The 49ers face off against C-USA basement dweller UTEP nearing bowl eligibility for the first time in program history.
“On Monday in practice, we moved on to a really difficult test in UTEP,” said Charlotte Head Coach Will Healy. “[They’re] a well-coached football team, they’ve got plenty of weapons, and obviously they are hungry and have a point to prove.”
Charlotte veteran players, including senior running back Benny LeMay and offensive linemen Cameron Clark, have emphasized staying focussed on the task at hand -- UTEP -- and not allowing bowl hype from fans and the media to become a distraction.
“We’ve been in this situation before, [but] first we have to go 1-0 [this week],” said Clark. “I told the offensive line on Monday, we’ve been in this position twice and I still don’t have a ring on my finger. You have to win the games; consideration is not enough at this point.”
To reach bowl eligibility, the 49ers will have to overcome their road struggles as they’ve gone 0-4 in away games this season.
“We have not won a road game [this season],” said Healy. “This [game] is to show the progress of our program, and we know our work is cut out for us.”
Although UTEP is in a three-way tie for last in the C-USA with a 1-7 record, the Miners have several dangerous weapons, including mobile quarterback Kai Locksley and receiver Tre’Shon Wolf, and the two threats are improving in all facets of the game on a weekly basis. After scoring 20 or more points in their last two contests against North Texas and Louisiana Tech, the Miners are playing their best football late in the season. As such, the 49ers are preparing for the Saturday, Nov. 9 matchup with the same thoroughness and attention as they would for any other opponent.
“They’ve improved each and every game the last couple of weeks,” said Healy. “They’ve played some guys really tough. They just haven’t been able to get it over the top in conference play, but they’re definitely capable of doing so.”
Offensively, the Miners operate in a spread scheme through the shotgun formation. Typically, Locksley starts for the Miners; however, the Miners often play second-string quarterback Brandon Jones as well. While Locksley presents more of a rushing threat to opposing defenses, Jones poses as more of a true pocket passing quarterback.
“He’s (Locksley) a big, tall and strong athlete. And he can run over you, he can make you miss laterally, he has really good side-to-side quickness, and he has made a lot of plays for them,” said Healy. “I think he can beat you in the pocket [too],” said Healy.
At 6’1” and 235 pounds, senior running back Treyvon Hughes complements Locksley’s quick, elusive running style by bringing a bruising, strong running technique. Hughes leads the Miners with 114 carries and 519 rushing yards. Hughes enters the matchup against the 49ers coming off a 97-yard and three-touchdown performance, while Locksley has 279 rushing yards on the season. Keeping the UTEP offense one-dimensional by containing their dynamic two-headed rushing attack will be a critical task for the Charlotte front seven.
Locksley and Jones’s top receiving threats are Wolf and Justin Garett. Wolf and Garett lead the Miners in receiving with 306 and 213 receiving yards respectively. Similarly to the 49ers’ previous opponent MTSU, the Miners’ top receivers do not pose much of a vertical, down the field receiving threat. Rather, Wolf and Garett are significantly more attuned to catching short and intermediate passes. Combined, Wolf and Garett have one reception for more than 25 yards. The Charlotte secondary suffocated a group of receivers similar to the UTEP receivers last week against MTSU, indicating that they may be in for another productive week.
The Miners boast the second-most porous offensive line in the C-USA, having allowed 28 sacks for a loss of 201 yards this season. In contrast, Charlotte star pass rusher, Alex Highsmith, spearheads one of the most tenacious pass rushing attacks in C-USA. Anticipate Highsmith and company to bring Locksley and Jones down in the backfield multiple times.
Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds and the 49ers’ offense is likely to continue their recent high-scoring play against the Miners’ defense that ranks second-to-last in total defense in the C-USA.
The Miners front seven has struggled to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks and to keep opposing rushers from getting to the second level. The Miners rank second to last in total sacks in the C-USA this season and ninth in total rush defense.
“They’re a well-coached team and they’re in their gaps,” said Clark. “Their defensive line, they’re not technically penetrators, [but] they like to get hands and read. They have multiple fronts, they really try to beat you with their eyes, so we’re going to have to be on that on offense.”
As a result of the Miners’ front seven play, their defensive backs are often called upon to make tackles in the open field as all of the Miners’ top four tacklers are defensive backs. The Miners’ experienced, senior-rich secondary is led by safety Micahel Lewis who has a team-high 65 tackles.
The 49ers have proven they have a deep stable of capable and talented ball carriers as junior running back Aaron McAllister registered a 104-yard and 2-touchdown performance in place of injured star running back LeMay last week. Reynolds has also proven to be a capable ball carrier, either through improvisational scrambling or through read-option plays, as he has rushed for 199 yards over the past two games.
“[Reynolds’s running ability] is major for the offense because then everybody can’t just have their eyes on Benny or A-Mac (Aaron McAllister) or Victor [Tucker],” said Clark. “It adds an extra component to the offense that defenses definitely have to account for.”
With LeMay potentially returning to the 49ers deep stable of ball carriers, the Miners’ defense could be in for a long day.
One area the Miners have excelled in this season is special teams. UTEP kicker Gavin Baechle enters the matchup 8-9 on field goals and 15-15 on extra points. Additionally, kick returners Duron Lowe and Walter Dawn Jr. are explosive in the return game. Lowe flashed his playmaking ability last week against North Texas with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Furthermore, Dawn Jr. is averaging 22 yards per kick return this season. Covering kick and punt returns are one area the 49ers have struggled with this year. The 49ers allowed touchdowns on a kickoff return in the home-opener against Gardner-Webb and on a punt return against UMass.
The 49ers look to take a step closer to reaching bowl eligibility in El Paso, Texas at 3 p.m.
“It’s a difficult trip, [but] it’s an exciting trip for me because we are really going to see how good we are,” said Healy.