p>The Houston Cougars travel to lovely El Paso, Texas Thursday night (Sept. 29th) to battle the UTEP Miners at the historic Sun Bowl to open up C-USA play. Game time is 7pm (CST) and will be shown nationally on the CBS College Sports Network. The Miners come into the game with two wins and two losses under head coach Mike Price.

The coaching veteran has a record of 42-47 in this his 7th season as leader of the Miners. Before coaching UTEP he was 83-78 in 14 seasons at Washington State where interestingly enough, Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin began his coaching career in 1989. Price was also 46-44 in 8 years as Weber State head coach before that. He is known as an offensive guru (but then again, aren't all of the coaches in CUSA?) but has spent the past few years concentrating on the defensive side of the football before taking more interest in the offensive side this season.

I spoke with Miners co-offensive coordinator Aaron Price today and he described the Miners offense, "We were more of a conventional spread offense back at Washington State but this offense is more of a traditional one back pro style offense. Our QB is under center quite a bit and we use a lot of two tight end sets as well." When I asked him if the Miners use a lot of no huddle he laughed and said, "It's funny you should ask that, because my father was telling the media earlier this season that we're going to use this ‘new thing' called a huddle before we get into our plays." Making the huddle more of a requirement was because the Miners used the spring and summer to anoint a new starting QB, as they had to replace four year starter Trevor Vittatoe. The rookie with the Chicago Bears passed for 12,439 yards and 97 touchdowns over his career in El Paso.

The Miners starting QB will be a game time decision but if Nick Lamaison is healthy he should take a majority of the snaps. The junior college transfer from Mount San Antonio College in West Covina, California has all the makings of the typical drop back pro style QB that the Price's love as he stands in at 6'1, 210 pounds and has a rocket for an arm. He separated his right shoulder (AC joint) during the third quarter of their second game at SMU. If he's healthy enough to throw an accurate deep pass coach Price has stated that he will probably start. In the first game and a half, Lamaison completed 39 of 64 passes for 507 yards and threw for three touchdowns (and two interceptions). If Lamaison can't go, then last week's starter, Carson Meger will get the starting nod. The 5'11, 200 pound sophomore from Plano can make all of the throws that are required for the Miners offensive scheme and has completed pretty well, for "having been thrown into the fire" according to Price. Before last Saturday's game at USF, Merger had thrown four career passes but he finished the game completing 26 of 40 for 240 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Javia Hall is the Minders third team QB and I wouldn't expect to see too much of him as the redshirt freshman has been pretty inaccurate so far this season. He might be used in the Miners version of a "wildcat" package as the graduate of Dallas's' famed Skyline high is fleet of foot. Price has stated that they don't like to use their starting QBs in their run game as they take too many unnecessary shots that risk injury.

Although UTEP is only 85th in the nation in rushing yards per game at 86.5 per, Price said they do consider themselves a power running team and will try to establish the run first, as their play action game only works if opposing defensive fronts are ‘sucked in' by run fakes. The Miners have a plethora of capable backs in Joe Banyard, Leilyon Myers, Vernon Frazier and Nathan Jeffrey. Banyard leads the team with 143 yards on 28 carries for a tidy 5.1 average along with one rushing touch down. At 210 pounds the senior is shifty yet also can run between the tackles. Myers, at 6'1 230, is the short yardage power back who leads the team with four rushing TDs among his 113 rushing yards. Frazier is their ‘change of pace' back at 5'6 175 pounds. The senior from Duncanville is 7th in the nation in kickoff return yardage as he averages 33.1 yards per return. He is also used more in their passing game. The pleasant surprise of the season has been Jeffrey, who has run for 87 yards on only 11 carries for a sweet 7.9 yard average over the past two games. Whoever produces the most for the Miners certainly won't hurt the Cougars as much as departed veteran Donald Buckram inflicted on the Coogs defense over the years. Two years ago Buckram ran roughshod over the Cougars defense to the tune of 262 yards and four rushing touchdowns among his 32 carries. The Miners won that game 58-41 in El Paso defeating the then #12 ranked Cougars weeks after they had defeated both Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to put the Sumlin/Keenum era on the national radar of sorts.

Miner receivers to keep an eye on include Mike Edwards, Donavon Kemp and Julio Lopez. The three seniors have accounted for 605 of the team's 1009 receiving yards and 41 of the 84 total receptions. Kemp is the burner of the group as he averages 18.8 yards per reception and leads the team with four catches of over twenty yards. The Miners will use a two tight end formation extensively led by Kevin Perry. The 6'5 255 pound sophomore has added about thirty pounds to his frame and was more known as a wide receiver at Houston's Westbury Christian. While he averaged 17.7 yards per catch last season, he is averaging a nice 13.9 this season on his seven receptions. Eric Tomlinson has only two catches for twenty six yards but both are touch downs. The 6'6 255 pounder is known more for his blocking abilities.

Defensively, the Miners have been improving slowly yet surely under second year coordinator Andre Patterson despite being 93rd in the nation in total defense allowing 408 yards per game(including 192 on the ground). Before taking the job at UTEP he spent the previous ten seasons as an assistant on various NFL staffs where he learned his aggressive pro style philosophy. He believes in a strong, tough and physical front four that can pressure the QB. Pressuring the QB with only his front four (with an occasional linebacker blitz) allows him to disguise coverages on the back end. Having said that look for him to use multiple fronts to vary the looks thrown at Cougar QB Case Keenum as he has seen everything in the book. Keenum has also thrown for more than 1200 yards in his career against UTEP. The Miners already have 10 sacks on the young season with James Davidson(defensive end), Horace Miller(defensive end) and Richard Spencer(backup strong safety) all having two apiece. Their two starting ends Bernard Obi and Greg Watkins only weigh in at 255 and 225 pounds respectively but use their speed aggressively. The middle of their interior front are led by monstrous tackles Jamie Fehoko and Marcus Bagley who clog the middle at 300 and 335 pounds respectively. All three linebackers weigh at least 230 pounds led by senior captain and mike backer Jeremy Springer who has 16 tackles. Free safety Deshawn Grayson leads the team with 22 tackles while injured strong safety Travaun Nixon (15 tackles) should be returning following a two week absence for a knee sprain. While Nixon leads the team with two interceptions, the Miners have two veteran corner backs in senior Antwon Blake and junior Drew Thomas. Both of whom will be counted on to be physical against the plethora of speedy Cougar receivers and who might play man coverage on assorted blitz packages.

UTEP has executed fake punts over the past two weeks and coach Sumlin stated that the Cougars need to be prepared for anything when talking about the Miners special teams. Their punter, Ian Campbell, is 10th in the nation averaging 46.2 yards per punt and the Miners are dangerous in both the kickoff and punt return games, led by the aforementioned Frazier. True freshman receiver Anthony McGhee has returned four punts for a 10 yard per average. Their field goal kicker, Dakota Warren, is only six of twelve on field goal attempts but two of those were from 45 yards on out. And finally the Miners kicker, Steven Valadez, has nine touchbacks on 19 total kickoffs.

During Tuesday's weekly media press conference, coach Sumlin said don't look too far into the fact that Eric Braswell and Nick Saenz both started at left end and free safety over previous starters Kelvin King and Colton Valencia respectively as he said it was just a matter of getting certain players in the game for certain defensive packages. Freshman Derrick Mathews continues to impress with his 36 total tackles, second only to the 41 by defensive captain and fellow inside backer Marcus McGraw. Sumlin has stated that the linebackers are able to accumulate these tackles because of the work done up front by King, Braswell, David Hunter, nose Dominic Smith and rush backer Sammy Brown. Brown, among his 31 tackles (which is third on the team) has 9.5 tackles for loss, good for first nationally. He has played much more disciplined this year according to Sumlin as last year he played much more ‘sand lot ball' since he arrived late to summer camp. Sumlin also stressed that he's not worried about playing a Thursday night game as his team has played on every night except for Sunday or Monday, during his tenure as head coach. He said the key is to "balance preparation time on the practice field with giving guys enough rest in order to be fresh for the game." Case reiterated the same point by saying he watched video of the Georgia State game and had UTEP on his mind by Sunday. He's also looking forward to staring CUSA competition as he stated, "I know this league is extremely competitive and any team can beat any team in any given game."

The odds favor the Cougars winning the game by more than two touchdowns, but the Coogs always have a way of making this series competitive. The first quarter will obviously be key as Houston needs to get off to a fast start in order to quiet the home crowd and kill the confidence of the Miners. The Cougars defense, which is improving by allowing 382 yards per game or good for 75th nationally, can't allow the Miners to use their aggressiveness against them with misdirection or wildcat plays. Special teams will also be a huge factor as the Miners have one of the more dangerous return teams in the nation. While the Miners have won four out of five meetings between the two teams in El Paso, the Cougars lead the series winning four of the six games since UTEP moved to CUSA but the games have been close for the most part. During CUSA play, the Cougars have averaged 41 points per game while the Miners have averaged 35. I look for the Coogs defense to play an inspired game while the offense continues to put up its Madden like numbers as the Miners do not have the speed to contain Houston's offense.

Final prediction: Houston 41, UTEP 25 as the Cougars pull away late.

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