The UTEP Miners take the field for the first time in nearly a month as they conclude their 2020 regular season and square off with the North Texas Mean Green in Denton. Not only have the Miners not played since Nov. 14, but due to COVID-related cancellations they have only played twice all season in El Paso and have yet to do so since Sept. 19 when they won 17-13 over Abilene Christian. But Friday marks the seventh game in Apogee Stadium out of nine total for North Texas, though the Mean Green are just 2-4 in Denton in 2020, and technically the road team for this one.
UTEP played its first four games in order — starting the season 3-1 with its lone loss in that span coming at Texas — but had to endure two-week pauses before each of its next two contests and a three-week layoff before its most recent game, a 52-21 loss at UTSA. The Miners led 7-3 after the first quarter, but a 21-point outburst by UTSA handed the Roadrunners a 24-21 halftime lead, which they only stretched with 14 points in each of the final two quarters to cruise to the win and hand the Miners their third straight loss.
North Texas' 2020 season also has been a turbulent one, with the Mean Green winning their opener before losing the next three and subsequently posting a two-game winning streak followed by a two-game losing streak. North Texas has scored just 48 total points in its last two games while allowing more than 40 in each, including a 42-31 home loss to Louisiana Tech last week. Just like the Miners, the Mean Green led after 15 minutes but surrendered 21 points in the second quarter as the Bulldogs took a 28-17 lead into halftime and held on in the second half to hand North Texas its first home defeat since Oct. 10.
This series between UTEP and North Texas — which began in 1951 with a 33-0 North Texas win in El Paso — has been characterized heavily by streaks, especially in recent years. North Texas leads the all-time series 17-8, with three ties (1955, 1960, and 1964, the last of which finished as a scoreless 0-0 tie) mixed in. North Texas won the first two meetings and added seven straight wins between 1966 and 2013. But UTEP came away victorious each year from 2014-16 before North Texas came right back with three consecutive wins in as many seasons, including when the Mean Green doubled up the Miners 52-26 last season in Denton.
North Texas at UTEP
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. ET
Where: Apogee Stadium (Denton, Texas)
Spread: North Texas -9.5
When North Texas Has the Ball
Despite the Mean Green's two-game losing streak, the offense has come to play, surpassing 350 yards in each game. Quarterback Jason Bean bounced back from his 5-of-14, 102-yard effort against UTSA — which included two touchdowns as well as a pair of interceptions — with 231 yards and three touchdowns with an interception against the Bulldogs.
North Texas enters this week atop the conference in passing (282.6 ypg), rushing (235.4), and total (511.0) offense, ranking top-15 nationally in the latter two. The combination of Bean and running back DeAndre Torrey in the run game has been explosive, as the two have combined for nearly 137 rushing yards per game and have totaled 11 rushing touchdowns in 2020. When Bean drops back to pass, Jaelon Darden will most often be his primary target. Darden has caught eight passes in each of his last two games, totaling 143 yards and a touchdown against UTSA followed by a 135-yard, three-touchdown performance against Louisiana Tech to push his receiving touchdown total to an FBS-high 15. In addition to touchdowns, Darden also leads Conference USA in receiving yards and (127.1) and receptions per game (8.2), ranking in the top 10 nationally in both categories.
UTEP's defense has hit a rough patch as of late, allowing an average of 37 points over the last three games after giving up 14 or fewer in all but one of the first four. But the Miners have done fairly well against the run, giving up 133 rushing yards per game on the ground, good for third in Conference USA. Though the team as a whole has struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks, Praise Amaewhule has been a force from his defensive end position, averaging a sack per game — tied for the sixth-best rate in FBS — after posting a school-record 3.5 against Louisiana Tech with four pass breakups.
When UTEP Has the Ball
Quarterback Gavin Hardison was held under 200 passing yards for the first time since mid-September, completing 14 of his 21 attempts for just 159 yards and a touchdown. Hardison enters this week squarely in the middle of the pack among Conference USA quarterbacks in yards but sits last with just five touchdown passes, four of which have come in the Miners' last three games.
In UTEP's last four games, running back Deion Hankins has eclipsed 100 yards twice but was held to just 74 yards with a touchdown on 16 carries against UTSA. He's averaging just a shade under five yards per carry in 2020 to go along with seven touchdowns, including three with 118 rushing yards against ULM on Sept. 26. On the receiving side, despite Hardison's lackluster touchdown total, Jacob Cowing (81.9) and Justin Garrett (71.1) rank third and fourth, respectively, in receiving yards per game for C-USA.
The Mean Green have allowed 41.1 points per game in 2020 — the fourth-highest scoring average surrendered by any defense in FBS — with 30 or more points surrendered in all but one game this season (a 27-17 win over Rice on Nov. 21). The only area in which the Mean Green have been worse relative to the nation is in total yards allowed. North Texas' 511 per game is surpassed by just one team, Ole Miss at 528.5.
It's been a rocky road for both of these teams as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on multiple occasions. On the field, though, it'll be strength against strength (and weakness against weakness) as North Texas' top-five offense takes on UTEP's above-average defense while the Mean Green look to turn their defensive struggles around against the Miners' bottom-20 offense. One key success point for North Texas: opposing defenses have hardly had any success getting into the backfield in 2020. The Mean Green have allowed just 3.75 tackles for a loss per game this season, the second-best mark in Conference USA and sixth overall in FBS. This may not be the best matchup on paper for North Texas, but ending the regular season on your home field after a pair of disappointing losses presents a recipe for a bounce-back "road" victory.
Prediction: North Texas 45, UTEP 39
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Deion Hankins photo courtesy of @UTEPFB)