Back in August, all the talk concerning C-USA football was centered around Tulsa, Oklahoma. The 2012 season for Tulsa Football was a season every C-USA sqaud dreams of as they went, 1-3 overall, a 7-1 conference mark, 7-0 at home, and a bowl win against a Big 12 team.
SEAN KUGLER ON TULSA:
"I'm sure they are disappointed at 1-4, just like we are. They have played some really tough opponents, and they graduated a lot of people last year. They're the best team that we will face so far, they ran for 230 yards against Rice, they want to be a physical team. It gave them their best chance to win last week, in a game that probably a turnover or two went their way they would have won."
Add to the fact that they nearly had three 1000 rushers, they started a transfer at quarterback who played decently enough to became the quarterback of the future, and a defense that finished as the 26th best defense in the FBS, in a tough offensive minded C-USA.
Hopes were high for the future after they beat Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl, the 2013 season could not come "sooner" for the Hurricane fans.
Now heading into the 2nd weekend of October, the Hurricane are 1-4, 0-1 in conference, they find themselves ranked 96th overall in the FBS in total offense, and that had been team carrying defense is 78th overall after a lot of turnover and changes through the off-season.
SEAN KUGLER ON TREY WATTS:
"I think this is the best running back that we have faced. He is a one man band, he averages close to 200 yards a game himself. Our focus needs to be on him, he is tough tackle. He has a great stiff arm and he has great balance. He is a special, special player."
One thing constant and hasn't changed about Tulsa; Trey Watts is still a play maker. Watts not only is Tulsa's leading rusher, he also leads the teams leading pass catcher as well with 28 grabs. Watts should be improving his NFL draft stock with the added catches and versatility, he had 34 catches all of last year and showed clearly what he worked on this off-season.
A major issue Tulsa has had to deal with through their disappointing start has been the play of the offensive line. Though the haven't given up much sacks or tackles for loss, Tulsa is only averaging 3.7 yards this season after nearly averaging five a carry last year, and were also ranked 9th overall in the FBS in rushing last season.
Heading into the season they did have to replace three starters from last year's eleven win team. It was a huge question and a possible weakness coming into the season that continues now into the halfway point of College Football campaign.
TULSA COACH BILL BLAKENSHIP ON UTEP:
"UTEP is pretty fascinating if you really look at the numbers. They're sitting at 1-4 and you would expect statistically to see issues that are typical of 1-4 teams. They don't turn the ball over, their third down percentage is high, their quarterback is throwing at a 60-percent completion rate, they're scoring 33 points a game. Their numbers offensively don't correlate to where they are 1-4. They've struggled on defense, but again it's not as statistical as it is in points given up. They've given up a lot of points. They have a new coaching staff. Coach Kugler has come in and has had to really revamp what's going on. I think he's a sharp guy. You can see the things that they're trying to accomplish. I think they're going the right direction."
A huge reflection of that struggle can be seen in the lack of production by the talented spell back for Watts, Ja'Terian Douglas. Douglas ran for 936 yards last year, most figured Tulsa would posses a seriously unstoppable run game with those two, though in the first five contests Douglas has been held in check with only 155 yards and only three yards a carry and Watts has only two 100-yard games so far.
Tulsa ran a lot of two back, double tight single back, and I formation looks against Rice. I would expect some of that early versus the Miners 120th ranked run defense. The will try to utilize Douglas to set up Watts, much like Skip Holtz did with Kenneth Dixon and Blake Martin who filled in for the injured Tevin King.
With all the heat and criticism from the Tulsa media and fans, Cody Green has to like the game plan this week, which should include a heavy dose of power run and screens, as well as the continued balanced approach they have shown.
The Miners on defense have shown a lot of blitz in the past couple weeks, something Tulsa Head Coach Bill Blankenship has acknowledged, and I expect to attack with Watts out of the backfield.
He can also line up as a receiver where they hit him in the flats leaving one-on-one match-ups with Miner defenders if Green can hit him with pressure the Miners will bring.
Green has struggled to take care of the ball all season. He has thrown five interceptions, though at times showing his strong arm and decent but suspect accuracy. He is a better passer dropping back from under center, though they will go shotgun and use the read-option with him and Watts.
The Hurricane still do use the hurry up offense, though most might not think so with the lack of production they have put out, ranking 94th in the FBS in rushing. Through the air its just been inconsistency with mental mistakes and drops that have led Hurricane Fan to boo their offense this season.
Senior Jordan James, leads receiving corps with 296 yards receiving, though he only has one touchdown catch this season. Thomas Roberson and Keevan Lucas both have 10 catches, and both are used on screens.
The Hurricane will rotate and try to throw to a lot of receivers though they have had struggles with route running and drops this season.
The Hurricane do not use their tight ends very much, starter Tyler Wilson only has three catches.
So when they pass they will spread and use play action, but I would look for heavy dose of Watts and Douglas, mixed with Green on the option at least early on.
Tulsa runs a multiple look defense, based out of a 4-3 look. At times they will show a 4-2-5 look, as they like to bring up safety and leading tackler Michael Mudoh, who is very active and always finds himself around the ball.
Defensive tackle Derrick Luetjen is a load to handle in the middle, he has 2.0 sacks and has caused -19 yards in tackles loss for opposing offenses. Derrick Alexander will make plays off the edge at defensive end, he will test Brander Craighead most likely, that will be a good match-up in the trenches.
For once the Miner offensive line should have an advantage versus D-Line that has struggled, Craighead needs to quit with the freshman mistakes if wants even a sniff at the next level.
Linebacker Shawn Jackson is the star of the defense, while he is second on the team in overall tackles, he leads in solo tackles with 33 and also has two interceptions.
Trent Martin and Mitchell Osborne also make a lot of plays at linebacker, though on defense they have been similar to UTEP.
They have gave up big plays that has put them holes early, but just as they did against Rice, they do tend to tighten up in the 2nd half though overall it has been a balanced struggle for the former C-USA champs.
As well a the Miners, Tulsa has seen a lot of young guys in the rotation, 10 freshman have played on defense for them this season. They have gave 223 yards passing a game, including 413 yards and 4 TD's to Oklahoma's Blake Bell who was making his first ever college start.
The standout of the freshman group has to be redshirt Darnell Walker, he had a pick against Rice and has 26 total tackles.
As a whole hey have played a little better week-to-week, and virtually shut down Rice in the 2nd half last week until the Owls last score that ended the game in overtime. Can that momentum carry into the Sun Bowl?
Jameill Showers will answer that question, just as he has all the others coming in to this season. UTEP is lucky to have this guy, he is settling in week by week and shows multiple specialties each time out.
BILL BLAKENSHIP ON JAMEILL SHOWERS:
"He's a true duel threat guy, He can sling it around. He can really throw it deep. They have tall, really athletic receivers that they do a good job getting the ball to, and he can get out of trouble. He's a good player. They do a really nice job offensively getting into a lot of personnel groupings. I think you see a little bit of the pro influence that comes with Coach Kugler. You get a lot of groupings and multiple formations in trying to get matchups. They're very efficient on offense and a lot of that is because their quarterback is very efficient."
Another one of those specialties including his efficiency, is reading the defense, he has only thrown two interceptions has played a huge part in making the Miners the 14th most improved offense this season through week seven compared to this time last year. He is also the Miners 3rd leading rusher and has four rushing touchdowns.
300 of his passing yards this season have came when the Miners are tied, proving he is composed in crunch time and competes at a high level.
Majority of his part of the Miner offense though has been produced when the Miners are trailing, something the defense has had a huge role in causing, he has only 57 yards passing when the Miners have the lead.
He has also done a job of spreading the wealth, though Jordan Leslie gets all the deep love, receiver Ian Hamilton and tight end Eric Tomlinson both have 16 catches. Devin Patterson has looked sharp at times but has struggled with catching on 3rd downs in huge situations. Darrin Laufausa has also been effective on 3rd downs catching out the backfield as well.
KUGLER ON AARON JONES:
"He has great natural running ability, some things guys got that you can't coach you know they have vision, they cut. The thing I like about that young man is his toughness. He is not a big guy, but he runs between the tackles, and he breaks tackles, and he takes big hits, and he gets right up. And he has got good understanding of the game, just a great character kid. Just a great football family. I love the young kid, I just think he he's got all the tools and character that we're trying to build this program with."
Freshman Aaron Jones is ranked 32nd overall in the FBS in rushing, he has been the workhorse the past couple of weeks and has Miners fans excited about the future. He has gone over 90 yards in four of the first five games, and has really improved his inside to outside running with the more carries he has accumulated.
Kugler said he expects both LaQuintus Dowell and Nathan Jeffery back at full strength, Jeffery had nine carries of 45 yards in his first action since the NMSU win, something that looks promising going forward for him.
Defensively the Miners should have Devin Cockrell back, though they will be without Traun Roberson, Da'Carlos Renfro, and the only Miner with both interceptions DaShone Smith. The shuffle will continue on defense with a lot of guys playing in different spots.
The Miners defense will be tested by another team that is not afraid to run, and has talented backs to be effective in the run attack. We all know the key is tackling for the Miners, will all the tackle work the past couple of weeks lead to a positive response of the poor tackling all season.
KUGLER ON DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL:
"I think we have the talent at certain areas, I don't think its so much talent, we lack a lot of depth. In Particular on the defensive side of the ball and on the defensive line I'll be honest about that. Its something we really need to shore up with recruiting, and developing players. I'm not counting out the players that on our own roster right now, that's up to us to develop those guys. My goal here in the next two years is having the offense and defense balanced numbers wise when it comes to scholarship players. I'm not going to tilt heavily towards one side of the ball or the other. That's going to take a little time and effort.
The return of Richard Spencer should bring some hope and can clearly improve the defense at times. He is the clear leader of a defense who has struggled at every aspect of defensive football you can possibly have so far this season.
The Miners will need to shut down the run early to have a chance to keep it close, and if its not done Watts and Tulsa will rack up another 300 yards easily on the ground.
Special teams for the Miners have been solid, despite the uncertainty of the kicking game coming into the season. Mike Ruggles has really been the Miners secret weapon.
He has done a nice job the past couple of weeks of giving the Miner defense positive field position, something they just have not been able to capitalize on in clutch moments.
The Hurricane also have a good special teams unit, Watts will return kicks, Carl Salazar is the place kicker. He has gone 9-11 on the year on his field goals, and was very clutch last week against Rice.
While most have the Miners as heavy under dogs, I think this could be close, exciting and high scoring contest. The Miners have improved on defense as far as lining up and being in the right gap, though they still were called for an illegal substitution, and have the obvious and serious tackling issue.
The Miners did show a better job getting after the quarterback and getting in the backfield last week, particularly Roy Roberson and Horrace Miller, that will need to continue if the Miners want to improve on defense and if they want to have any chance of beating Tulsa.
Tulsa has been turnover prone this season, so if the Miners can force turnovers and get in the backfield and make plays, it could be a surprising day against a struggling offensive line. I do expect Watts to go over 100 yards on the ground, limiting him will be the key.
A key goal for the Miner defense going forward should be keeping all ball carriers under five yards a carry, something that has not happened in a first half of a game all year.
Showers and the offense will have a nice day, the Miners will need to show more creativity and hopefully with the return of Jeffery and Dowell that will happen, as they do a good job of opening up the pass when they are effectively running well.
We all would like to see Ian Hamilton get back on track after being held to only 21 yards against LA Tech which slowed down his fast start.
The is a must win situation if the Miners want to have anything of a respectable season.
With only two home games reaming on the season, the Miners are in a midst of five game losing streak dating back to last season. The offense needs to have it's best game of the season, particularly in the first half where the Miner offense has been non-existent the past two games.
The Miners will have trouble stopping Watts, but can Showers get the Miners out to an early lead, and keep up if the defense again struggles early?
TULSA 48 UTEP 35