The Miners enter the contest fresh off a 31-13 home loss at the hands of #25 Southern Miss. The Miners played strong for three quarters, but were just outlasted there in the 4th. The offense seemed to sputter a bit as well, as the run game of the 3 weeks prior was nowhere to be found.
Rice is coming off their worst loss this season, a 75-34 spanking at the hands of #13 Houston. Really no one has been able to stop or even slow down the nation's top offense this season, and the 75 they put up against Rice were the most point scored all year.
The two schools have met 14 times previously, with Rice holding an 8-6 advantage. The Miners are 2-5 in Houston, and 3-5 overall against the Owls in the Mike Price era. The Miners are searching for the 2nd consecutive conference road win, something they haven't done since they beat, coincidentally, Tulane and Rice in 2005.
The Miners are led by junior QB Nick Lamaison who has now completed 93 of 158 passes on the season for 1201 yards 8 TDs, and 7 INTs. He has struggled a bit over the last few weeks, and I really think its due mostly to his inability to get into a real rhythm. Lamaison started the season passing pretty well, but then went out with a shoulder injury. He returned against Houston and passed pretty well, but the running game took over and he wasn't really needed. That will change down the stretch as it will take more offensive balance to win any of the games left on the schedule, including Saturday's.
Senior RB Joe Banyard, as many expected, has established himself as the featured back for the Miners. He has now rushed for 553 yards and 3 TDs on 73 carries, while averaging an amazing 7.6 yards per carry. Banyard also has plenty of help in the backfield coming from seniors Leilyon Myers (271 yards, 7 TDs) and Vernon Frazier (289 yards, 7.2 ypc), and freshman Nathan Jeffrey (164 yards, 6.6 ypc).
Junior WR Mike Edwards, and senior WR Donovan Kemp have become Lamaison's go to guys through the air. Edwards has 29 catches for 372 yards and a TD, while Kemp has 17 catches for 317 yards and a TD. Freshman WR Jordan Leslie (12 rec, 218 yards), sophomore TE Kevin Perry (15 rec, 166 yards, TD), and senior WR Julio Lopez (14 rec, 139 yards) have all made their presence known as well.
The Miners have now fallen back to 77th in the nation in passing yards per game (213), and 57th in rushing yards per game (161). They now rank 65th in points per game at 27.3, and 68th in points allowed per game also at 27.3.
The Owls are led by sophomore QB Taylor McHargue who has completed 100 of 174 passes for 1072 yards, 8 TDs, and 5 INTs. The Rice rushing attack is led by senior Tyler Smith who has 510 yards and 2 TDs, on 76 carries, and sophomore Turner Peterson who has gone for 380 yards and 4 TDs, on 73 attempts. Junior TE Luke Wilson (28 rec, 311 yards, 3 TDs), and junior WR Vance McDonald (27 rec, 296 yards, 4 TDs) are McHargue's favorite targets through the air.
Rice ranks 94th in the nation in passing yards per game, throwing for about 187 yards a contest, and they rank 62nd on the ground, rushing for 158 yards a game. The Owls come in at 87th in points for with 23.8 a game, and they rank 116th in points allowed giving up 37.6 per outing.
There's almost no question that UTEP will be the better team on the field on Saturday, but that doesn't always equate to success. The Miners will have to play smart, and physical if they want to pick up this win on the road. The game also means much more to the Miners than it does to the Owls, as they are still alive in the bowl hunt.
The Miners enter at 4-4, and are 2 wins away from bowl eligibility. If they want to get there though, Saturday is almost a must win. After the Owls, the Miners still have ECU and Tulsa at home, and then UCF on the road to end the season. A loss to the Owls surely wouldn't kill the Miners' bowl hopes, but it would surely put a hamper on it. I see a repeat of 2005, with the Miners winning a second consecutive road contest.
Projection: UTEP 35, Rice 27