Game 8 Preview – UTEP

The Houston Cougars return to action Saturday to host the UTEP Miners (2-6, 1-3) at the Rob in a key Conference USA Western Division showdown. In reality, all of the remaining conference games are key as the Cougars are 2-1 in Western division play with five games remaining. Game time is set for 3:30pm (CST) and can be seen on Comcast Sports South.

Coming off of one of the worst losses in team history (a 72-42 loss at SMU last Thursday), this game will come down more to mental rather than physical toughness. If I’m Cougars head coach Tony Levine, I’m giving a heart-felt (and rowdy) pregame speech along the lines of, “...when you all walk out there, you’re going to see maybe a half full stadium. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because this game isn’t about them. It’s not about your friends, and it’s not about your family. It’s about YOU, and your brothers next to you. This is a game about toughness, and once that man lined up across from you hits you in the mouth, you look him in the eye and hit him right back!  You fight with all your might, no matter what happens out there and know that your brothers will be fighting along side of you. The coaches have given you all a good game plan and we have all the confidence in the world that you can execute it, but when you step out onto that field, all you’ll have is each other, and each other only, and nobody else. So the question remains, are you going to fight, or lie down and quit?! I’m confident I know what the answer is, but it’s on you guys to prove me right.” Or maybe I’ve just been watching too many cheesy sports movies lately. My favorite is “Remember the Titans” by the way.

Anyway, back to the game preview. This game may well be a game of attrition, as in which team has the better backup quarterback. The Miners head coach, Mike Price (who is 47-58 in his ninth year in El Paso and 176-180 in 31 years overall), said he felt that their starting quarterback (Nick Lamaison) will play Saturday (during his weekly media press conference). The senior signal-caller pulled a hamstring during last Saturday’s 24-20 victory versus Tulane. Lamaison is completing barely over 50 percent of his passes while averaging only 170 passing yards per game (with the Miners averaging nearly 230 per game which ranks them 68th nationally) in their spread offense, under coordinator Aaron Price. While only six teams nationally score less than the Miners 17.1 points per game, they have played (and lost) to some stout non conference competition in Oklahoma (a 24-7 loss that was close until the fourth quarter), Ole Miss (at least they’re from the SEC) and Wisconsin (a 4 point game with 4 minutes remaining in the game). Then again, the Miners have scored a combined 29 points in their three CUSA losses (to East Carolina, SMU and Tulsa) which shows their inconsistency.

While Lamaison’s numbers may not be impressive, he is a veteran, and the numbers were similar for SMU’s Garret Gilbert (in terms of QB efficiency) and we all know how he shredded the Cougars defense. Lamaison is also not the most fleet of foot, but he can pull the ball down and run on QB zone read plays when necessary. It was on one of these plays that he pulled his hamstring last week. If he cannot play, his backup Carson Meger will take the reigns and according to Price, the offense will not change. The redshirt junior started three games last season and knows the offense as much as Houston’s backup, Crawford Jones, knows the Cougars multiple scheme. The Cougars starting QB, David Piland, suffered a concussion against SMU but was cleared to practice on Tuesday and according to Levine, “He went through the entire practice and felt great.  Today was a step in the right direction,” the Cougars head man said via the Houston Chronicle. On how Levine plans to address the QB situation the rest of the week, “Tomorrow, as soon as I see David, I'm going to say, 'How are you feeling?'If he says, 'I feel great,' then we are going to proceed with him expecting to practice tomorrow and take all the reps with our first team, and Crawford will take all the reps with the second team.”

 Jones knowledge and experience showed last week at SMU when he completed 17 of his 33 passes for 252 yards with 3 TDs, though he did throw 2 interceptions. Bram Kohlhausen played in a few series and struggled as he completed as many passes to his teammates as he did to SMU defenders (two, in seven attempts). The young redshirt freshman may not have the experience that Jones has, but he has a better arm and with a full week of practice I see him as the better option (if Piland can’t go). The Miners have two true freshman who many fans are clamoring to see – Blaire Sullivan and Garrett Simpson. Sullivan has thrown one pass in a game earlier this season so his redshirt has been burned, but the freshman fans really want to see is Simpson (from The Colony – a suburb of Dallas), who at 6-foot-6 inches and 240 pounds is said to have all of the intangibles needed to be the man in El Paso for years to come.

Lamaison torched the Coogs for 267 yards (on 19 of 29 passing in last season’s close 49-42 loss) due in part to 246 yards rushing from Joe Banyard. While Banyard has since departed, the Miners rely on a plethora of backs that help them average 125 yards per game (97th), led by Nathan Jeffery’s 414 yards on 94 total carries through seven games. He started last week but was ineffective with a reinjured groin, so UTEP turned to a committee at tailback. Autrey Golden is second on the team with 163 yards on 36 carries (4.5 yard per carry average) with Laquintus Dowell adding 118 yards on 23 total carries (5.1 ypc). Josh Bell leads the team with three rushing TDs as they use his bruising between-the-tackles running in the red zone. The sophomore from Sugar Land’s Kempner High knows how to use his solid 210 pounds, as does Jeffery who at 205 still has the quickness to out run opposing defenses on the edge.

The Miners four rushing TDs on the season have shown their ineffectiveness in the red zone, as UTEP has crossed the goal line only 8 times in 23 total trips. Only three teams in the nation score a TD less than that 36.36 percentage clip. One of those teams though is SMU, who as bad as they are – scored four TDs in six red zone trips last Thursday night against the Cougars defense. On the season the Cougars have allowed opponents to score almost 60 percent of the time they get into the redzone (19 out of 32 trips). Defensively, led by defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant, the Cougars rank 77th nationally in run defense, allowing opponents to rush for 170 yards per game.  The Cougars defensive front seven must do a better job at the point of attack against an improving UTEP offensive line that starts two sophomores, two seniors and one junior. Look for the Miners to run to their right side behind right tackle James Nelson and his behemoth like 355 pounds. Their center is a three year starter in 315 pounder Eloy Atkinson. With guards Kyle Brown (right), all-CUSA freshman selection Jerel Watkins (left) and left tackle Brander Craighead “barely” tipping the scales at 285 pounds, the Miners offensive line averages around 305 pounds per man. It will be up to Zeke Riser, Joey Mbu, Radermon Scypion and Desmond Pulliam as the starters along the line from right to left, with backups Kelvin King, Efrem Oliphant (at end) and Dominic Miller, Tomme Mark, and Jeremiah Farley (inside at tackle). The best news out of Coach Levine’s Tuesday media press conference might have been when he mentioned that Eric Braswell will probably be switched to end full time in order to generate more of a pass rush. Starting left end Lloyd Allen is still out and might be back next week, according to Levine.

 The above mentioned defensive linemen must improve and be able to rotate and play strong enough to allow linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews to reek havoc in the Miners backfield. Both Steward and Mathews are among the nations (and CUSA’s) leaders in both tackles (10.86 and 8.86 respectively) and tackles for loss (both have 12.5 on the season). The lack of pressure from the front seven has allowed opponents to pass for 285 yards per game on the season. Only 12 other teams in the nation are worse in pass defense, statistically speaking. Look for Mathews and Steward to be blitzing off of the edges in Coach Bryant’s 5-2 front often as the Miners offensive line has allowed 21 sacks so far this season, tied for 106th nationally.

Both Steward and Mathews are also as good in pass coverage as they are in attacking the line of scrimmage which will be needed against a Miners wide receiver core that doesn’t feature just one star receiver (as all three starters are young and new as they’ve had to replace three seniors.) Their leading receiver this season is Leslie Jordan with 618 yards on 40 receptions (15.4 yard per reception average). Next is Mike Edwards (who is coming back from a concussion two weeks ago) with 546 yard on 35 receptions (15.6 avg).  Edwards leads the team with five TDs receiving while Jordan has four. Jordan is the more physical threat at 6-feet-2, 210 pounds while Edwards is more athletic and quicker at 5’11, 190. The two combined for over 100 yards on 9 receptions in last season’s game against the Coogs, with Edwards catching a TD. One of their other newcomers to keep an eye on is 6’5, 220 pound JC transfer Ian Hamilton. After returning an interception for a TD last week, the Miners would be wise not to pass to Cougars cover corner D.J. Hayden’s side of the field as Coach Levine mentioned Tuesday, “He’s made a lot of great plays and offenses really aren’t going after him. He’s one of the best corners I’ve been around and I’ve been around some good ones.” True freshman Adrian McDonald has been doing a nice job the few times that Hayden needs to be spelled. The corners opposite D.J., Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates, will be tested as they always have been and probably vertically as the Miners have the athletes at receiver to stretch a secondary. True freshman Trevon Stewart must continue his upward progression at free safety as he is third on the team with 58 tackles. In all, the defense must stop giving up the big plays as they have this season and wrap up when tackling. When the unit plays fundamentally sound they have the talent to stop any team in this conference.

Coach Price on the Miners defensive strategy against the Cougars up-tempo high scoring offense via the elpaso Times.com, “There are two ways (on stopping the Cougars offense). SMU came after them and blitzed a lot. And they knocked their quarterback out of the game and put heated pressure on the next two backups. Or, its have them get their yards and come up and tackle them, and don't allow big plays. They're a big play offense. You have to take angles. I would think it's hard to play man against them. I think just playing zone and keeping the quarterback in front of you is the key. We have to put pressure on the quarterback and mix up the coverages.”

The Miners have been allowing almost 200 yards per game rushing defensively with nearly 250 through the air. Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson definitely believes in speed over size as his front four average doesn’t even average 270 pounds across the line. This lack of size up front has led to many of those rushing yards as their line has continually been gashed up the middle this season. Leading the way in the Miners 4-3 front is right end Horace Miller. The junior from Baltimore, Maryland has six sacks on the season (half a sack behind the Cougars Steward) along with 6.5 tackles for loss. Inside at tackle are 320 pound junior Marcus Bagley and 275 pounder Germard Reed, who also has 4.5 tackles for loss. Greg Watkins is the other end, who at 235 pounds has only one and a half sacks on the season. Cougars offensive coordinator Travis Bush will probably employ the same type of game plan as he did two weeks ago versus UAB – establish running back Charles Sims early and often (especially if there is a new starter at QB), even if it means slamming him inside on the Cougars vaunted inside zone blocking scheme, in order to wear out the smaller Miners defensive front. Sims is averaging more than 115 yards so far this season and has scored 8 TDs on the ground. Kenneth Farrow could also see more game action if Bush wants to ‘ground and pound’ as the redshirt freshman is becoming more and more comfortable as a physical between-the-tackles runner as he has punished opposing defenses for 225 yards on the season. Both Sims and Farrow average 5.7 yards each time they rush.

The Cougars offensive line, from left to right, consisting of Rowdy Harper, Ty Cloud, Kevin Forsch, Jacolby Ashworth and Ralph Oragwu (who combine to average out to about 312 or so pounds per man) are coming off of a rough game at SMU where the Mustangs often got to Piland even with a three man rush, and will be looking to atone against the Miners. After allowing the Mustangs to sack Piland three times, the offensive line has allowed nine on the season, tied for 28th nationally. Besides Miller’s six sacks, the rest of the Miners defense combines for only five.

With possibly a new starting QB under center (well in the shotgun anyway) for the Coogs, it will be impossible to tell how it will affect the passing game, which ranks third nationally averaging almost 365 yards per game. If Sims can be established early, it will open up the intermediate passing game that Bush and this offense love so much. Outside receiver Deontay Greenberry had his best game last week against the Mustangs and hopefully he will be targeted more as the season progresses. He has done a nice job blocking down field as well, which is nice to see out of a true freshman who was rated so highly (by all of the scouting services). Greenberry is fourth on the team in receiving yards, with 316 yards (two behind Sims) on 28 receptions along with one TD. Slot receiver (and fellow freshman) Larry McDuffy is right behind Greenberry with 276 yards receiving, although he is averaging over 16 yards per reception. The other outside receiver, Dewayne Peace, leads the team with 42 receptions but only averages 10 yards per reception (458 yards) with 2 TD catches. The top receiver, yardage wise, is the other slot receiver Daniel Spencer (511 yards on 36 receptions). He has a 14.2 yard per reception average and is tied with Sims with three TD receptions. Fellow slot receiver Shane Ros was an afterthought last week for reasons unknown, but is still second in yards per reception only to McDuffy with 15.3. Of course if Piland gets the start, look for him to take advantage of a young Miners secondary with the short quick passing game while also trying to confuse them with their up tempo no huddle offense.

If the Miners go to a cover-2 zone look against the Cougars, the linebackers will be in coverage as much as the secondary. Mike (middle) linebacker Jamie Irving, who at 225 pounds is good at covering opposing slot receivers or backs coming out of the backfield. Their leading tackler is Will (weakside) backer, Josh Fely with 72. He also does an outstanding job in coverage as he has 5 pass breakups. Free safety Deshawn Grayson cleans everything up for the Miners and has 55 tackles, which is second on the defense. He also has four pass breakups. Richard Spencer, out with an injury for the season, was their most experienced starter on defense at strong safety has been replaced by true freshman Shane Huhn who has three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble recovery) in three games since starting. Drew Thomas is a play maker at one corner spot as not only does he have 6 pass breakups, but he has also recovered two fumbles and intercepted a pass. Speaking of forcing turnovers, let’s talk about the special teams.

Coach Levine has named Damian Payne as the new punt returner with McDuffy on kickoffs, replacing Peace and true freshman RB Ryan Jackson respectively. Both Peace and Jackson had struggled with holding onto the ball in both return games. It will be imperative for the return teams to give the offense great field position to help the potentially new starting QB. Richie Leone and Matt Hogan continue to be bright spots for the punting/kicking games team while Dakota Warren and Steven Valadez have combined to make only 6 of their 12 field goal attempts. Miners’ punter Ian Campbell is only averaging 41.2 yards per punt while only allowing 4.1 yards per return. Edwards is averaging nearly 10 yards per return on 8 of them.

One of the major keys for this game will be as always, the Cougars getting out to an early lead. The Coogs are a good front running team, but when adversity hits they have yet to answer back. In each of the three home victories (including the Rice game at Reliant), UH has outscored its opponents 34-7, while in its 4 losses have been outscored 56-23. The Miners have only allowed an average of 4.5 first quarter points to their opponents so far this season however, so something has to give. In their previous two losses the Cougars have turned the ball over an amazing 15 times. Out of those 15 turnovers, 12 have resulted in 58 points for Cougar opponents (UCLA and SMU). Of those 58 points, 28 have come directly from opposing defenses via an interception or fumble returned for a TD. The offense cannot continue defeating themselves in this type of fashion. While the Miners have taken the ball away from opponents 13 times, they have given it back 13 times for a turnover margin of zero. That’s good for 57th nationally, while the Coogs are a minus ten, which is 116th nationally, a trend that cannot continue if the Cougars hope to keep winning games.

Prediction Time: Well I’m probably as shaky as the Cougars fragile confidence since I picked the Coogs to easily beat SMU by a score of 34-17 last week, so I’m not really sure this week. As I’ve mentioned in previous preview pieces, it’s hard to predict how this team will play since the only thing they have been consistently good at, is being inconsistent. I’ll bite though, and say the Coogs come out motivated and dominate. With social media being as prevalent as it is these days, these kids know what people are saying about them and they’ll want to make amends for last week’s sloppy loss. That, along with personal pride helps push them past UTEP, 45-14.


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