El Paso Times
After two weeks, two power-conference opponents and two losses, any benefits UTEP reaped from its tough schedule were hard to quantify.
They seem much more tangible now.
Playing mostly without their best player (Nathan Jeffery), against a New Mexico State team that was quite competent in the first two weeks of the season, the Miners very much looked like a team stepping down in class.
After four offensive possessions UTEP was up 27-0, and as soon as the Aggies gave a hint of getting back in the game UTEP throttled the life out of them and set themselves up to be a darkhorse in a mostly down Conference USA and against a mostly down Wisconsin next week.
Ole Miss and Oklahoma "prepared us a lot," receiver Jordan Leslie said after his 147-yard night. "Going against the best corner, going against the best defensive linemen, it helped us playing against this team."
While Leslie talked about how a brutal schedule helped UTEP on the field, safety Ricard Spencer, who set the tone for the game with a first-series interception, talked about how it helped them in the locker room.
"You learn about your teammates and the people around you," he said. "We didn't give up, we fought through it and that helped us get closer as a team."
And despite the rough start in the win column, the ever-classy New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker had an interesting observation about the Miners.
"It was pretty easy for them to come out and have high intensity, especially when you have the thought in your head that you're the better football team," he said, perfectly summing up how a couple of losses just served to ingrain the notion among UTEP players that they have a good team.
A touchstone for the Miners can be what Tulsa did a season go. The Hurricanes, who are clearly the class of the C-USA West right now, lost non-conference games to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State in what may be the toughest non-conference schedule a quality team has played in recent memory.
They started a predictable 1-3, hit conference and rolled off seven consecutive wins to set up a de-facto West championship game with Houston.
UTEP could be in position to do the same. Road games with East Carolina, Southern Miss and Tulsa seem like losses, but a team that went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma and did nice things at Ole Miss won't be intimidated. Even the game at Wisconsin, which seemed like a paycheck drubbing when it was slated to replace a paycheck drubbing at Texas, no longer seems a hill too steep.
There are worse long-odds picks than UTEP (and Rice) in a wide-open C-USA where Houston, SMU and Tulane are in deep rebuilding.
Mike Price, perhaps serving as a contrarian to the legions who think UTEP is soft and all about finesse, constantly says his team is a tough, smash-mouth, rumbling group and maybe he has a point. UTEP is built around an offensive line, the middle run and a defense that suddenly counts tackling, pass rushing and closing to the ball as a strength (consider all that for a moment).
Until the Miners do something like going up to Camp Randall in Madison, Wis. and winning, or venturing across two time zones and beating East Carolina, they won't erase every negative stereotype against them.
They have at least a chance to do that.
Bret Bloomquist may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6359. Follow him on Twitter @bretbloomquist.