Houston Bowl • Reliant Stadium • Houston
2:30 p.m. (MT) • ESPN
Head Coach: Mike Price (1st year)
2004 Record: 8-3/6-2 WAC
Head coach Mike Price brought his spread offense with him when he took the job in El Paso prior to this season. The Miners run a similar scheme to what Price's team's ran during his tenure at Washington State, the same one the Cougars run under former Price assistant Bill Doba, a team CU beat 20-12 in September.
Leading the Miners' attack is quarterback Jordan Palmer (Carson's younger bro), a 6-5, 230-pound sophomore. The drop-back passer threw for nearly 2,500 yards in 2004, and spread the ball around a lot. Seven Miners receivers had double-figures catches, led by Jayson Boyd, with 35. The Cougars have some big targets at wide out, including 6-foot-4 Boyd and 6-foot-1 Chris Francies. And 6-0, 175-pound Johnnie Lee Higgins is a burner, reportedly running a 4.28 40.
That 40 time is topped only by teammate Howard Jackson, the diminutive (5-9, 160-pound) running back for UTEP, who, according to UTEP media relations officials, has been clocked at 4.26. Jackson averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2004, and is also a favorite target out of the backfield in the passing game, hauling in 28 receptions this fall.
Player to watch: What Jackson lacks in size (some say the 160 pounds is a generous listing) he makes up for in quickness and toughness. Gary Barnett said he reminds him most of Kansas State's Darren Sproles among the backs CU has faced this year.
UTEP defensive coordinator Tim Hundley coached defensive line under Rick Neuheisel at Colorado for four years. In Hundley's first year in El Paso, the Miners' defense has improved significantly. UTEP allowed nearly 100 fewer yards per game (349) in 2004 than the previous season, and rank 11th in pass efficiency defense in the nation (102). They allowed 24.4 points per game this fall, as opposed to 38.3 the year before.
First on the Miners' defensive agenda will be trying to stop Colorado's run game by using a lot of bodies in their defensive front. As many as eight players could see time up front in UTEP's 4-3 defense. Tackle Zach West is a load at 295 pounds, while starting ends Brian Givens and Ibok Ibok have some quickness and strength (Ibok benches 429 pounds) coming off the edges.
UTEP also features a decent linebacking crew, led by senior inside guy Robert Rodriguez. Outside 'backer Thomas Howard has serious speed (4.38 40). The Miners may try and fit eight defenders — the four down linemen, three linebackers and a safety – in the box to try and keep the Buffs from establishing a ground game.
Senior cornerback Adrian Ward is a first-team all-WAC selection and has five interceptions. Free safety Quintin Demps was named co-WAC Freshman of the Year and has 52 tackles.
Player to watch:Rodriguez is an active 230-pound linebacker, and was named WAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. Rodriguez leads the team with 107 tackles, including 15 for loss.
Placekicker Reagan Schneider has been consistent from 49 yards in this season. Punter Bryce Benekos has a solid 44-yard average on punts and has placed 17 kicks down inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Speedsters Higgins and Jackson are dangerous kick return men, while Jahmal Fenner has a touchdown on a punt return in '04.
UTEP STATISTICAL LEADERS
Passing: Jordan Palmer, 191-324-2,490, 24 TD, 16 INT
Rushing: Howard Jackson, 223-1,150/5.2, 9 TD
Receiving: Jayson Boyd, 35-420/12.0, 4 TD
Kickoff returns: Johnnie Lee Higgins, 13-294/22.6
Punt returns: Jahmal Fenner, 19-313/16.5, 1 TD
Punting: Bryce Benekos, 57-2,507/44.0
Tackles: Robert Rodriguez, 107
Tackles for loss: Rodriguez, 15-61
Sacks: Thomas Howard, 8-59
Interceptions: Adrian Ward, 5-87