Editor's note: On Friday morning, Southern Miss announced that its game with UTEP on Saturday had been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns with the Golden Eagles.
There's no threat of a hurricane passing through West Texas. However, COVID-19 concerns are another matter there. UTEP is beset by COVID-19, as 72 cases on campus were reported Monday, and the positivity rate for the El Paso area is a whopping 11.1 percent.
And that makes it another week, another possible postponement for Southern Miss.
Last week, Hurricane Delta nearly halted the Golden Eagles' game in Hattiesburg. But instead, it was Florida Atlantic's COVID issues that eventually did. So while the weather is better for Week 7, there's no guarantee that the Golden Eagles get back on the field after an unscheduled bye last week.
If they do, though, the forecast certainly looks good.
They head into the Sun Bowl as road favorites, despite a 1-3 overall record this season. But that one win came two weeks ago in their only road tilt — a 41-31 drop of host North Texas in conference action.
And the Eagles currently have a stranglehold on their series with the Miners, having won five straight.
On the other hand, this UTEP team shows up in the standings as no pushover, with a thumbs-up 3-2 record to start the 2020 campaign.
Trouble is, the Miners lost their only C-USA contest — that being last week to host Louisiana Tech, 21-17, when the only highlight was a Duron Lowe 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. A sputtering offense, two late turnovers, and 12 penalties for 128 yards otherwise cost them dearly.
And while they've been winning at home, those Ws have come only at the expense of FCS sides. They weren't exactly shining efforts at the Sun Bowl, either, as they edged Stephen F. Austin 24-14 and squeaked by Abilene Christian 17-13.
It seems UTEP has yet to show how it truly stacks up in the conference. This week, it gets its chance.
Southern Miss at UTEP
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Southern Miss -5.5
When Southern Miss Has the Ball
The Southern Miss offense appears to be on the upswing. Senior quarterback Jack Abraham is 12th in the nation in total passing yards, going 85-of-132 for 1,112 yards and seven touchdowns. Along with the emergence of Frank Gore Jr. — the son of the NFL star has 208 yards on 46 carries in his freshman year — and the return of fellow running back Darius Maberry, that bodes well for a balanced attack. It's what the Golden Eagles used two weeks back, as they pushed past North Texas with 202 rushing yards and 235 more through the air.
Even more good news is the unforeseen week off gave senior receiver Tim Jones more time to return from a lower-body injury. He missed the two previous games and looks to rekindle his connection with Abraham, hoping to add to his 299 receiving yards. In the meantime, Abraham has found another target in junior Jason Brownlee, who now has team-highs of 17 catches, 301 receiving yards, and three touchdowns.
They'll need every bit of that attack facing a UTEP defense that is clearly the cream of the team.
The Miners unit gave Louisiana Tech fits last week, holding the opposition to just 210 yards on its home turf. The defense rolled up four sacks and 13 tackles for a loss, led by defensive end Praise Amaewhule and defensive tackle Keenan Stewart. Amaewhule was a monster with five tackles, 3.5 sacks, and four pass breakups, while fellow sophomore Stewart a team-high 12 tackles and infiltrated the backfield all day.
When UTEP Has the Ball
The Miners need more from the offense. It has struggled despite a few bright spots — in particular, pass-catching duo Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett, who bring respective 440- and 338-yard seasons into this game. Sophomore Cowing's total is fifth-most in the nation, while Garrett's experience as a senior makes for a clutch target in the UTEP assault.
But neither could engineer enough, with just 63- and 51-yard performances respectively, to help pull out a win over Louisiana Tech last week. And quarterback Gavin Hardison needs to find a breakout game himself, as he's been pedestrian in his sophomore year. Hardison is just 75-of-143 for 1,056 yards through five games and has just two touchdown throws versus three interceptions. Last week, the quarterback was only 18-of-38 for 206 yards.
However, the big push — it would seem — in Week 7 is to get the running game on track against Southern Miss. The Miners were held to just 60 rushing yards last Saturday. Before that, they were getting good mileage out of freshman Deion Hankins, with his 65 carries for 300 yards and five touchdowns, and senior Joshua Fields, with his 58 hauls for 185 yards.
Against a woeful Southern Miss defense, there's a chance to turn it all on. It's among the worst in the FBS ranks, allowing an ugly 486.5 yards and 40.0 points per game.
With both the Miners offense and the Eagles defense struggling, something's gotta give. Or will it? It might just be an eyesore of a game — from both sides — when UTEP handles the ball. So then this one comes down to the improving Southern Miss offense against the staunch UTEP defense. Abraham has the tools in his talent and the weapons at his disposal to find ways to move the ball against such a staunch unit that has allowed a paltry 22.6 points per game.
And is the Miners defense truly all that? Arguably the only potent offense it has faced was then-No. 14 Texas in a 59-3 Week 2 loss that saw them yield 689 yards. Southern Miss might only need to rack up half that amount of real estate to get the win. And it doesn't hurt that the Eagles own this series, giving them a psychological edge in this C-USA battle.
Prediction: Southern Miss 28, UTEP 20
(Jacob Cowing photo courtesy of UTEP Athletics)