Like FIU, UTEP is 1-4 heading into Saturday's matchup at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The Miners defeated New Mexico State, a former Sun Belt Conference foe of FIU, 38-22 to open the season and then lost four straight -- two against some of the better Conference USA teams in Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. UTEP also lost to nationally-ranked Texas and was rolled by Army 66-14.
Despite the record and what Bill Parcells says about records, UTEP is not that bad. The Miners have one of the best running backs in C-USA, weapons at receiver and tight end and some good linebackers. And until late in last week's game against Louisiana Tech, the Miners had found their quarterback in Ryan Metz until he was knocked out with a concussion against the Bulldogs. Metz has been ruled out for the game against FIU. Zack Greenlee, who started three of five games for UTEP, will start. Greenlee has completed 35 of 63 passes (55 percent) for 504 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions on the season.
Regardless of who is under center for the Miners, their offense revolves around running back Aaron Jones, who is averaging 132 rushing yards per game, has totaled 660 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the season. Jones averages 6.9 yards per carry. Last season the Panthers didn't have to face Jones in their 52-12 win over UTEP at FIU Stadium. Jones was lost for the season with an injury after the second game of 2015. Two years ago as a sophomore, Jones rushed for 1,321 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Jones might be licking his chops looking at FIU's rush defense numbers.
Part of what makes Jones and the UTEP offense so good is the massive offensive line. The Miners have three starting offensive linemen weighing 325 pounds or more. Right tackle John De La Rosa (325 pounds), right guard Jerrod Brooks (330), and left guard Will Hernandez (330).
The Panthers are allowing 222 rushing yards per game and have allowed 200 or more rushing yards in four of their five games this season. Only UMass's 116 yards on the ground keep the rushing defense stat from being five of five. FIU has to do a better job or Jones will run all over FIU in the Sun Bowl.
Should FIU contain Jones, the Panthers will also have to stop freshman receiver Eddie Sinegal and tight end Hayden Plinke. Each player has 12 catches to tie for the team lead. Plinke, who is a load to bring down at 6-4, 265 pounds, has three scores.
The UTEP defense can be run on. The Miners are allowing 226 yards on the ground per contest, including a season-high 426 rushing yards against Army, who features the run more than the pass in its offense. Still, with two struggling run defenses meeting in El Paso Saturday, the game could be one of the fastest of the season in time also because their is no television broadcast for the game.
FIU used the one-two punch of running backs Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones effectively against Florida Atlantic in the Shula Bowl. The Panthers seemed to employ more of a spread-type offense in their first game under interim coach Ron Cooper. FIU ran the ball 49 times and threw the ball 30 times. It appeared quarterback Alex McGough got the ball out quicker to the skill players. McGough also took his shots downfield. I liked how FIU tried some long passes near the end of the first half instead of taking a knee.
The strength of the Panthers defense is the linebackers, same goes for UTEP. The Miners are led by linebacker Alvin Jones (Aaron Jones's twin brother). Dante Lovilette and Nick Usher are the other two linebackers. Lovilette and Usher are one-two on the team in tackles. Alvin Jones would be up there too but he has missed two games to injury and is probable for Saturday.
Another factor that FIU may have to deal with Saturday is playing 3,800 feet above sea level in El Paso. FIU has only played twice in high-altitude cities in its 14-plus year history and that could come in to play if the FIU defense is on the field for long stretches. Back in 2004 the Panthers lost 56-31 against New Mexico State (same team UTEP beat in its season opener) at Las Cruces, New Mexico (elevation 3,908 feet). FIU lost to UTEP 33-10 in El Paso in 2013. El Paso is 3,800 feet above sea level. Of course, if the Panthers do their job then that number won't matter a bit.