I'll start with this; it was extremely disappointing to be so close, and watch the game end the way it did against the #5 Oklahoma Sooners. But, there's plenty to be taken from Saturday. Not only from within our program, but from the rest of Conference USA too.
First, I'll state the obvious with our team. Nathan Jeffery is an absolute beast, and his C-USA player of the week award is absolutely deserving. If we can keep him healthy this season, he will become much more than just the Conference USA player of the week.
Going hand in hand with that, our offensive line played an outstanding game. It shouldn't be understated that without them, Jeffery doesn't have the game that he did. Also, while our passing game was anemic, for multiple reasons, it wasn't really because of the o-line. They were able to keep Nick Lamaison fairly clean all night.
Lastly, our defense was absolutely stellar. I'm still not sure whether a game ball would go to that unit, or to Nathan Jeffery. The defensive line was able to get consistent pressure on Landry Jones, the linebackers (minus Jamie Irving) shut the OU running game down for three quarters, and the secondary covered extremely well, minus the one play to Kenny Stills.
I won't even talk about the kicking game, both the missed field goals and the faked punt, because frankly, there's just no reason to. The fact is that we went toe to toe with the #4 team in the nation on Saturday, and we nearly won. In fact, we probably should've. We have to go from there, learn from our mistakes, and play better over the next 12 weeks, because we are going to have plenty of opportunities.
Up next are the Ole Miss Rebels, who may be improved a bit under new coach Hugh Freeze, but were losing to Central Arkansas, at home, midway through the 3rd quarter on Saturday. There's no question we'll have an opportunity to come up with our first win Saturday, assuming our passing game makes the trip to Oxford.
As for our other non-conference opponents; New Mexico State played well last Thursday, but that was at home against Sacramento State, and Wisconsin opened up a 19-0 lead against Northern Iowa, but only managed a 26-21 victory. Will there be any non-conference game we don't have a chance in?
One thing is for sure, we'll have a chance in just about every single one of our conference games. Week 5 will be tough, at ECU, because its always tough at ECU, but they were just in a ball game at home with App State into the 4th quarter. Granted, we all know who App State is, but still.
SMU? With "the best" running back in Conference USA? Worked by a RG3less Baylor. That game was 45-3 before the Mustangs could even take a breath. Tulsa? They lost at Iowa State by 15 in a game that they were favored to win. Not sure they're as strong as we thought they were.
Tulane wasn't terrible, and I expect them to continue to improve, but they still didn't really have a chance at home against Rutgers. Houston! Ahh the Cougars. The infamous Cougars that one SI journalist predicted to repeat as Conference USA champs. Hmm. Yeah, rolled by Texas State, and had their OC resign. Moving on.
Here's my take on UCF. Ok, they beat Akron 59-14, but Akron has gone 1-11 in back to back years. So is that something to write home about? Not to mention, they dropped Charleston Southern 62-0 last year, before the wheels fell off of that campaign.
I'll be honest, I thought Southern Miss looked pretty good. They were in that game against #17 Nebraska for a half. But, the USM defense also made Taylor Martinez look like a Heisman candidate. He torched them for 354 yards and 5 TDs on 26/34 passing. No interceptions.
And then there's Rice. Much like the Golden Eagles, the Owls looked pretty good for a half against UCLA. But, the defense could never stop the Bruins, and once the offense faltered, well UCLA just ran away with it. Not much to look at here. Keep moving on.
The fact is that Conference USA is extremely wide open this year. I've been saying this for a while now; there's no team out there that is head and shoulders above the rest. For the Miners, every single game will be a competitive one, and if we can stay healthy, we will find our way to a winning season.
Sure there's still plenty to work on. Nick Lamaison just HAS TO do better than he did. And with that, our receivers HAVE TO help the guy out. There were at least 5 or 6 drops Saturday that would've made the passing game somewhat effective, and might have changed the outcome of the game.
Our kickers HAVE TO do better. Dakota Warren, you're a senior! Get your head out of your ass, you're better than that. We can't afford to have this team not be able to kick field goals on fourth down.
The bottom line is that after Saturday's effort, there's plenty of optimism surrounding the UTEP team, and rightfully so. If we can correct the little mistakes that we made, and keep our team healthy, this just might be one of the best UTEP teams we've seen from Mike Price. Hate him or love him, it is what it is. Go Miners!