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Miners’ struggles testing fan loyalty; Kugler has plan

The UTEP football season is halfway done and the Miners hold a record of two wins and four losses with six games left in their 2015 season.  Is it time for Miner fans to call this season a failure? A look at the 25,000 or so die-hard fans that typically show up on game day and that answer may be ‘no.’

It’s hard to blame many Miner fans for not attending games when the product on the field has been mediocre at best, but his team – our team – deserves a mulligan.

Many fans say the season has reached its lowest point in recent memory, after the Miners dropped their fourth game of the season, losing 52 to 12 in Miami to Florida International University.  The Miners find themselves wounded and scratching for ways to turn their season around. They have been outscored 194 to 51 in their four losses while outscoring their opponents 77 to 64 in their two victories.

Kugler is a coach that will take the bulk of the blame after a loss and give his team all the credit in a win; above all that, he’s proud to be part of the Miner alumni and proud to be coaching in El Paso.

But some grumble that in his third year at the helm of his alma mater, a record of 11-20 is not what they expected. And it’s record some say is very familiar.

The program was left to Kugler after Mike Price retired in 2012. Price’s stint at UTEP didn’t quite end like it began. A pair of 8-4 seasons to kick off his tenure gave the Miners national recognition, attendance jumped from an average of 20,009 to 47,899, but after nine seasons, a decline in attendance and a 3-9-farewell campaign in 2012, it was time for Price to go.

Two and a half seasons later, Kugler finds himself in a similar scenario: attendance is down and so is the Miners’ won/loss record. But above all that looms the unexpected: injuries.

The team has been decimated by injuries to key players like running back Aaron Jones, who’s out for the season due to a broken foot. The quarterback position has seen starter Mack Leftwich go down with a concussion, then Ryan Metz led the Miners to its two victories only to be supplanted by Leftwich during the bye week and is set to start again against Florida Atlantic on Oct. 24.

Coach Kugler/Photo - UTEP
Coach Kugler/Photo – UTEP

Some may ask, in spite of all the team’s injuries, is it time to spread the blame beyond than just Kugler taking it?  The defense has been gashed all season and the offense is struggling to find consistency. Kugler addressed that during Monday’s luncheon.

“We are coming off a bye week, a productive bye week for us.  The coaches did self-evaluations on each individual group and collectively as an offense and defense, to see where we can get better.  The goal was to come up with solutions rather than whine about why things have happened or what happened, or what’s the reason due to injury, whatever, that wasn’t what we were looking for.  We were looking at being honest, looking in the mirror at ourselves, being humble and coming up with answers.”

Earlier this year, Kugler said the quarterback competition was the best he’s ever been a part of. The competition included Lefwich, Metz, Garrett Simpson and Kavika Johnson. All but Simpson have seen playing time despite being listed second on the depth chart for most of the season. Even with the season’s results so far, Kugler sees the good in all of them.

“We went through a stretch with two freshmen quarterbacks, not just one, that have never seen the field.  We saw some of the positive results of that.  I think both of those guys are really talented.  I love both of those young men.  I think they’re going to be outstanding quarterbacks for UTEP in the future.  And we saw some of the negative results…those are all teaching moments for those guys but they’re not going to be set off to the side.  I think they are too talented not to utilize them in some way.”

Kugler also had a bit of good news to share, regarding injuries.

“Coming out of [that] bye week, guys like Mack Leftwich, Kelvin Fisher, Alvin Jones, Autrey Golden and Treyvon Hughes, guys that have either been out or extremely limited due to injuries the past few weeks…we will have all of those guys back healthy, which is very important to our team. “

As far as the plan for the rest of the season, Kugler said, ““We came back as a staff off the weekend and really took a hard look at what we can do to change practice to benefit our team, to change what we need to work on to emphasize things we have been lacking at, we wanted to take a proactive approach to attacking the things that we have been poor at…”

While it may be tough for some to endure the rest of the season, for the fans that stick around, there may be some hope.

Out of the six remaining games, only two of UTEP’s opponents currently hold a worse record than the Miners. Their next opponent, Florida Atlantic University has one win to five losses and North Texas has yet to win a game.

I don’t expect UTEP to run the table, but the wounded Miners should at least win two more games, starting this weekend against FAU.

Kugler will make no excuses for the team’s struggles and the players will echo that. The Miners may stumble to the finish line, but they are not ready to throw in the towel, perhaps the fans are, but coach had a message for all Miner fans.

“I want the fans to know that we have not given up on the year.  I hope they haven’t either.  Some people may have, I’m not concerned with those people.  I’m concerned with our team.  We are really going to do our best and roll up our sleeves to try to get this thing turned around this year.  We’ve got six games left and our focus is to improve on those six games this year.”