El Paso Times
A near-universal truth of college football is that every team has a player it will struggle without. That goes double among mid-majors.
In 2008, Oklahoma was a top-five team with dreams of a national championship before it lost Sam Bradford, replaced him with freshman Landry Jones and ended up in the Sun Bowl. In 2009, Houston played for a Conference USA title behind Case Keenum. He was hurt the next year and the Cougars went 5-7, he was healthy again in 2011 and they went 13-1.
For UTEP, the difference-maker is Nathan Jeffery. He's a special talent, a tailback good enough to play for any team in the country. Against a top-five Oklahoma team, he rushed for 177 yards.
His backups are all underclassmen and right now the two main ones are true freshmen. Without Jeffery, who has a pulled groin, UTEP averaged 1.2 yards per carry against Ole Miss and scored three points on three red-zone trips.
That sounds like an excuse. Injuries and overcoming them are part of football. Truth is, every team at every level has a guy they aren't the same without, and for UTEP it's their sophomore tailback.
"We missed Nathan Jeffery," Price said.
That was only part of UTEP's problem against Ole Miss, but the lack of big plays in the running game enabled the Rebels to tee off on the pass rush and Nick Lamaison was under siege all night. Where it hurt most was in the red zone, as UTEP was futile when it got inside the Ole Miss 12-yard line and just gave up downs when it tried to run.
UTEP left 18 points on the table on those three red-zone trips and they lost by 18 points.
As the game wore on, true freshman Autrey Golden gave a glimpse of the future as he looked more and more comfortable running the ball. If Jeffery comes back next week against New Mexico State, Golden looks like an answer at back-up tailback, and that's a question UTEP needed answering.
What the Miners need for the rest of the year is for him to be a back-up and not the starter.
"Everybody knew (Jeffery) was down, but I thought he'd take a few reps when we needed him the most," Golden said. "There are always areas we can improve. Personally I showed I can step up, there are areas where I can help the team win."
Defensively the 538 yards UTEP gave up was too many, and the 97-yard touchdown drive that turned 7-0 into 14-0 was the definitive moment in the game. Still, there was encouragement in the second half when UTEP gave up just seven points despite allowing Ole Miss to drive to at least the Rebel 47 on six of seven possessions.
"We never quit," Aubrey Alexius said. "We have a great, great defense, one of the best we've seen in a long time. We trust each other."
"We need to fix little things," Richard Spencer said. "We need to get our eyes right."
Taken together, UTEP has done many things well in the first two weeks. The Miners ran the ball against Oklahoma and threw it effectively against Ole Miss. The defense is only giving up 26 points per game, which is an adequate number in the West division of Conference USA.
Other than missing field goals the special teams have been good.
None of that added up against Ole Miss and Oklahoma, but similar efforts could against the typical conference teams the Miners will face starting in three weeks against East Carolina.
Undoubtedly, UTEP has to get better. The Miners have a foundation for that, now they need to build.
Bret Bloomquist may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6359. Follow him on Twitter @bretbloomquist.