2014 New Mexico Bowl Preview
Utah State (9-4, 6-2 Mountain West) vs. UTEP (7-5, 5-3 CUSA)
Date: Saturday, December 20
When newly hired Oregon State coach Gary Andersen was at Utah State, the Aggies’ program became a winner. Since his departure, the winning has continued under former Andersen staffer and Utah State quarterback Matt Wells.
This season, Utah State has overcome tremendous adversity in the way of injuries to be a bowl win away from its tenth victory. The Aggies, who lost nine starters—including three quarterbacks and four linebackers—to injury, started 4-3 but proceeded to reel off five straight before dropping their season finale’ at Boise State.
Meanwhile, UTEP is in the midst of a program overhaul by second-year head coach Sean Kugler. Kugler, who went 2-10 in his inaugural season after returning to his alma mater prior to the 2013 campaign to take over for Mike Price, led the Miners to seven victories—including five of seven to close the year—and its first postseason trip since the 2010 New Mexico Bowl. With a win over Utah State, UTEP would win eight games for the first time since 2005. This will be the Miners second trip to Albuquerque, as they opened the year with a 31-24 over New Mexico at University Stadium.
Despite the instability at signal-caller, the Aggies still managed to produce just over 27 points, which was more than enough in most games given a defense that yielded just 20.8 ppg (21st nationally). They were stout against the run—allowing just 126.3 yards per contest—and forced 29 turnovers—which ranks seventh nationally. Utah State ranks in the top 36 nationally in five defensive categories.
They are led by inside linebackers Zach and Nick Vigil. The Vigil brothers are two of the nation’s top tacklers. Zach, a senior, was originally a walk-on. This season, he totaled 145 tackles—including 19.5 for losses and nine sacks—all team-highs. Nick, who averaged nearly ten stops per contest, also ran the ball 33 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior safety Frankie Sutera leads the team with seven interceptions.
They will present a strong test for a UTEP offense that is built around its running game. The Miners average just 357 yards per game and only 144 of that total comes through the air.
Sophomore running back and El Paso native Aaron Jones has rushed for 1,233 yards and 11 scores.
Senior Jameill Showers, who transferred from Texas A&M, has completed just 55 percent of his passes and throws it just over 20 times per game—not much by today’s standards. Showers has also run for nearly 300 yards.
Autrey Golden leads UTEP in receptions, but Ian Hamilton is the most dangerous option in the passing game. Hamilton has 500 yards receiving on just 23 receptions (21.7 per catch).
The Aggies will have to make sure they account for Golden in the kick return game, as he taken two to the house.
LaJuan Hunt leads Utah State with 524 yards rushing while Hunter Sharp has caught a team-high 63 balls for 918 yards (14.6 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns.
Junior JoJo Natson, who is second with 49 receptions and second with 458 rushing yards, is also a threat in the return game. Natson has returned two punts for touchdowns and averages 12.1 per attempt.
Defensively, UTEP is allowing 29 points and 370 yards per game. Senior defensive back Wesley Miller leads the team with 74 tackles and seven pass break-ups. The Miners have been very good at getting off the field on third down as opponents are converting just 36 percent of the time.
While Sean Kugler and UTEP have made many strides in a short time, take the postseason experienced Aggies to win this contest as they excel at stopping the run—which is the strength of the Miners’ offense. Additionally, their superior kicking game and ability to force turnovers could result in some short fields and superior field position which will make the job easier for the Utah State offense.
Prediction: Utah State 34 - UTEP 20
By Thomas Rosenbaum
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