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The Road Ahead: UTEP's Biggest Problems Can Be Fixed

It's Time to Stop Moping.  Miner Nation still has reason to hope for a bowl berth in 2010.

The first two weekends of college football are in the books and things haven't gone exactly as we had all planned.   I don't think many of us are surprised that the Miners are sitting at 1-1.  It's not the record.  The fact is that injuries to Donald Buckram and Braxton Amy have definitely taken the wind out of our sails as we look ahead to the future.  The offense has been good, but not electric.  The defense has struggled and now UTEP's best defender is out for the year.  The truth is, things could be a whole lot worse right now. 

It's time to get up off the mat.  It's Battle of 1-10 Week and young defense or not, UTEP should handily beat NMSU.

Anybody who looks at UTEP's loss to Houston and dismisses the 2010 campaign as hopeless quite simply hasn't done his homework.  I have.  And, I know that the road ahead is a lot less rocky than the path through Robertson Stadium in Houston.  Miner fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic.  Among them:

  • The Schedule:  Next four opponents are New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico, and Rice.  Combined record of those squads:  1-6.  The only win was a 1 point victory by Rice against Sun Belt cellar dweller North Texas.  In fact, if you toss in opponents 6 and 7 (UAB and Tulane) the combined record of UTEP's next six opponents is 1-10.  The Miners have some time to figure things out on defense.
  • Trevor Vittatoe is Throwing Strikes:  Do yourselves a favor.  Watch a handful of college games this weekend and look at some of the atrocious quarterback play out there.  We are very lucky to have a signal caller playing as good as Trevor is this season.  Trevor is making good decisions with the ball.  He's spreading it around to several different receivers.  And, the scary thing is that he can be better.  He's completing 58% of his throws right now.  Expect that number to climb to the 62-64% area over the next month of the season.
  • The O-Line is Playing Lights Out:  Remember all those questions we had about Anthony McNac at left guard?  What about Will Osolinsky moving back over to left tackle?  Haven't been a problem so far.  The offensive line has given up all of one sack this season and the Miners are averaging a stellar 5.48 yards per rush without Donald Buckram.  Which leads me to...
  • Donald Buckram Will Be Fully Healthy When He Begins His 2010 Campaign:  Admittedly, we all wanted Buckram, even at 75%, to play on Friday.  Joe Banyard and Vernon Frazier have filled in admirably for him but we all know that Buckram is in a different stratosphere right now.  That said, him not playing two weeks in and rushing back from his knee injury guarantees that when he does come in he'll be ready to hit the ground running. 
  • Any Doubts About Kris Adams Can Be Forgotten:  Did you see Adams on Friday?  He's a monster out there and in my opinion was the best receiver on the field.   His route running is crisp, he looks fluid, and he's a threat every time TV looks his way.   He has 9 grabs on the season for 162 yards and a touchdown.  I'm calling it right now:  Kris Adams will have a 1,000 yard receiving season.

We'll call the above points the good news.  Now, for the areas where we can see improvement right away.

  • Aggressiveness on Defense:  New Mexico State QB Matt Christian is good but luckily he's no Case Keenum.  The Aggies don't have former Parade All American Roy Watts anchoring their offensive line either.  Andre Patterson was hesitant to stunt against Houston and for obvious reasons.  The Air Raid can really only be stopped with stunts if you have incredible speed on the outside.  Watch Texas vs. Texas Tech play.  Texas has the fastest defense in the country (possibly outside Alabama) and the Longhorns have trouble stopping the attack because it's built on short passes that can continually lead to 2nd and 3rd and short situations.  There quite simply aren't a lot of negative plays to be won defensively there.  So, Patterson held back and hoped UTEP's linebackers could take away those intermediate crossing routes.  With NMSU coming up, expect to see a more aggressive scheme defensively.  Expect to see the DT's get more of a push up front.  These guys are young, they need games like this to adjust to the speed of D-1 football.
  • Coaching Decisions:  I was glad to hear Mike Price take the blame for the bad decision to kick a field goal on 4th and goal late in the Houston game.  The coaches need to take accountability when they make a mistake and Price handled it right.  We have a senior quarterback who gives us a better chance than most to convert a play like that.  Coach, without Buckram, it should be easy:  Put the ball in the hands of your senior quarterback.  The guy who will own almost every UTEP passing record imaginable when he hangs them up.  He's good.
  • Trust Joe Banyard & Vernon Frazier:  UTEP spent the entire last season designing their 1 back offense to highlight the nations 2nd leading returning rusher.  Then, when things got tough against Houston, the Miners tried to pass Houston to death.  Stay with what you know.  Banyard and Frazier can move the ball on the ground.  They may not be homerun hitters like Buckram, but against the typical C-USA defense they can help UTEP grind out some long drives.  Establishing the run will also keep that young defense off the field a bit more.  UTEP needs to be figuring out ways to shorten games and hope the defense can make 1-2 key stops instead of 4-5.  Run the ball.
  • The Secondary:  None of the squads on the coming schedule have elite passing attacks.  I don't know if Brandon Miller or Wiston Jeune will take over for Amy at safety.  I do know that moving Travaun Nixon to safety would be a huge mistake and an overreaction by the staff.  Nixon is our best cover corner.  Antwon Blake is playing good football, but Nixon is our best cornerback and he's also fearless in run support (something we definitely need on the outside right now).  Don't do it coach Price.  Let Nixon flourish at his natural position.  If you have to turn to a young guy, like Richard Spencer, do it. 
  • Missed Tackles:  I wouldn't want to be a UTEP tackling dummy this week because Andre Patterson had to be embarrassed by the tackling performance his team displayed on ESPN last Friday.  Tackling better is something the team can improve on but a senior or a veteran needs to set the tone with a hard hit early on in the NMSU game.  Bernard Obi.  I'm looking at you, kid.