The last two New Mexico Bowls featured over 90 points in each game, but this year’s meeting between Utah State and UTEP is expected to have a decidedly different outlook. The Aggies own one of the top defenses in the Mountain West by limiting opponents to 20.8 points per game, while the Miners led Conference USA in time of possession and averaged 26.6 points in league play this year. After watching the offenses light up the scoreboard at University Stadium in recent bowl matchups, defense and running the ball should take center stage on Saturday.
For the second year in a row, Utah State coach Matt Wells has navigated significant injuries at the quarterback position. Chuckie Keeton suffered a torn ACL last season but returned in time for the opener against Tennessee. However, Keeton was later ruled out for the remainder of 2014 due to knee issues. Sophomore Darell Garretson replaced Keeton, but he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Third-stringer Craig Harrison suffered a knee injury against UNLV, leaving true freshman Kent Myers as the No. 1 quarterback. Myers has performed well in six appearances, throwing for 798 yards and five scores. Despite the injuries at quarterback, Utah State won nine games for the second consecutive season in a row.
UTEP has experienced a quick turnaround under second-year coach Sean Kugler. The Miners went 2-10 in 2013 but improved to 7-5 and are back in a bowl for the first time since 2010. Kugler – a former UTEP offensive lineman – has built this program on a run-first offense. The Miners started 2-3 but finished the season by winning five out of their last seven games.
Utah State and UTEP have met only two times in previous seasons. The Aggies hold a 2-0 edge over the Miners, but this is the first matchup between these two programs since 1961.
UTEP vs. Utah State
Kickoff: 2:20 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Utah State -10
UTEP’s Key to Victory: Establish the Run and Limit Mistakes
UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers started his career at Texas A&M but transferred to El Paso after losing the starting job to Johnny Manziel. Showers has been efficient for Kugler’s offense in 2014, throwing 12 touchdowns to only five interceptions. The senior has only one passing score in his last four games and has not thrown for more than 210 yards in a contest this year. When Showers throws, his go-to target is Ian Hamilton (21.7 ypc), while tight end Eric Tomlinson (18 catches) is also a valuable threat in the passing game. UTEP ranks last in Conference USA in passing yards per game, but this offense has a clear identity. As a former offensive lineman, Kugler has shaped the Miners into one of the top running teams in C-USA. UTEP averaged 212.7 yards per game on the ground this season, with running back Aaron Jones (1,233 yards) leading the way. Jones will be joined by Nathan Jeffery (513 yards) and Showers (288 yards) as threats on the ground. Despite the success of the Miners on the ground this season, running room will be limited against Utah State’s defense. Anchored by standout linebacker Zach Vigil, the Aggies lead the Mountain West in rush defense. Utah State allows only 3.3 yards per carry and limited opponents to 20.8 points per game. Considering the strength of the Aggies up front, the Miners may need to throw early to help open up lanes for Jones and Jeffery. Another factor in UTEP’s victory hopes will be the turnover margin. The Miners recorded a +8 margin this season and need to be in the positive range on Saturday to have a shot at winning.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: QB Kent Myers
As we mentioned in the intro, Myers is Utah State’s fourth starting quarterback in 2014. The true freshman was expected to redshirt but ended up getting pressed into duty after injuries to Keeton, Harrison and Garretson. Myers hasn’t been overly prolific, but he’s done everything asked by the coaching staff. Myers has yet to top more than 186 passing yards in a game. However, he’s been efficient (only two interceptions on 107 attempts) and is completing 69.2 percent of his passes. Myers also has 235 yards and four scores on the ground. The true freshman isn’t the only weapon on Utah State’s offense, as freshman running back LaJuan Hunt averages five yards per carry and leads the team with 529 yards. Junior JoJo Natson is an all-purpose, dynamic playmaker, averaging 10.2 yards per rush, catching 49 passes and taking two punt returns back for a score. UTEP’s defense is allowing 6.3 yards per play this year and has been prone to allowing big plays (34 plays allowed of 30 yards or more). Myers deserves praise for stepping into a difficult situation and keeping Utah State’s offense performing at a high level. With an extended preparation time before the bowl, he could have his best performance of the season. However, it’s also critical the true freshman doesn’t try to do too much against a UTEP defense that limited C-USA opponents to 26 points per game (fourth in the conference). And with the Miners looking to keep this game a low-scoring affair, Utah State can’t afford to have any turnovers to give UTEP’s offense a short field.
Considering UTEP’s struggles last season, and Utah State’s injuries at quarterback in 2014, it’s a credit to both coaching staffs for their teams landing in the postseason and finishing with a winning record. The Miners need to keep this game a low-scoring affair and force a couple of mistakes from Utah State freshman quarterback Kent Myers to give their offense short fields to work from. UTEP’s rushing attack could be the key to the game. The Aggies were tough all season against the run but gave up 240 yards on the ground over their last three matchups. If Utah State stuffs the run and jumps out to an early lead, the Miners will have their hands full trying to rally. Expect UTEP to have some success on the ground, but the Aggies are the better team and finish the season with a win to post their second double-digit victory total in three years.