For a UTEP football team that won seven games and had a bowl appearance last season, the goal of repeating that feat remains the same in spite of their current 2-4 record. If the Miners are to duplicate that result, they will have to get back to winning starting this Saturday against Florida Atlantic University (FAU).
While the Miners used the bye week to heal some of the injuries that have plagued them, getting back to basics was a point of emphasis for head coach Sean Kugler.
“We worked a lot on fundamentals, we also worked on the things that we didn’t do well on the first part of the season. We had to look in the mirror and not just sweep things under the rug,” Kugler said. “We also used it to get healthy and at this point of the season, with the team that we had, that was just as essential as anything.”
Returning as starting quarterback is Mack Leftwich, who missed the past three-and-a-half games with a concussion injury. Kugler mentioned that Leftwich had passed all concussion protocol tests and should be ready from both a physical and mental aspect.
Leftwich feels confident the time off won’t hurt the chemistry he had with his receivers and returns with the same goals he had at the beginning of the season–make a bowl game.
“It’s very important [to win]…we’re trying to get to a bowl game and get back to winning really, losing’s no fun, any game is important to get a win,” Leftwich said. “I just have to come back in and do my job the best I can, I’m out there to operate and make sure I’m getting the ball to the right people, so I just have to focus on doing my job.”
Linebacker Alvin Jones is one of several players that benefited from the bye week , helping him to recover from injuries. Jones will lead a UTEP defense that is likely to see FAU play two quarterbacks throughout the game in Jaquez Johnson and Jason Driskel.
“I would say the offense is more expanded with the big dude and the freshman is smaller, but he always looks to the sideline for checks,” Jones said. “32 is a three-year starter, so they do a lot more with him, but we’ve prepared for both of them.”
A win for the Miners would not only be the first conference win of the season, but the team’s first since they last beat FCS’ Incarnate Word on Sept. 26.
FAU is also in search of its first win since that day but, unlike UTEP, their lone win was a conference victory over Charlotte. This marks the first ever meeting between both programs, who find themselves in similar situations looking up at the rest of ConferenceUSA.
The matchup pits two teams that are struggling to stop opponents from racking up yardage and are allowing over 30 points per game; FAU giving up an average of 31.8 points and UTEP 43. The Miners’ focus will turn to establishing their run offense while minimizing FAU’s ground game.
“We have to stop the run, number one we have to get those guys in third and long situations and try and pressure the quarterback, try and force him to make errand throws,” Kugler said. “We need to get turnovers on defense and not turn the ball over on offense and establish an efficient run game. That’s the M.O. of our offense and that’s what we have to get back to and we’re excited to get an opportunity this weekend to do that.”
With a 2-4 mark, Kugler expects the leaders on his team to help carry the load for the second half of the season.
“You want your team to be resilient and – I think – we have fighters on this team, I think we have good kids on this team that work hard,” Kugler said. “Resilient people fight back, non-resilient people don’t. I’m looking to see the senior leadership and see the fight and resiliency of this team and I’m looking forward to it.”