by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Looking for an interesting college football road trip this fall? Maybe something outside of the mainstream, but promising a unique experience? Perhaps a trek to a UTEP game at the Sun Bowl in El Paso will fit the bill.

Certainly, the setting for the Sun Bowl is almost unmatched, built as it is into the hills that rise sharply from the Rio Grande, which sits about a quarter of a mile away. Which also means that the Sun Bowl ranks as the closest sporting venue to an international border in the United States, a stone’s throw from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a bit nearer to the Sun Bowl than Windsor, Ontario to Joe Louis Arena, just across the Detroit River on the US/Canada border.

There is no argument that the Sun Bowl’s setting and sightlines are spectacular. Although all of the 50,426 seats in the bowl, constructed in 1963 and enlarged in 1982, are aluminum benches, there is not a bad look at the field in the facility. The absence of an athletics track around the playing field means spectators are closer to the action. Views from the upper rows include across the river to Juarez, providing an interesting vista.

Interesting, indeed. Unbeknownst to many, the El Paso-Juarez metro area is a teeming metropolis of approximately 2.3 million inhabitants that literally appears from nowhere in the Rio Grande Valley. Much of the cramped feeling is due to the densely-populated Juarez side of the border; estimates approximate the Juarez population alone at around 1.4 million, although no one seems to know for sure. The combined metro areas of the border cities has roughly the same population as Denver metro, jammed into less than half of the physical space.

With dwellings literally stacked upon one another and crammed into the hillsides on the south side of the narrow Rio Grande Valley, Juarez provides a sobering backdrop to its American neighbor El Paso, whose downtown is wedged into the hills on the north side of the valley. Although El Paso is not a particularly comfortable city, it might as well be Monte Carlo compared to impoverished Juarez, whose side of the international border has become a sort of ground zero for drug lords and illegals trying to cross into the USA. Law enforcement is considerable on the El Paso side of the international bridges, adding a menacing feel to the immediate border area.

Away from the Rio Grande and the international bridges, however, El Paso remains a welcoming place, its connection to other Texas metropolises only via the state’s name. West Texas, especially in El Paso’s westernmost tip of the state that sneaks beneath New Mexico along the Rio Grande and the Mexico border, is hilly and mountainous, not at all like the flat, pool table looks of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Lubbock, or various other Lone Star State cities to the east, northeast, and southeast. If El Paso seems in another world from those locales in the same state, well, it’s because it is almost in another world; El Paso actually sits closer to San Diego (730 miles to the west) than it does in-state Houston (758 miles to east). Travelers motoring westbound from New Mexico on I-10 will note a mileage sign just across the nearby state border that reminds drivers that Beaumont, further down the road on I-10 but still very much in Texas, is only 852 miles away.

Perhaps the out-of-the-way location has fostered the unique embrace that El Paso has with its university and its athletic teams. UTEP’s alums and supporters enjoy winning as much as anyone else, but they are notorious for going out of their way to make their coaches feel welcomed, and the pressure of big-time success is not pervasive. Miners hoops coach Tim Floyd, of whom many believed would jump at the chance to coach at what was considered by many to be his dream job at LSU, rejected any overtures from the Tigers a few months ago, so reportedly happy is he with the environment in El Paso, which has rolled out the red carpet for Floyd and his family.

Basketball, of course, has always retained a special place in El Paso from the days when the school was known as Texas Western and when legendary coach Don Haskins (under whom Floyd worked as an assistant early in his career) won the 1966 NCAA title with a landmark first all-black starting lineup. Track and field has also been a longtime strength at UTEP.

Football? Not so much. Although veteran HC Mike Price (left) has been given a lot of rope by boosters and administrators who have rewarded Price (also a tireless ambassador for the school and its gridiron program) with lots of patience after his first two Miner sides qualified for bowl games in 2004 & ‘05. That extended honeymoon, however, might be ready to end this fall. More on Price and the 2012 Miners in a moment.

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that the rampant conference switching which has become epidemic in college sports might be about to include UTEP as well. Regional sources say the Miners are itching to reunite with several former league brethren in the Mountain West after spending the past seven years in Conference USA. Indeed, had the proposed merger between the two leagues been consummated earlier this year, the Miners would have likely jumped to the Mountain side of the ledger. But with that proposal having fizzled (save for a potential new TV deal involving both leagues), UTEP is reportedly exploring other ways to extricate itself from the far-flung CUSA and its many long road trips to locales in distant time zones (East Carolina, Marshall, UAB, and for another year, UCF in Orlando, Florida). The thought of competing once again with nearer-by rivals such as New Mexico and others in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones has great appeal for the Miners, who were once joined with several of those schools in an earlier version of the WAC (which UTEP abandoned after the 2004-05 school year). Stay tuned for further developments.

As for the 66-year-old Price, the 2012 campaign looks likely to be the last chapter of a lengthy and colorful career that has featured him as a head coach for 31 of the past 32 seasons. UTEP, of course, provided a nice landing spot for Price after his ill-fated and very short-lived stint at Alabama ended before he ever coached a game for the Crimson Tide, and Price has rewarded the Miners with unending loyalty. Previously, Price had resurrected the Weber State program and provided the template for Washington State coaches during a 14-year career in the Palouse, always featuring lively, pass-oriented, progressive 1-back offenses and competitive Cougar teams, the best of which qualifying for two Rose Bowls as Pac-10 champs and five bowls altogether.

The personable Price, however, might be nearing the end of the line after six consecutive losing seasons in El Paso. The pattern in recent years has repeated, in which Price’s teams often break quickly from the gate before fading noticeably in the second half of the season. Two years ago, the 2010 campaign provided something of a microcosm for Price’s last six years, as UTEP (thanks largely to a soft early schedule) bolted to a 5-1 record out of the gate, only to lose five of its last six, barely managing an undeserved bowl eligibility. And that postseason adventure turned into humiliation when routed 52-24 by BYU in the New Mexico Bowl.

The 2011 campaign was much the same, Price’s Miners faltering down the stretch when losing 4 of their last 5 to finish 5-7 and miss bowl eligibility completely. Recurring depth concerns, always at risk of being exposed when injuries occur, have been annual impediments for UTEP in recent campaigns.

Price thus enters 2012 in the final year of a contract that has yet to be extended by AD Bob Stull (a former Miner HC between 1986-88 and the only UTEP football mentor to post a winning record since Billy Dobbs over 40 years ago). The Miner job is far from the most-demanding in the nation, but even UTEP can eventually see its patience run thin. Most CUSA observers don’t expect Price to return in 2013, either bowing out on his own accord after an unexpected winning season and bowl trip, or being forced out after what would be a seventh straight losing year. Many regional insiders are also speculating that Price is a likely candidate to step down before the end of this season if it looks as if the Miners are destined for another sub-.500 mark.

For what might be Price’s final trip around the El Paso track to be a memorable one, the Miner offense has to more resemble some of the high-powered strike forces that Price used to routinely field prior to last season, when an injury-riddled “O” slipped to mid-level national offense numbers (61st in rushing, 62nd in scoring, 64th in total offense, 67th in passing). Moreover, Price’s 2011 offense had a rare (for UTEP) run-first look featuring explosive RBs Joe Banyard (6.6 ypc in 2011) and Vernon Frazier (7.1 ypc last year) and a bend-the-pile force in punishing, 225-lb. Leilyon Myles (12 TDs).

All have graduated, although offseason work suggested that soph Nathan Jeffery (left, vs. Colorado State last October) will be able to pick up the infantry slack after erupting for 123 YR in the spring game. Another to watch could be RS frosh LaQuintus Powell, who missed spring to concentrate on academics but is due back in the fall and could provide Price with another jackrabbit to go along with the speedy Jeffery.

What Price and o.c son Aaron will be watching closely in the fall, however, is how a veteran OL (featuring four returning starters) holds up after a spate of injuries a year ago. Alarmingly, the forward wall was also hurting in spring when most of the projected starters were again sidelined.

Injuries were also a concern last season for sr. QB Nick Lamaison (right), a former juco who flashed some real upside (when healthy) in 2011. Shoulder problems, however, kept Lamaison out of three games and parts of three others last fall when he still passed for over 1700 yards and 12 TDs. Lamaison, with plenty of moxie, appears a better option than jr. caddy Carson Meger, who tossed just 2 TDP in 112 passes of relief work a year ago and was content to dump the ball short rather than look downfield, an affliction that does not affect the strong-armed Lamaison, who could use a bit better protection this fall after he and Meger were sacked a whopping 35 times in 2011, ranking a poor 106th nationally.

Capable and experienced receiving options seem aplenty, with sr. Mike Edwards (50 catches LY) and jr. Jordan Leslie (30 receptions in 2011) an established pair of downfield targets. As long as Lamaison can stay in one piece, expect this year’s Miner offense to more resemble the aerial shows that we have come to expect from Price’s teams in the past.

An upgraded strike force is only half of the battle, however, as Price’s UTEP defenses have not been able to consistently attract the same sort of impact performers as has the offense. Which has been reflected whenever the Miners have been asked to step up in class over the past several years. Routinely, the best offenses on UTEP’s schedule have blasted through the gears against the Miners, dominating in the trenches and usually running at will, setting up the pass at the same time.

It was more of the same last season when UTEP was again vulnerable against any competent infantry attacks, reflected in the Miners’ hefty allowance of 5.3 ypc in 2011. Such weak rush defense numbers rarely translate into won-loss success, but they have been a recurring theme at UTEP in recent years. Seven teams rushed for 200 yards or more vs. the Miners last season.

Only four starters return for d.c. Andre Patterson from last year’s stop unit that ranked in or near the dreaded triple digits nationally in all pertinent defensive categories. But the news isn’t all bad, as bulldog-like MLB Jamie Irving (left), a starter in 2010, returns to action after missing all of 2011 with a shoulder injury. Irving’s presence ought to at least provide another blockade in the middle of the platoon to hopefully impede opposing ball carriers who ran up the gut consistently vs. Patterson’s “D” a year ago. If nothing else, Irving should have plenty of chances to pad his tackle stats.

Still, the DL must display a bit more grit, and to that end it is hoped that the gem of the recent recruiting haul, 292-lb. DT Devonte Richardson from Arlington, provides some much-needed run-stuffing help for the defensive interior. Patterson is quietly confident that a pair of jr. DTs, 285-lb. Germard Reed (right, who suffered a scary head/neck injury in 2011) and 320-lb. Marcus Bagley, can also offer better resistance than a year ago.

The return of a healthy Irving is considered a godsend for the LB corps that lost all of its starters after last season (which might not be a bad thing), and an all-senior cast will give it a shot this fall. There are also all seniors projected to start in the secondary which features a pair of returning starters in CB Drew Thomas (who enjoyed a productive spring) and FS DeShawn Grayson, but the DBs were often torched a year ago as the Miners sagged with the 92nd-ranked pass defense. Don’t be surprised if true frosh CB DaCarlos Renfro works his way into the lineup rotation sooner rather than later.

Depth issues, however, have reared their ugly head for the stop unit in recent seasons, and are just a few injuries away from recurring again this fall.

Price has one more not-so-secret special teams weapon at his disposal in sr. P Ian Campbell, a Ray Guy Award candidate who boomed his punts for a 46.1 average in 2011. Campbell might come in handy again, as his prodigious booting ability should at least help the field position battle in the fall. Any little advantage the Miner defense can get is going to be important.

Spread-wise, note that Price’s Miner teams have recently been able to slightly reverse an extended subpar mark as a favorite; UTEP is 5-4 as chalk the past two years after a woeful 8-21 spread record laying points the previous five seasons. But late-season fades have been an unfortunate trademark of recent Miner teams, who dropped 4 of their last 5 vs. the number a year ago and 6 of their last 8 in 2010. Since 2005, Price’s Miners are 12-23 vs. the spread in their last five games of the season.

Summary...It saddens us a bit, because we have always liked Mike Price, of whom many regional insiders speak glowingly in personal terms, but the odds seem stacked against Price’s UTEP regime lasting into 2013. The veteran coach has yet to have his contract extended beyond this fall, and the 2012 campaign is likely to get off to a slow start with an opener vs. top ten Oklahoma at the Sun Bowl and road games at Ole Miss and Wisconsin before September is complete. With the early portion of the CUSA slate also menacing (at East Carolina, SMU, and at Tulsa by mid-October), Price’s fate could be sealed by midseason. Keeping lively QB Nick Lamaison healthy might give the Miners a puncher’s chance in some of those early games, but unless the defense makes big strides from last season, it is going to be difficult for UTEP to keep pace. Keep a close eye on this situation, as the Miners have routinely deteriorated down the stretch in past seasons, and the rot could commence earlier in 2012 with the combo of the tough early schedule and Price likely sitting in the eject seat.

The Sun Bowl, however, always remains an intriguing road trip destination!


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