, but I told these guys we'd be remembered as a special team if we win. So what a great challenge for us."
The challenge for the Bulldogs, of course, is to smooth out the wrinkles after going through a rough few weeks of changes. That would seem to start with putting Haener back under center.
Can't see that not happening.
Prediction: Fresno State 38, UTEP 24
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