Game 8 Recap – UTEP

In a game that seemed eerily familiar to last week, the Houston Cougars defeated the UTEP Miners 45-35 before an announced crowd of 27,433 Saturday afternoon at the Rob to even their record at 4-4 and 3-1 in Conference USA play. By eerily familiar to last week's 72-42 loss to SMU, I mean turnovers.

The Cougars forced SIX Miners turnovers with five of them being converted to 31 points for UH (including an unbelievable 97 yard ‘pick six' interception touchdown return by Cougars cover corner D.J. Hayden). Just last week the Cougars turned the ball over a ridiculous nine times that the Mustangs had converted to an unbelievable 45 points (including three ‘pick six' interception returns for touchdowns along with a special teams fumble return for a TD as well). Any peewee coach will tell you that you simply cannot win a football game if you make that many mistakes as a team. Of course the Cougars defense more than did their part in forcing those turnovers, just as SMU's defense did last week. Even after the game Cougars head coach Tony Levine mentioned that when he met Mike Price at midfield, the UTEP head coach said "I feel like you must have felt like last Thursday," via, in talking about how all of the turnovers turned into points for the opposition.

Overall, the Miners actually outgained the Cougars in total offense by 155 yards (494 to 339). Of course 193 of those yards for the Miners came in the fourth quarter, and if you add in the two previous drives from the middle of the third (AFTER the Coogs had gained a 45-7 lead), UTEP accumulated 287 of those total 494 yards after the Coogs were safely in front. This was a game where UH in years past would have won 70-7, but instead they took their foot off of the gas pedal and cruised home to the victory. This lack of a killer instinct is something that's learned as a team, not acquired. Hopefully this will be a lesson for the young Cougars (and coaching staff) as similar mistakes could cost the team a future victory, and the team is at a point in their season where they cannot afford to give away any more victories.

Defensively, the Cougars played a nice game (through two and a half quarters) but unfortunately they did not close the deal. Once the Miners seemed to figure out where defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant's blitzes were coming from, the Miners offense adjusted accordingly – under true freshman Blaire Sullivan, who entered the game late in the third for an ineffective Nick Lamaison and his backup Carson Meger. Sullivan was mobile enough within the pocket to lead his team to scores in four of his six possessions as he finished the game completing six of his ten passes for 110 yards with two TDs. Lamaison completed only 8 of his 18 passes for only 76 yards but more importantly four of those passes were thrown to Cougars defenders. Merger completed five of his eight passes in limited duty as all three UTEP QBs were under intense pressure for most of the first three quarters. Yet again the threesome of Trevon Stewart (at free safety), Phillip Steward (at Sam linebacker) and Derrick Mathews (at Will linebacker) amassed almost one third of all of the defenses tackles with 15, 13 and 8 tackles respectively. All three also had at least one sack and a tackle for loss with Steward and Mathews also forcing fumbles on ferocious hits as Bryant had them blitzing the UTEP QB's early and often. Unfortunately they are needed for pressure because the front four were ineffective in pressuring the QB on their own yet again. Defensive tackles Radermon Scypion and true freshman Tomme Mark did recover the fumbles forced by Steward and Mathews, however, and defensive end Desmond Pulliam (making his debut as a starter) contributed six tackles and half a sack on the game. Fellow DE William Moore also forced a fumble and contributed a sack with his quickness off of the edge. Unfortunately the front seven as a whole had trouble yet again with the QB ‘read option' game as they continue to try and do too much, often over rushing their passing lanes leaving gaping holes for opposing backs to run through. UTEP rushed for 233 yards on 53 total carries, although 40 of those were lost on sacks and tackles for loss giving UTEP a total of 193 for the game.

As good as Stewart, Steward and Mathews played, the star of this game had to be Hayden, who had two interceptions and probably changed the game with his aforementioned 97 yard ‘pick six' interception return half way through the second quarter. The Cougars were leading 21-7 but the Miners were on a nearly six minute, 60 plus yard drive that had them facing a third and eight at the Cougars 12 yard line where Hayden beautifully undercut a slant thrown by Lamaison at the first down marker and ‘took it to the house' scoring 97 yards later what was probably the back breaking score giving the Coogs a 28-7 lead and major breathing room. If the Miners had scored it would have been a slim 21-14 lead and the Cougars collars could have been getting a tad tighter. As good as Hayden played in the secondary, he wasn't the only star. True freshman Adrian McDonald (who backs Hayden) had the first interception of his young career half way through the third quarter ending Lamaison's night. McDonald was fourth on the team with seven tackles as well. Playing opposite of Hayden, Zach McMillian intercepted a pass as well, giving the Coogs four on the game.

Offensively, the Coogs did just enough to squeak by for the win. Of course when you're given excellent field position it's much easier to score without piling up a bunch of yards. QB David Piland started out shaky as his first three passes didn't come anywhere close to hitting his receivers, making many wonder if in fact he had come back from last week's concussion too soon. Alas, the young redshirt sophomore would start to find his rhythm later in the quarter leading the team on an 11 play, 61 play scoring drive that was finished off with a beautiful fade to receiver Deontay Greenberry to give the Coogs a 14-0 lead. The series before that running back Charles Sims took a handoff over left tackle 43 yards to the house for the Coogs first score of the game. Piland finished the game completing 16 of his 30 passes but for only 174 yards (he had been averaging 323 yards passing entering play) along with two TDs, as he took what the UTEP defense gave him for most of the evening. Mainly due to the six turnovers forced by the defense, the offense started with an average field position of their own 45 yard line for the game. The field position factor, along with the suburb running game, allowed Piland not to have to put the game on his shoulders. Sims rushed for 119 yards on only 12 carries as he was taken out of the game in the third due to an unspecified lower leg injury. Kenneth Farrow rushed for 28 hard hitting yards on 8 carries with Ryan Jackson contributing 27 on 9. Piland also contributed 23 yards on 4 carries including a 12 yarder on a called QB keeper on their very first offensive possession. The offensive line not only opened up huge holes for the Cougars backs to choose from, but they also kept Piland clean – not allowing a sack as they have given up only nine on the season.

Helping the offensive line protect the QB has been the way offensive coordinator Travis Bush has used Piland's abilities to throw on the run, whether on a bootleg or a called roll-out, and has continued to evolve, as does the Cougars ‘multiple' scheme under the first year offensive coordinator. In yet another new wrinkle for the offense, they used what commentators labeled as a "loaded pistol" formation where Piland and Sims line up in a pistol set (Piland 5 yards behind center, instead of the normal 7 in the regular shotgun), with Sims lined up 2 yards behind him. Farrow would line up in front of Piland on the strong side of the formation with a wide receiver motioning to the opposite side of Farrow, placing three players in the backfield. This creative formation is how receiver Larry McDuffy caught a 24 yard strike from Piland for a score giving the Coogs a 21-7 lead early in the second. The true freshman would later catch a 33 yarder out of the same set (and had 61 total yards on 3 receptions). The key for the formation is that it gives the offense an extra blocker if it's a running play, or the receiver will be able to run his route without the fear of being jammed on the line of scrimmage if it's a pass play, which could be even more lethal out of play-action, potentially. Piland once again spread the love, passing wise, as at least eight Cougars caught passes – with no one Coog catching more than three passes for more than McDuffy's mentioned 61 yards. Slot receivers Shane Ros and Daniel Spencer caught a combined five passes for 56 yards (highlighted by a 29 yarder on a crossing pattern by Spence). Ronnie Williams also caught a ball for 10 yards from a slot position. On the outside, McDuffy had a nice game along with the aforementioned Greenberry (with 3 for 17 yards including the 9 yard TD). Mark Roberts and Xavier Maxwell also ran some nice routes outside with Roberts catching a ball for 12 yards.

Speaking of Roberts, he probably made the lone highlight for the special teams when he leaped to block a UTEP field goal after they drove down the field on their first possession of the game. That was his second career block as he blocked an extra point last season versus UCLA. Returns wise the Coogs yet again played ineffective as yet another new returner, this time cornerback Alex Tillman, caught a punt on the run that he either should have signaled a fair catch on, or just let bounce. Speaking of bouncing, just as in last week's game at SMU, a number of Cougars walked right over a live punt as it lay rolling along the ground. Luckily nobody touched it as UTEP would have recovered the fumble. The kickoff coverage team, which had been a strong point, allowed nearly 25 yards per return on seven total. Punter Richie Leone had an un-Richie Leone type of day as he averaged only 39 yards on five total punts. Kicker Matt Hogan made his only field goal attempt of the day (from 24 yards) and has now connected on 14 of his 18 attempts on the season (and 53 of 64 on his career for an 82 percent mark). Special teams coach Jamie Christian must coach up his young players to know the rules so they stop making bone headed plays during the course of a game.

In all, a win is a win is a win, and it's much easier to learn from a win than it is from a loss. However, sooner or later Coach Levine's non aggressive attitude in not finishing out games will come back to haunt this team, in my opinion. While it's true that it's the players on the field making plays and not the coaches, the non-aggressive play calling in second halves of games filters on down to the players, who think they can just turn off then turn back on their intensity when they need it, which could be a grave mistake. That sooner could come next week as the Coogs travel to Greenville, North Carolina to face a mad group of Pirates (who are coming off of a bad non-conference loss to Navy – 56-28). The Pirates are 4-1 in CUSA's Eastern Division (half a game behind UCF) and are 5-4 overall. Game time is set for 11AM (CST) and will be broadcast by Fox Sports Net.

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