Make no mistake about it, the UTEP Miners could have beat the #4 Oklahoma Sooners last night in the Sun Bowl. Straight up. No Gimmicks. Landry Jones didn't tear his ACL on the first play. Nobody poisoned OU's Saturday morning menudo. Nobody let the air out of the OU bus. Nobody stole OU's playbook or playsheet. UTEP went toe to toe with the Big 12 favorite, held their own, and were a play or two away from being the biggest story in the infant 2012 college football season.
Forget Urban Meyer and Ohio State's dead season. Forget USC's rise back to dominance and National Championship consideration. Forget Penn States whimpering loss and the looming self-destruction of that storied program. Forget Texas A&M and TCU moving conferences. This week, all eyes would have been on the UTEP Miners who would have pulled one of the biggest upsets in recent college football history.
UTEP had glory and fame in their sights, a date with destiny so to speak, and the Miners stared OU down long and hard. UTEP was so close to sinking a Heisman campaign, decimating National Championship hopes, and rocking the college football hierarchy in Week One. The Miners were so close to making next week's trip to Ole Miss one of the biggest games in the history of C-USA and the biggest in the programs history for sure.
But, in the end, Mike Price and UTEP blinked first. The Miners tired out and made it all too easy for OU to escape.
The DEFENSIVE LINE
First of all, Oklahoma is not the fourth best team in the nation. That much is obvious to Miner fans and to Sooner alike- just read the thoughts over at Crimson and Cream machine. UTEP's defensive line choked up the line of scrimmage for Dominique Whaley and Damien Williams all night long. Don't let Williams 104 yard day fool you, OU couldn't establish a steady running game all night long. That's because Germard Reed, Marcus Bagley, and Roy Robertson set the tone up front for the Miners.
They clogged up running lanes and freed up Josh Fely and company to make a lot of plays. Fely and Deshawn Grayson were monsters and were in on 21 tackles between themselves. But, the credit goes to the hogs up front who outplayed the Sooners for most of the game.
The OFFENSIVE LINE
While there is no disputing that Nathan Jeffery was the best running back on the field last night, in either uniform, much credit has to go to the UTEP's veteran offensive line. Time and time again, UTEP ran to the left side of the field (Brander Craighead, Jerel Watkins, and Eloy Atkinson) and time and time again, Jeffery hit the holes hard and fast. James Nelson had a stellar game as well. Who would have thought UTEP would control the line of scrimmage against OU? Well, it happened.
DeShawn Grayson is a beast. The best DB in the C-USA I say and probably UTEP's best DB since Quintin Demps. He is a punishing hitter who is always around the ball. Drew Thomas and Darren Woodard bottled up OU's receivers for most of the game and Richard Spencer played aggressive despite getting lost on Landry Jones' 68 yard bomb touchdown to Kenny Stills that tied it up in the second.
UTEP's secondary was helped tremendously by a vanilla, if somewhat confusing gameplan from OU's Josh Heupel. Time and time again OU had Jones throw horizontal wide receiver screens. UTEP's Fely and Grayson ate these up over and over again yet Heupel kept going that route. It didn't help that Dominique Whaley couldn't get anything going against the Miner front four, but OU's gameplan played right into the strength of UTEP's 4-3 defense.
Where is the offense that carried Sam Bradford to the Heisman? It was not at the Sun Bowl last night.
Get him a raise, Bob Stull. Do it now. Lock him up and name his Price's successor in waiting now and not later. Don't let another school come in and swipe the best DC UTEP has ever had.
There are four key reasons why UTEP did not win the game last night. In order of importance:
1) Mike Price's Ridiculous Fake Punt Call: Early in the fourth quarter, 10-7 game, and UTEP is one OU mistake away from taking the game over and the Miners defense has clearly rattled the "vaunted" OU offense. So, on fourth and seven from your own 38, the logical call is to fake a punt, by running Josh Bell to the closed side of the field, right? Absolutely unreal how silly the call was.
Ian Campbell had been pinning OU deep the entire game and UTEP was one Landry Jones mistake away from tying it up or taking the lead. UTEP didn't have any pressure on them and didn't need to gamble. If anything pinning OU deep with 13 minutes to go, at the Sun Bowl, in a dog fight, would have placed extreme pressure on an OU team that had fumbled the ball several times and been shut down by the Miners time and time again.
Mike Price simply let OU off the hook. And that's why he's the goat of the week and not Dakota Warren or Steven Valadez.
2) Dakota Warren and Steven Valadez: Three missed field goals.... at home? Warren missed a 31 and a 45 yarder that would have had UTEP up 13-7 at the half. Mike Price, sensing that Warren's confidence was shot chose to kill it for good and give Valadez a shot in the third. After Valadez shanked his 41 yard attempt (ruining a gorgeous 71 yard run by Nathan Jeffery), it was clear that the Miners kicking woes were an unsolvable problem.
3) Jordan Leslie can't catch deep balls. That's really all there is to that.
4) Nick Lamaison? I don't know if Lamaison's anemic outing (6/23, 39 yards) was more a result of nerves or an incoherent passing strategy from Aaron Price. Lamaison threw some beautiful passes (see above to Leslie) but also would randomly throw the ball away in the middle of the field (against his body). He was very lucky that he didn't have two interceptions yesterday. I couldn't figure out why UTEP didn't try and get Mike Edwards more involved in the offense. I understand and agree that Nathan Jeffery is the star of the show and that UTEP wanted to bleed clock. Price had two or three calculated risks (deep passes to Leslie) but they didn't pan out and UTEP didn't adjust to try and shake it up. Yes, UTEP dropped some passes. But, there was no rhythm in the passing game which ultimately falls on Lamaison and the OC.
If you had told any logical Miner fan that UTEP would cover the spread, lose 24-7 to #4 Oklahoma, and enter the 4th quarter down 10-7, they would have taken that deal in heartbeat and we probably would have seen a sellout. But, this game didn't end up feeling like a moral victory. Price's call was so excruciatingly unnecessary that it left UTEP fans frustrated and not proud as they ordinarily would have been. Can the Miners get past a game where they put it all out there and ended up falling flat? Can UTEP rebound from such an emotionally charged game?
That is Mike Price's next big challenge. This time, I hope he gets the call right.