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After a season filled with adversity, injury and an embarrassing lost opportunity to Boise State, the Aggies have a chance at something special: 30 wins in three seasons. This generation of Utah State seniors has been the most successful in the program's history and has one more chance to cap off their resume with a significant milestone. Standing in the way is a 7-5 UTEP team that does most of its damage on the ground, something Utah State contained well all season, until Boise State's Jay Ajayi ran them ragged for 229 yards and five touchdowns. Will Utah State cap off a tough season with one more victory? Or will UTEP spoil the fun for the Aggies? Here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's bowl game:
Ohio State gets all the hype for surviving losing three quarterbacks, but pundits clearly aren't paying attention to the Aggies. After losing Keeton, Garretson and Harrison, Kent Myers has stepped in admirably, if unspectacularly for Utah State. Myers struggled against Boise State, but so did the rest of the Aggies, completing his lowest percentage of passes this season (57 percent) and passing for 159 yards and an interception. Myers could be in for a tough day against the UTEP pass defense, which ranks second in Conference USA with 202 yards surrendered through the air per game.
If UTEP is to win this game, it won't be on the shoulders of senior passer Jameill Showers. Showers has 1,732 yards passing this season with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions in a run heavy UTEP offense. The senior has five games this season in which he hasn't thrown a touchdown and has thrown only one touchdown in UTEP's last five games. Myers may still be raw, but he gets the nod here.
Edge: Utah State
The Aggies will rely on LaJuan Hunt and Joe Hill to take pressure off Myers and keep the ball out of UTEP's hands. Hill has more carries overall, but Hunt had more success against Boise State and may be the hot hand heading into this game. Myers will get a few chances to scramble and it wouldn't be surprising to see a few sweeps or reverses to JoJo Natson to try to beat UTEP to the edge for a big gain.
The running game is the bread and butter for UTEP and will predicate if they succeed or fail against the Aggies. Leading the way will be Aaron Jones, who has 1,233 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns for the Miners this season. Nathan Jeffery and Showers will provide a change of pace element for Jones while the Miners will look to exploit any and all weaknesses in the Aggies' rush defense exposed by Boise State. Utah State will have to jump out to an early lead and place pressure on Showers to throw his way out of a deficit to win this game, rather than allow UTEP to grind the clock on the ground.
One key to this game will be taking advantage of big play opportunities in the passing game and pushing the ball downfield. Natson, Ronald Butler and Hunter Sharp will need to get open and provide Myers with quick options and deep routes to jump ahead early over the Miners. Sharp seems like a guy who is due to show up on the bowl game stage after slowing down in the second half of the season. After four straight games of 100 yards receiving, Sharp has yet to record 100 yards in the last seven games. If he or either Natson or Butler show up big, the Aggies will cruise in this game.
Of the success UTEP generates in the passing game, senior Ian Hamilton is the biggest beneficiary and target. He's got a huge frame and is a big play threat whenever he touches the ball, averaging 22 yards per catch and leading the team with 500 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Still, no UTEP player averages more than 42 receiving yards per game and Jones actually leads the team in receiving touchdowns this season with three.
Edge; Utah State
After a good season run blocking, the Aggies were manhandled and dominated by Boise State, rushing for only 109 yards after losing 54 on tackles for loss and sacks. Myers was sacked three times and looked uncomfortable all night, tossing an interception and fumbling once. Luckily for the Aggies, UTEP is not Boise State, ranking ninth in Conference USA in sacks and seventh in rushing defense. Utah State's offensive front should be able to generate more push this week.
UTEP's line is the best in its conference for pass protection, surrendering only 11 sacks this season. Part of that is the lack of passing attempts, but the unit still does well when called upon to protect Showers. The Miners are third in Conference USA in rushing offense, opening holes to the tune of 213 yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns. Utah State is probably the best defensive front UTEP will face this season, but the Miners have had enough success to have the advantage here.
Defensive Line and Linebackers
Despite the final score, Utah State did well generating pressure against Boise State, grabbing five sacks. Both the Vigil brothers, B.J. Larsen, Travis Seefeldt and Frankie Sutera had sacks, but the front seven as a whole looked more vulnerable than it ever had before. Still, USU held opposing offenses to only 4.8 yards per play this year, is holding opposing rushers to only 129 yards per game and allows only 3.3 yards per rush. UTEP will present a big challenge, but assuming the loss to the Broncos was an abberation, USU should hold up well against the run and generate at least a couple of sacks.
UTEP's front seven is middling at best, allowing 5.1 yards per carry (third worst in Conference USA) and 168 yards per game on the ground (seventh in Conference USA.) The Miners have allowed 23 touchdowns on the ground, good for fifth worst in their conference, and are tied for ninth in Conference USA with only 22 sacks this season. Roy Robertson-Harris and Cooper Brock are two players to watch for the Miners. The senior and junior have a combined 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Edge: Utah State
Utah State's secondary won't be called on often to make plays in the passing game, but they'll have to make them count when they do. Hamilton will be the primary target to slow down, while the secondary will also be called to stack the box and wrap up should Jones break into the open field. Another important factor will be if the Aggies jump out to an early lead, if the Aggies can force Showers into a couple of turnovers after finishing second in the Mountain West with 18 interceptions.
UTEP's secondary has been good at forcing interceptions, with 10 this season to rank seventh in Conference USA, and are a tough team to throw on, surrendering only 202 yards through the air per game. Myers will have to be careful to make good decisions with the ball and Utah State's receivers will have to make a few big plays. The Aggies get the nod here because of how little UTEP throws the ball.
Edge: Utah State
Prediction: Despite some major struggles against Boise State, the Aggies have a great chance to rebound in this game. They match up well with UTEP's rushing offense and should be able to fluster Showers into some mistakes. If they can jump out to an early lead and force UTEP out of its offensive comfort zone, Utah State will get that 30th win. The Aggies win this one 30-13.