It's been a couple of weeks since we got a Q&A piece in, but this week we got a chance to catch up with Dustin Rensink of SB Nation Houston, and asked him a few questions about this week's contest in Houston. Here's what he had to say.
MinerRush: Considering the team had to replace both star QB Case Keenum, and the coaching staff entering this season, what are your thoughts on where the team is at?
Dustin Rensink: The team is not playing well. Bottom line, there's not one new face you can point to that has really blown anybody away, and there's not a returning starter you can point to who has really stepped up their game since last year. David Piland has been pretty good, but inconsistent. I'm not calling for Tony Levine's head by any means after seven games, but to this point I'm not sure what he brings to the table. There have been moments (Mike Nesbitt's "resignation", Louisiana Tech running the same play nearly every down in the second half, SMU's defense knowing our audibles) that make a Cougar fan wonder if the guy's in over his head. In a nutshell, a lot of Cougar fans (myself included) had bought into the idea that Houston would reload, have a 9 or 10-win season, and firmly establish themselves as a program that is going to be relevant year in and year out. And it just hasn't happened.
MR: Last week, you all lost at SMU in a game that many expected Houston to win. Many off the errors that cost them the game were unforced. Do you see that carrying over at all to this Saturday?
DR: It wouldn't surprise me. Even in games this year that we haven't committed nine turnovers, mental errors have been plentiful. False start penalties, personal foul penalties, myriad wide receiver drops...if it's a mental error, Houston has committed it this year. There have been stretches where that wasn't the case, but on the whole, mental errors have been the rule, not the exception.
MR: David Piland was knocked out of the game Saturday with a concussion, but has been cleared to play. Do you expect him to be 100% for the game?
DR: He's had two practices under his belt as of right now (Wednesday night), so by Saturday I'm optimistically going to assume that he'll be 100%, or at least close to it.
MR: The defensive unit has improved from a year ago, especially against the run, but they still rank towards the bottom of the FBS in total defense. What areas do you feel the Miners could take advantage of, and what areas do you think the Cougars should be able to control?
DR: I actually disagree with your assessment, I think the defense has measurably regressed. Rush defense is about the same; we allowed 4.2 yards per carry last year, 4.3 this year. The pass defense has taken a pretty big blow, however, going from 6.2 yards per pass attempt to 7.1. Turnovers forced have dropped from a hair over 2 per game to a hair under 2. As far as what the Miners can do, it all starts with the offensive line. In the four losses, the Coogs never got a pass rush, and gave up huge running lanes. In the three wins, we were in the other team's backfield all game. If UTEP holds the pocket well, the Miners will be able to put up some points.
MR: What are some of the names that Miner fans should look out for on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball?
DR: Offensively, the Cougars have to get running back Charles Sims going. The passing game just isn't good enough to win games single-handedly any more. It's not a coincidence that Sims has rushed for over 130 yards in each of the wins, and been held under 80 yards in all of the losses. He has also shown some really good hands catching passes out of the backfield this year. In the receiving corps, Daniel Spencer gets thrown to a lot. He drops a lot of passes, and he makes a lot of big plays. Defensively, the linebacking duo of Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews is really good. True freshman safety Trevon Stewart is fun to watch, as well. He gets beat badly now and again, but he flies around the field, and he's in on a lot of plays.
MR: What are the keys to Saturday's game?
DR: It's pretty cliche, and I already mentioned it, but I think it comes down to line play. If the Cougar offensive line is opening up holes for Charles Sims, UTEP is going to have a hard time stopping Houston on offense. And if the Cougars aren't pressuring Lamaison, he'll lead the Miners up and down the field, because the Cougar secondary is only decent.
MR: This matchup between Houston and UTEP has turned into somewhat of a rivalry. Usually, no matter where the teams stand, they play each other extremely close. What are you thoughts on how this game will play out? Predictions?
DR: I feel better going into this game than I did against SMU, where you know I told you before kickoff it felt like a game Houston could lose. If I have to make a prediction, I say something like 34-24 Cougars, but would I be surprised if Lamaison has a huge game, Piland doesn't look 100%, Sims isn't getting any room to run, and Mike Price outcoaches Tony Levine en route to a Miner victory? Not really.
A big thanks goes out to Dustin for taking time out to answer some questions for us. Make sure to check out all his work at www.sbnationhouston.com.