The Cougars rallied from a first quarter deficit for the third consecutive road game, allowing the Miners to score the games first 14 points as they were more physical at the point of attack establishing their power running game behind senior running back Donald Buckram, errrr Joe Banyard, who rushed for 240 of UTEP's 271 overall yards. Charles Sims paced the Cougars pounding ground game with 111 yards on only 12 carries for a 9.2 per carry average. His only rushing touchdown came on a scintillating 40 yard scamper up the middle on a delayed draw, a play after Cougar quarter back Case Keenum hit receiver Tyron Carrier on a 25 yard reception. The 65 yard scoring drive took two plays and only twenty six seconds off of the clock and seemed to spark the Coogs as they would score two more touch downs in the next 2:31 to take a 21-14 lead (both off of forced turnovers by the defense). UTEP would drive down the field to tie the game at 21 forty five seconds before halftime. Sims 40 yard run capped off the first Houston score and was the Cougars seventh scoring drive of the season that took less than one minute and twentieth that took less than two minutes.
Offensively the Cougars rolled (especially in the 2nd half) after yet another rocky start. Keenum, the Cougars Heisman contenting QB, completed 30 of his 46 passes for 471 yards along with two touchdowns. In the 1st quarter he only completed 7 of 15 for 57 yards (two of those incompletions came in the first minute and a half of the second quarter as the Cougars third series began in the first quarter). The offense started to wake up after Sims scoring run as the Coogs scored on 7 of their next 11 possessions while trying to run out the clock on the final two. Keenum completed 23 of his final 31 passes for 414 yards, and that's with 8 dropped passes from his teammates. The offensive line did a fantastic job in keeping Keenum clean and although he was pressured numerous times by UTEP's front four, he wasn't sacked at all and has only been sacked six total times for the season. The line opened up enough holes to allow two Cougar running backs to rush for over 100 yards. Sims previously mentioned 111 yards and Michael Hayes rushed for 104 yards on only 10 carries, good for 10.4 per carry. Seven of Hayes 111 came on one play on a 3rd & 1 half way through the third quarter as Hayes bounced off of a tackle on a Miners run blitz and scurried untouched the rest of the way. Bryce Beall wasn't need with Sims and Hayes doing the heavy lifting as he carried the rock only 5 times for 18 yards. That's the great aspect of the three headed Cougars RB monster; opposing defenses never know which back will be the one to hurt them. This was Sims first break out game of the season as he also had an 84 yard touchdown reception on a looping 5 yard swing pass from Keenum that seemed to put the game away as the TD put the Cougars up by two scores after Keenum hit receiver Justin Johnson for the 2pt conversion (giving the Coogs a 49-35 lead with six minutes remaining in the forth quarter.
The Coogs received contributions from numerous receivers including the always game Patrick Edwards who caught 8 passes for 144 yards. Johnson is really stepping up his game this season as a slot receiver and had 69 yards on 7 catches. Tyron Carrier had 5 receptions for 77 yards but should have had much more. The senior dropped five passes by my count, but the senior still contributed with a nice down field block taking out two Miners defensive backs on Sims 84 yard TD run. E.J. Smith caught his first TD of the season among his five receptions for 55 yards. And of course both Sims and Hayes contributed in the passing game as both are very important as check down receivers and are key in the Cougars "screen" passing game.
Defensively, the Cougars allowed a team averaging only 87 rushing yards per game entering the contest to rush for 271 yards on 50 carries so they obviously didn't do their job, as head coach Kevin Sumlin says via the Houston Chronicle, "They ran it all over the place. They did it in a variety of ways. When we got the power stopped, they went to a little different game. We got that stopped and then they went to the draw. Then we got that stopped and they screened us. It was a chess match the whole night." Miners QB Nick Lamaison threw for 267 yards and completed 19 of 29 passes and three touchdowns as the Miners passing game riddled holes in the Cougars zone all night long. On the bright side, a few Cougar defenders that continue to shine include linebackers Sammy Brown, Marcus McGraw and Phillip Steward. Brown, the will or rush backer, had seven tackles including two for loss and one sack. McGraw was all over the place yet again and registered six sacks (including two for loss), one sack and one fumble recovery in which he returned 34 yards for a TD that gave the Coogs their first lead of the night at 21-14 during their scoring barrage in the 2nd quarter. Steward led the team with eight tackles and had one and a half sacks. The team had four sacks for the game and eight on the season. Dominic Miller also had a nice game as he was in UTEP's backfield quite a few times. The junior nose guard had six total tackles including one for loss and half a sack. It should be noted that safety DJ Hayden did not play in the game due to an injury. This definitely hurt as he is one of the impact players in a rebuilt secondary. Fellow safety Colton Valencia left the game in the 3rd after a vicious hit to Miners receiver Donovan Kemp. Nick Saenz also had his first interception of the season.
Special teams were not so special for the Cougars during the game as far as the return games were concerned. Edwards and Carrier looked shaky yet again in the kickoff and punt return game as they both bobbled balls yet again and usually reliable kicker Matt Hogan missed a 32 yard field goal in the first. The call for kicker Jordan Mannisto to pooch a kick to give the Miners the ball at midfield for their first possession of the third was very questionable to me. Mannisto did have a nice night overall as he kicked five touchbacks on nine kickoffs, negating the dangerous Miner return game. Punter Richie Leone was his usual rock solid self as he averaged 42.2 yards on 4 punts.
The Good: Offensively the Cougars totaled over 700 yards (710 to be exact) for the second consecutive game and are second in the nation averaging 610 per game. All this despite a rocky start for the third time in five games. Once they get rolling with that short quick passing game I don't think there is a team in the nation that can stop this team(although I'm curious to see how they fare against an SEC front seven in the Liberty Bowl-let's hope this article doesn't jinx them). Add in the running game, which is now averaging nearly 160 yards per game along with the creative formations(diamond) created by co coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips along with their no huddle up tempo pace this attack can be lethal when hitting on all cylinders.
The Bad: Once again, when a team is averaging only 338 total yards per game entering play and they gash you for 538, you know something needs to be fixed. It seems as if when the defensive front is playing aggressive up front, the back end is passive. The NFL style scheme, orchestrated by 2nd year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, dictates that the defensive backs play 7 to 10 yards off of the receivers allowing them too much space to find holes in the middle of the Cougars zone. The receivers must be impeded at the line of scrimmage somehow (with not necessarily a jam) more often so they just can't find a spot, sit free and allow the QB to play ‘pitch and catch' for major yardage.
The Ugly: Sometimes it seems as if the Cougars are their own worst enemy at times, especially in this game with all of the penalties, missed tackles and dropped balls by the receivers. One holding penalty wiped out a 13 yard TD pass in the third and the Cougars had to settle for a field goal on the drive instead of a touch down. Coach Sumlin summed it up best when he said, "We're honest with ourselves. We didn't play very well, and we've got to play better as the season moves on. The good news is we did win those games and we'll be back home at the Rob." While this is true these kinds of self inflicted wounds can and will cost the Coogs a game against a good CUSA team (see Tulsa and SMU at the end of the season along with a rivalry game versus Rice in a few weeks).
The Cougars now begin a stretch of three consecutive home games that begins next week as the East Carolina Pirates next Saturday(October 1st) at 6pm. Following are nationally televised games versus Marshall (on the 22nd and Rice (Thursday the 27th) as hopefully the team (and more importantly the defense) begins to build steam towards their pre season goal of winning C-USA.