The Tricky Scouting Report: UTEP Miners

The #24 ranked Red Raiders are heading to El Paso to face off with the UTEP Miners on Saturday. Graham Harrell is looking to lead the Red Raiders to another victory after throwing for 352 yards and 5 touchdowns in last week's route of SMU. RaiderPower.com is here to break down the opposition and bring you the most in-depth scouting report you will find anywhere.

Off to a Good Start
The Texas Tech Red Raiders' 2006 season got off to a rousing start with a 35-3 drubbing of the SMU Mustangs at Jones AT&T Stadium.

Now, it's time to hit the road for Tech's first non-conference road game since New Mexico in 2004, where the Red Raiders fell to the Lobos in Albuquerque 27- 24. For their road opener, it's Mike Price and his axe wielding UTEP Miners.

The Red Raiders and Miners were last scheduled to clash in 2001, in a game that was postponed and ultimately cancelled due to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The Miners, like the Red Raiders, are a far different team now than they were five seasons ago.


UTEP Miners 
Sun Bowl, El Paso, TX
Saturday, Sept. 9 – 8:00 p.m. CST

All-time series: TTU 12-6-1
Last meeting: 1998 (TTU 35-3)
Miners 2005 Record: 8-4 (5-3) Conference USA
Head Coach: Mike Price (University of Puget Sound), 16-8, 3rd season
Offensive Starters Returning: 7
Defensive Starters Returning: 9


We love second chances in America.

Mike Price has made the most of the ‘second chance' he was presented after he was dismissed from the head coaches position at Alabama before he had ever coached a single game. The former Washington State coach was at the center of incredible controversy a little more than two years ago, but found quite a refuge in taking the helm of a struggling Miner program.

The impact of Price's leadership was immediate for UTEP, leading the Miners to 8-4 records in his first two seasons, after three consecutive two-win seasons under Gary Nord.

However, with budding success comes rising expectations, and the Miners in each of the first two seasons of the Price era have suffered disappointing late season collapses. They lost five of their last six games in the final three games (including bowls) of both the last seasons.  



The Offense: Spread (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB Basic)
Quarterbacks
How good Jordan Palmer ‘can be' may be a question that supercedes how good he actually is.  The senior quarterback and four-year starter for UTEP holds almost every school passing record.

Unfortunately, that list of records also includes a jaw-dropping sum of 54 interceptions.

Recently, the younger brother of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer at times seems more adept to throwing the ball to the other team than his orange helmeted brethren. As Palmer goes, so go the Miners. In the midst of the Miners' 2005 late-season crash, Palmer threw eight interceptions in three losses, including a dismantling at the hands of heavy underdog Toledo in the GMAC Bowl. 

Palmer's numbers were still pretty good last year, throwing for 3503 yards and 29 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. He led the Miners to a 34-27 Week 1 win over San Diego State, although he threw four interceptions letting the Aztecs back into a game that UTEP seemingly had in hand. He ended up throwing for 205 yards and three touchdowns.

Palmer can be very good at times, boasting an NFL-strength arm and making throws that other guys simply can't make. It seems at times Palmer has too much confidence in his arm and tries to make too many plays – which puts his team in bad spots. Jordan has been in a real funk of late, with 12 picks thrown in his last four games.

Palmer will have to forget his recent passing struggles and make the smart throws against Tech for UTEP to compete with them, as the Miners are very successful when he keeps their defense in good field position and off of the field.


Running Back
The Miners will look for more rushing continuity from junior Marcus Thomas (6-1, 220), a near 800-yard rusher from a year ago with over five yards a rush, and the team's leading ball carrier.  He was the only running back with any rushing attempts against SDSU last week, with only 24 yards on 17 carries.

Thomas is battling a nagging hamstring injury, and UTEP struggled to find its running game at all against SDSU, which was decent in 2005. There isn't much depth at all for UTEP at running back, so it may be Thomas or bust. The Miners must find better production against a better Tech rush defense on the ground to set up Palmer's passing game.


Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The Miners' main outside threat is undoubtedly senior Johnnie Lee Higgins (6 feet, 180), who boasts legitimate sub-4.3 speed and received for over 800 yards last year with over 17 yards per catch and nine touchdowns.  He was their main playmaker last year. Higgins anchored the UTEP passing attack with six receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown against San Diego State.

UTEP loses to graduation Chris Francies, Jayson Boyd and Aaron Givens, all of whom were key complimentary players in the Miners' solid passing attack last year behind Higgins. Mike Price is great at finding solid receiving talent, and this year is no exception, with tall, athletic receivers added to the mix with recent junior college transfers Daniel Robinson (6-4, 200) and David Sutton (6-5, 225) who combined for three catches against SDSU.

The tight ends are solid for UTEP, and could be a thorn in the side of the Tech defense – with three outstanding returners at that position who run a variety of routes very well in Price's offense. Junior Jake Sears (6-3, 250) should start, but sophomore Jamar Hunt (6-7, 260) spells him giving the Miners quite a one-two punch there. 

The Miners use the tight ends a lot in the red zone, and very effectively – as evidenced by both Sears and Hunt catching touchdown passes in the first game against San Diego State.

All around, the Miners' passing attack is TALL and pretty athletic and will create obvious match-up problems for most any defense.


Offensive Line
Three returning starters here, from a pretty good offensive line in 2005 that allowed 29 sacks on the year and looks to get better in 2006.

Their two best linemen, Josh House and Jose Garcia graduated, so the pressure is on some new relatively inexperienced guys in junior Oniel Cousins (6-5, 305), and senior Andy Smith (6-4, 300).

So far, so good, in respects to pass protection, as the Palmer wasn't sacked against San Diego State in their first game.

Returning on the offensive line is Robby Felix, Soph., James Riley, Jr., Tyler Ribitzki, Soph. They are all around 300 pounds and experienced.

Their running game was pathetic, though, in that SDSU game, with a measly total of 38 yards on the ground. They were below average last season, gaining well over 100 yards a game on the ground.

If the SDSU rushing output was just an aberration, then the Miners should find a good balance again and move the ball well against better opponents. If not, they will be in some trouble putting Palmer in situations where he has thrown a lot of interceptions in recent games.


The Offense - Overall
How sick the UTEP players and Jordan Palmer must be of hearing ‘interception talk.'

That being said, UTEP fans and Mike Price alike will hope and pray for Jordan Palmer to stop making bad throws to get the proverbial monkey off his back. The fact is he really hasn't been pressured much in throwing a host of recent picks.

The Red Raiders will find it difficult to get a lot of pressure on Palmer, with UTEP's talent at pass protection.  The speed of Higgins on the outside and the pure size and potential skill of every other skill player for UTEP is a match-up nightmare for anyone they will play. If they can get their running attack jump-started, there will be a lot less need for that ‘big throw' that has seemed to get Palmer in trouble of late. They're going to throw it down the field with very intricate timing routes and a solid screen game, but the Miners can't rely solely on the pass.


The Defense: Basic 4-3
Linebackers
The Miners lose their standout strong-side ‘backer and former Lubbock-Estacado star Thomas Howard Jr. to the NFL and graduation, but they will be solid again this year with senior starters Jeremy Jones (6-1 235) and Troy Collavo (6', 235) coming back.

Surprisingly Jones, not Howard, led the team in tackles last year, and Collavo was second, with the pair combining for a gaudy 242 tackles (29 for loss).

Senior Jason McQuay replaces Howard at the sam linebacker. All together, the linebacking corps will be solid and will make a slew of tackles for the Miners.


Defensive Line
The Miners' defensive line depth chart is very deep and pretty talented. Three of the four starters from 2005 are back for the 2006 campaign, led by their outstanding senior defensive end Alex Obomese (6-3, 245).  He is the Miners' version of Keyunta Dawson, as an athletic OLB-style defensive end, and was stellar in 2005 with 57 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions.

DE Joe Ward (Sr., 6-4, 250) and DT Zach West (Sr.,6-5, 295) are the other two returning starters, and DT Justin Hannel (Sr., 6-4, 285) steps in this season to be a full-time starter after starting seven games due to injuries last year, after surprisingly becoming the defensive line's second-leading tackler behind Obomese.

As mentioned, they are very deep and able to rotate a lot of able-bodied players into their defensive schemes. Look for Obomese on the outside to make a few big plays against Tech. 


Secondary
UTEP has very good safeties, but has had trouble finding consistency at the cornerback position. All four starters are back, but there have been some unsettling battles for starting jobs. 

SS Joe Fleskoski, FS Quintin Demps, CB Nate Draughon, and CB Josh Ferguson all return, although Draughon lost his starting position to the now-healthy senior Bryant Tisdale who was sidelined with a broken hand.

Senior Fleskoski and junior Demps are playmakers in the deep secondary, both with three interceptions and more than 70 tackles last year. Demps was huge against San Diego State making two key interceptions to solidify the win. 

Cornerback has been a dogfight all the way around from spring on, but it seems after the first game that Ferguson and Tisdale will start and see most of the defensive snaps. Size is a problem in the Miner cornerback depth charts, with no one sniffing six feet in height. They had some serious problems in Game 1 against SDSU, giving up 275 passing yards to an inexperienced receiving corps with a new offensive system under brand new coaches, and some big plays in key spots through the air. 
 

Defense - Overall
Overall, this is a good group. Linebackers Jones and Collavo, and safeties Fleskoski and Demps will control the middle of the field well and be solid tacklers, a must against the Tech spread offense. The Miners are very vulnerable on the outside with small inconsistent cornerbacks, and will rely the defensive line to get good pressure around Tech's huge line splits to keep the Red Raiders' outside threats from running wild.


Special Teams
The return game has been good with the incredibly fast Johnnie Lee Higgins making plays on both kickoffs and punts well above the national average. This should not change in 2006, and the Red Raiders must be solid in coverage because Higgins can be down the sideline in the blink of an eye.

The Miners' kicker is Reagan Schneider, who missed a 35 yard field goal and an extra point against SDSU, although he had a great 2005, making 18/21 FG tries. The Red Raiders should have good return chances on kickoffs, as Schneider rarely kicks touchbacks, and usually gets it down to about the 10 yard line.

Their punter is senior Ryan Hotchkiss, and only averaged 34 yards per punt on two tries against the Aztecs. 


UTEP – Overall Summary
Whether UTEP fans and coaches would like to admit it or not, the outcome and impending success for the Miners in 2006 is firmly on Jordan Palmer's shoulders.

It's not quite that simple, but a lot of what the Miners accomplish will rely on field position battles, and keeping their defense off the field for long amounts of time – and you don't win those battles giving the ball up to opponents in plus territory. UTEP has done that a lot in past four games, and it should be no surprise that three of those games were losses.

The running game developing will help, even though UTEP doesn't try to pretend to be a grind-it-out, rushing team – but they need more than they have been getting. A lot of the reason Palmer has been in situations to make mistakes throwing is because of the lack of a running game.

Make no mistake about it though – UTEP is a pretty good team and will be ready for Texas Tech. The defense is solid, and if the offense doesn't make mistakes they can be tough to beat.



The Tricky Prediction: Texas Tech 30, UTEP 21
What will the home opener for UTEP hold?  Will Jordan Palmer continue to struggle in key situations and make some devastating bad throws.

He threw four interceptions against SDSU last Thursday, but the Aztecs have a very experienced, solid returning secondary – ranking 22nd in the nation in pass efficiency defense last year.

Tech has a relatively inexperienced secondary that was untested for the most part against SMU and their new QB in Week 1. This will be a whole new ballgame against UTEP, and in no uncertain terms, Tech fans should not bank on Palmer making numerous mistakes to let Tech run away with it. UTEP should come out very solid and pumped up at home.

Offensively, the Miners will put some points on the board, just with pure receiving talent and pass protection. If there's one team that can win a shoot-out – it's Tech, although I don't think this will be as high-scoring of a game as most expect.  UTEP will disrupt some of Tech's middle-of the-field passing with their talented safeties and backers, while on the other side of the ball, the Miners haven't shown anything in the rushing department yet – and can ill-afford to get into a sling-fest with a Mike Leach-coached team.  

This will be a much greater test for Tech overall than SMU, and will tell us a lot about where this team stands.  The difference in the game could be mismatches on the outside with Tech's receivers on little cornerbacks. If UTEP does turn the ball over in key spots, they'll be out of the game in a hurry.

Even if the Miners play pretty well, barring a choke job that rivals New Mexico two seasons ago or Oklahoma State last year, Tech should still win.



Questions or comments? Email Aaron directly at Trickyleach@hotmail.com. Shout out goin' to my boy DFWTechFan. Wreck ‘em, Tech!


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