It all started just like I thought it would. UTEP methodically marched down the field on their opening drive of the game. The Miners chewed up 4:42 off the clock and drove 60 yards before Trevor Vittatoe found Pierce Hunter from 7 yards out for the games opening score. 7-0 Miners.
Then, Andre Patterson's new defense took the field and Houston never looked back.
Missed tackles. Penalties. Confusion in pass coverage. Nothing resembling a pass rush. Anything and everything that could go wrong with UTEP's defense did last night. And, to add insult to injury, UTEP lost senior safety Braxton Amy for the season with an ACL injury.
Offensively, the Miners moved the ball throughout the contest but left a lot of points on the field. Incredibly frustrating penalties, particularly in the red zone, killed drives. UTEP's offensive line played well for the most part but UTEP never made a full commitment to the run even though Joe Banyard and Vernon Frazier were having some success getting 3-4 yards on first down.
After the opening drive, everything quite simply fell apart. The defense looked confused. It almost seemed like UTEP wasn't aware that Houston was going to use screen passes 2-3 times a series. Seemingly every time the Cougars ran a screen pass, there were no Miners within 5 yards of receiver. And, if there was a Miner present, a tackle would surely be missed. Easy money.
Case Keenum had all day to throw. I think I saw him get hit one time and until his injury late in the game, I don't think his uniform had touched the field at Robertson. Bernard Obi? Non- Factor. The new DT's? Blasted off the line.
To be perfectly honest, it looked like Houston's offensive line was the Varsity, and the Miners front 7 were the JV.
The real tragedy was UTEP's rush defense. Houston didn't need to pass. All they had to do was give it to Bryce Beall (an egregious 19 carries for 195 yards, 3 TD's) or Michael Hayes (17 for 77 w/ 3 TD's) and let them embarrass our front seven. I almost want to watch the game again just to count the missed tackles and come up with a per play number. The only way to describe UTEP's tackling is to say that it was embarrassingly bad. I'm not sure that a Houston running back ever hit a wall at the line of scrimmage. They hit the line at full speed time and time again and when a linebacker would fill a gap, a tackle would be missed. Every time.
I think we all knew that it would take time for Andre Patterson to fully install his 4-3 defense and for the Miners to adjust to it. I think deep down we all hoped that UTEP's offense would keep pace and give the defense time to figure things out against the nations #1 offense. With no Donald Buckram to carry the load, the offense never looked to be fully in rhythm, several drives stalled early on, and before we knew it, in a blur, the game was out of reach.
And, just when it looked like UTEP had woken up, the coaching staff gave away a scoring opportunity that could have changed the game. UTEP, trailing 37-17, was awoken with Travaun Nixon intercepted Case Keenum and had a dazzling 68 yard interception return all the way to the Houston 10 yard line. Not only that, but UH seemed confused and shell shocked for the first time all night because Case Keenum was injured on the return. All of a sudden, UTEP had a golden opportunity to cut the lead to 13 and Cotton Turner would come in with a little pressure on his shoulders. What happened? Incomplete pass. 5 yard gain to Jonny Moore. Incomplete pass. On 4th and 5 with the stadium rocking, the coaches elected to kick a 22 yard field goal from the impossible left hashmark angle. Of course, Dakota Warren shanked it right and the Miners fell back into limbo.
The coaches had to go for it there. A field goal, down 20, does nothing for the team there. Trevor Vittatoe had done an admirable job all night of hitting receivers on third and long to extend drives. He's a senior. He had played very well. Give him the ball and let him make a play. Show some confidence in him, right?
Nope. The coaches punted. And, the Miners brought rocks to a gun fight.
There were some good performances from Miners last night. And, there were some that were worse than others. Here are last nights post game awards for the best and worst performances of the night.
Post Game Awards
Best Defensive Performance:
Travaun Nixon: playing in his first game as a Miner, played with heart and almost single handedly gave UTEP a chance to make a game of it late with that spectacular 68 yard interception return. Nixon missed tackles too. But, who didn't?
Defensive Goat of the Week:
Best Offensive Performance:
Trevor Vittatoe. Credit the offensive line here too. It's not like Vittatoe was ever running for his life either. He had time to throw the ball more often than not. TV finished 30/54 with 340 yards and 3 touchdowns. No interceptions. His completion percentage may not have been great, but keep in mind that Miner receivers dropped passes all night.
Runner Up: Kris Adams. 7 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Adams is a serious weapon out there. It's a shame that he wasn't more involved in the game plan.
Offensive Goat of the Week:
The Coaching Staff: The decision to kick the field goal late in the game. The way too early abandonment of the run. The lack of any offensive innovation until late in the game (see the 9 play 83 yard drive where James Thomas played QB on one play and capped by the Donovan Kemp touchdown). On that drive, the Miners offense showed what it could do. It was too little, too late.
Runner Up: Corey Trisby.
I hate to single out one person for a single play. But, in the second quarter with the Miners down 14-7 and driving deep in the red zone, Trevor Vittatoe hit Trisby with a perfect pass on a slant pattern at the 1 yard line. Trisby, knowing he was going to get hit, dropped the pass. He quite simply heard the footsteps and didn't sell out for the touchdown. Did it cost UTEP the game? No. But, it would have helped UTEP gain some momentum in the early going. It was one I'm sure he'd like to have back, but you have to wonder if Vittatoe will remember the effort down the road.
I made up this award to give credit to Miner receiver and return man Marlon McClure. McClure played hard for four quarters which is a lot more than a lot of his teammates can say. Man, he's quick. When the coaches find more ways to get the ball in his hands he will be the perfect weapon to complement Kris Adams in the passing game. McClure had 6 returns for 165 yards (27.5 average) and caught 2 passes for 48 yards. He's going to be a really good player down the road.