Two Steps Back: Vittatoe Fizzles, Tulane Dominates UTEP in the Sun Bowl

Two plays.  Two passes.  Two Trevor Vittatoe mistakes will force Miner fans to reevaluate a lot of things about the 2010 UTEP Miners Football Team.

Trevor Vittatoe has had a good career at UTEP.  He's broken, or will break, every possible passing record that UTEP has. But, as I've pointed out, he's ultimately failed to accomplish two things necessary for any quarterback's career to be considered a success.  

He's never led UTEP to a winning (or .500) record.  He's never taken UTEP to a bowl game.

And now, three and a half years into his career, it's time to seriously wonder whether he ever will.

Over Trevor's last two seasons, I think most rational Miner fans have understood that he'd played well enough to get UTEP to that level, but his cause wasn't helped by the colossal mistake that was Mike Price's decision to try the 3-3-5 defense.  Last week, as UTEP had their first chance to become bowl eligible since 2005, Trevor was banged up and the Miners lost to UAB.   Injuries happen. 

But against Tulane, Trevor didn't look injured.  And, UTEP's 4-3 defense hasn't been the Iron Curtain, but they've played well enough to give the offense a chance to win both the UAB and Tulane games.  

Tonight,  Trevor was handed the ball late in the fourth quarter of a tie ball game.  On a huge third and four play, Trevor simply missed two receivers who both appeared to be open past the sticks.  Yes, he missed them both.  The pass limped between two Miners and not even Jon Teicher could figure out who the pass was intended to. 

That drive came on the heels of a monumental defensive effort, led by key plays by DeShawn Grayson, Marcus Bagley, and Bernard Obi.  UTEP's defense fought hard to force Tulane to punt with about 11 minutes left in the game.  The crowd, all 25,000 people there, was roaring.  And, Trevor simply missed an easy throw.

Tulane took over, and with UTEP's depleted defense gassed, easily marched down the field.  Travaun Nixon, UTEP's best cornerback and possibly the Miners best defender, was burned for a 43 yard touchdown from Ryan Griffin to Casey Robottom.  

Now, UTEP's offense was handed the ball down 31-24 with under 5:30 on the clock.  On UTEP's first play, Trevor double pumped on a quick out pattern.  I don't know what caused the hesitation, but Trevor telegraphed a quick out that was easily intercepted by a Tulane defender.  

Two straight passes in crunch time.  Two terrible throws.   And, that's the ball game.

This loss isn't entirely on TV's shoulders.  I'm not saying that.  UTEP's defensive line play, ripe with inexperience and battered by injuries, was dominated all night by the Tulane offensive line.  Tulane carried the ball 51 times for 260 yards (5.1 ypc).  

After the UAB game, the secret is out.  In order to beat UTEP, all you have to do is run straight at the heart of Andre Patterson's 4-3 defense and wear them out.  That's how UAB's Justin Brooks, who wasn't able to do anything against anybody else on their schedule, had a career day against UTEP.  That's how Orleans Darkwa, fresh of a knee injury, dominated UTEP's defense.

Darkwa's rushing stats over his last four games:  19 carries for 98 yards; 1 TD.

Darkwa's rushing stats against UTEP:  21 carries for 114 yards, 2 touchdowns.

The defense struggled, but for the second straight week UTEP's once dominant offense failed them.  I've always wondered what Trevor Vittatoe and company could do if they had a defense that could just give them a shot in some of these games and keep it close.  The defense is doing that.  When the dust settled, it was 24-24 and UTEP had the ball with 11 minutes to play.  The offense simply couldn't get it done.

Here are my other comments, in bullet points:

 

  • The Wildcat:  UTEP's ground game looked stellar for most of the game.  The improvement was almost entirely caused by the insertion of James Thomas II as UTEP's quarteback.  When Thomas is in the game, the Miners become a one dimensional offense built completely off the ground game, but he opens things up with the zone read and other wrinkles that allowed UTEP's Donald Buckram to post the best game of his season (10 carries, 81 yards, TD).  Thomas finished with six carries for 37 yards.
  • No Grinding Here:  In the third quarter, the teams seemed destined to trade touchdowns.  A Travaun Nixon interception led to a Leilyon Myers touchdown run.  Griffin answered with a 7 yard strike to Casey Robottom after Antwon Blake fell in the end zone.  The defense was starting to tire.  On the ensuing UTEP drive, Trevor Vittatoe fumbled the ball at the UTEP 44 yard line.  It looked like TV's knee was down, but the play was held up on replay.  The fumble led to a Darkwa touchdown.  The fumble was a back breaker.  UTEP held the ball for 4:41 in the third quarter and scored one touchdown.  Tulane held the ball for 10:10 and scored twice.
  • The Red Zone QB:  Against UAB and against against Rice, UTEP's offense has struggled to score red zone touchdowns with Trevor Vittatoe in at QB.  UTEP opened the game with two three and outs.  Finally, on their third drive Vittatoe got the Miners down to the 9 yard line.  The drive stalled and Dakota Warren hit a 26 yard field goal.  The next drive, Thomas was inserted and he marched UTEP down the field in a drive that ended with Buckram's first touchdown of the season. UTEP hadn't scored a touchdown since Rice and it was James Thomas II that brought the spark that made it happen.
  • Not so Stellar Screen:   I think UTEP OC Aaron Price called  heck of a game.  Last week, I criticized Price for panicking late in the game for abandoning the run and trying to pass UAB to death in a one possession game with a banged up QB.  This week, Price used Thomas II well, he called several screen passes that would have all gone for big chunks of yards.  Vittatoe simply couldn't throw a catchable screen pass.  UTEP quarterbacks were a puzzling 1/10 with 14 yards in the first half of the game.
  • Can't Catch a Marlon:  Credit UTEP return man Marlon McClure for becoming UTEP's second best receiving threat and for consistently killing it in the return game.  McClure had an incredible punt return for a touchdown called back because of a penalty. Marlon had 5 kick returns for an incredible 153 yards and he was UTEP's leading receiver with four receptions.
  • Who Turned off the TV?  Trevor Vittatoe was a confident, steady passer in his first six games.  Six games in, he had an incredible 14 passes to two interceptions.  In his last two games, Trevor has 1 touchdown, 5 interceptions, and a fumble. 
The return of Awards.  Due to last week's injuries, I didn't give out awards.  That wasn't fair because DeShawn Grayson played an incredible game at UAB that was worthy of some recognition even in the losing effort.  Tomorrow, awards will return because some Miners played good football.  For others, well, that's why we have the "Goat" category.

[Note by Adrian Mac, 10/25/10 12:55 AM CDT ]  Update:  When I posted this entry yesterday, I incorrectly identified frosh LB James Davidson as the perpetrator of the ill-timed block in the back penalty on McClure's punt return touchdown. Davidson was not responsible for the penalty.
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