The UTEP Miners and New Mexico State Aggies will be among a small group of FBS programs to kick off the 2021 college football season Saturday. The Battle of I-10 rivalry was interrupted when New Mexico State canceled its 2020 fall schedule, but the Aggies have a three-game winning streak in the series, including the 44-35 win in Las Cruces in the 2019 meeting. The win over the Miners was the last time New Mexico State took the field at Aggie Memorial Stadium, a period of 644 days.
While New Mexico State sat out the fall schedule, UTEP took a big step forward. The Miners posted a 3-5 record, which marked the first time since 2016 the program won more than one game in a season. New Mexico State played a pair of FCS opponents on UTEP’s home field, the Sun Bowl in El Paso, in the spring. The Aggies lost 43-17 to Tarleton State in the opener but beat Dixie State 36-29 to pick up some momentum heading into the summer.
UTEP at New Mexico State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 28, at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: Bally Sports AZ/FloSports
Spread: UTEP -10
When UTEP Has the Ball
Nearly every offensive starter returns for UTEP, including quarterback Gavin Hardison and his talented receiver duo of Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett. Hardison made seven starts last year and completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 1,419 yards (7.1 yards per attempt) with five touchdowns and five interceptions. With Hardison unavailable in the season finale, Calvin Bromnholtz stepped in and ran for 114 yards. Bromnholtz was responsible for four total touchdowns in the 45-43 loss to North Texas, but he was also picked off four times. Cowing caught five passes (including both scores) from Browmnholtz for 118 yards — his fourth 100-yard performance of the season — bringing his season totals to 41 receptions, 691 yards, and three touchdowns. Garrett hauled in 38 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns, twice surpassing 100 yards.
Deion Hankins led the Miners with 592 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 121 carries. Hankins surpassed the century mark three times (and finished with 99 yards against North Texas) and scored multiple touchdowns on three occasions as well, including a career-high three against ULM. He’ll run behind an experienced offensive line that returns fully intact.
When New Mexico State Has the Ball
Expect the running game to be the focus for New Mexico State. Running back Juwaun Price led the Aggies with 196 rushing yards in the spring, and he scored once on the ground and once on a kick return. Price had a heavy workload with Michigan transfer O’Maury Samuels sidelined by injury, but the former four-star recruit will finally take the field Saturday.
Quarterback Jonah Johnson had two rushing touchdowns in the spring, which led the team. Johnson completed 36 of 60 passes (60.0 percent) for 358 yards and one touchdown, but also threw three interceptions. Weston Eget impressed in a small sample, going 6-for-8 for 60 yards and a touchdown against Dixie State before he was injured. Both may play against UTEP, though Johnson started both games in the spring.
Every player who caught a pass in the spring returns, and New Mexico State added Missouri transfer Dominic Gicinto and several junior college signees to the mix. Terrell Warner led with eight receptions and 105 yards in the spring, and Andre Bodison and Robert Downs each had a touchdown catch. The offensive line will be without Luteru Fedler because of injury but returns 37-game starter Sage Doxtater at left tackle and adds former Ole Miss starter Eli Johnson at center. The unit will be challenged by the strength of the UTEP defense: end Praise Amaewhule and interior linemen Keenan Stewart and Kelton Moss.
UTEP made obvious progress in 2020. The Miners navigated schedule disruptions and were forced to play their entire Conference USA schedule on the road, losing one-score games against bowl teams Louisiana Tech and North Texas. Reaching bowl eligibility is reasonable for head coach Dana Dimel in his third season in El Paso. However, it’s also worth pointing out UTEP was winless in C-USA play, beat a pair of FCS opponents by a combined 14 points, and earned its lone victory over an FBS program against a winless ULM squad.
The progress was less obvious for New Mexico State, especially considering the blowout loss to Tarleton. The Aggies gave up nearly 900 yards in just two spring games against FCS foes. NMSU also surrendered an average of 313 rushing yards in these contests, which was more than any FBS unit surrendered in the fall. Even in a small sample size of two games, those numbers are ugly. Head coach Doug Martin added 40 newcomers to the roster that did not play in the spring, but unless the defense is much improved against the run, UTEP will have little trouble moving the football.
Prediction: UTEP 33, New Mexico State 28
Podcast: Week 0 Preview, Final Predictions, the Alliance and Latest Preseason News and Notes