The Sun Belt's ULM Warhawks will host the UTEP Miners from C-USA on Saturday for the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
UTEP managed to bounce back from an ugly 59-3 loss to Texas, edging out Abilene Christian by a score of 17-13 last Saturday night. The win helped the Miners improve to 2-1 on the season, marking their best start to a season since 2011. They will now hit the road to face ULM in search of another milestone — their first FBS win since 2018.
Following a turbulent offseason, ULM has struggled to gain traction on either side of the football in the early stages of its 2020 campaign. The Warhawks fell to 0-2 on the young season with last week's 38-17 loss to Sun Belt foe Texas State. ULM will need to fend off upset-minded UTEP at home on Saturday to secure its first win of the season and avoid falling to 0-3 for the first time since 2007.
UTEP at ULM
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: ULM -9.5
When UTEP Has the Ball
Gavin Hardison has completed just 55 percent of his passes for 548 yards with one touchdown and two picks in his first three games as UTEP's starting quarterback. A difficult matchup at Texas did little to help his lackluster stat line. But even in far more forgiving matchups against Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian, the sophomore signal-caller has been less than spectacular. There have been flashes, and Hardison has built a strong rapport with wide receivers Jacob Cowing (19 receptions, 275 yards) and Justin Garrett (12 receptions, 167 yards, 1 touchdown). Nevertheless, a UTEP passing game that has produced just one touchdown through three contests will need to take a big step forward to find success on Saturday against an experienced ULM secondary — led by All-Sun Belt cornerback Corey Straughter and a pair of talented safeties in Tyler Glass and Austin Hawley.
UTEP's best chance for success lies in the run game. A ULM defense that allowed 252.7 rushing yards per game last season (128th in the FBS) has already surrendered 581 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground through two games this season. A big chunk of that did come against Army's potent triple-option attack in Week 2, but it's clear that the Warhawks still have major issues with their run defense. The Miners will attempt to capitalize with a heavy dose of redshirt freshman running back Deion Hankins, arguably their top weapon on offense. Hankins rushed for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 17 carries against Stephen F. Austin in the season opener. He was a late scratch last week after suffering a minor leg injury in practice, but Hankins is expected to return to his feature role in the UTEP backfield on Saturday against ULM.
When ULM Has the Ball
A ULM offense that averaged 460.9 yards and 31.6 points per game last season was expected to take a step backward after losing star quarterback Caleb Evans and four starters along the offensive line. That has come to fruition, but it hasn't been the result of poor quarterback play. Sophomore quarterback Colby Suits has been efficient, if not solid — completing 68 percent of his passes for 525 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in his first two starts. He's also made good use of a talented receiving corps. Suits has completed passes to 11 different players through the first two games, led by star tight end Josh Pederson (9 receptions, 94 yards), deep-threat Jahquan Bloomfield (4 receptions, 108 yards), and wideout Perry Carter Jr. (8 receptions, 98 yards). Suits and Co. shouldn't have much trouble against a UTEP pass defense that got absolutely torched through the air by Texas a couple of weeks ago to the tune of 481 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The ULM passing game isn't on par with Texas, but it easily qualifies as the second-best passing attack the Miners have faced so far this season.
The run game was expected to be a real strength for the ULM offense this season, but it has been shockingly disappointing through the first two games. Senior running back Josh Johnson, who rushed for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns last season to earn all-conference accolades, has accounted for just 89 yards on 29 carries (3.1 ypc) and has yet to find the end zone. The offensive line hasn't been much help either. As a result, there have been far too many negative plays on first and second down, making it incredibly difficult to convert on third down (29 percent conversion rate). In terms of the opposition for Saturday, the UTEP defense has held up reasonably well against the run so far this season, allowing 409 yards and three rushing touchdowns through three games. That said, the Miners only real test has come against the Longhorns, which ran for 208 yards and a score against them. ULM should be able to get something going on the ground against the Miners, but a huge breakout performance probably isn't in the cards.
UTEP should be proud of its 2-1 start to the season, especially considering where this program has been over the last few years. However, a pair of narrow victories against FCS opponents, both of which had losing records last season, does little to suggest that the Miners have truly turned the corner. And while the 0-2 Warhawks can't exactly claim juggernaut status themselves, they will prove that they are the superior football team on Saturday.
Prediction: ULM 27, UTEP 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of ULM Athletics)