After a much needed bye week, the UTEP Miners hit the road this week to continue C-USA play with a matchup against Rice. Rice has won six of the last seven games between the Texas schools, and leads the overall series 10-6.
UTEP comes in with a struggling 1-5 overall record, win-less in three C-USA tries, and have also lost all four home games so far as part of am overall six game home losing streak.
The Miner defense is ranked 107th overall in the FBS and with very little scholarships players on that side of the ball, and a remaining schedule filled with possible bowl teams, the Miners will try to play the big dream spoilers the rest of the way.
Freshman running back Aaron Jones leads a running attack that as a group has been the best in school history since 1984. The Miners enter Saturday's contest with two consecutive games of 200 yards plus on the ground.
Jones, who left the Miners 34-20 loss to Tulsa two weeks ago with a shoulder injury, is expected to return against Rice according to head coach Sean Kugler, he was limited in practice all week, though he did suit up in full gear in the Miners full pad day on Tuesday.
The former all world athlete at Burges is ranked 2nd nationally in rushing by a freshman, averaging 92.8 yards a game, he is second to Arkansas back Alex Collins who has averaged 99.6 thus far this season.
UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers is the Miners second leading rusher this season, and is 28th nationally is points responsible for with 92 overall points. He has also joined five other lifetime Miner signal callers with two 70 yard TD passes in a season. (Vittatoe 2009, Palmer 2006, Orlando Cruz 2003, Billy Stevens 1965)
Showers has also built an amazing chemistry with the recipient of those two 70 yards touchdowns in Jordan Leslie.
Leslie will return to his hometown this weekend with 1,888 career receiving yards, and with 46 more yards he will tie UTEP's Tight Ends Coach Brian Natkin for 10th all time in school history. Leslie also had 102 yards against Tulsa, which gave him his 3rd straight 100 yard receiving game.
The disappointment of the season on offense has to be the tough luck injuries and lack of production from junior running back Nathan Jeffery. After a huge breakout sophomore season, his junior year has been a year to forget in terms of just getting on the field healthy, though there are six games left to get back to his elite level he has shown in the past.
Jeffery has been slowed by multiple injuries since camp and just has not been 100%, though he has started at tailback the past two games. With the high possibility of Jones being limited against Rice and on a possible "pitch count", Jeffery will see his carries increase as he himself has been on a pitch count since the start of the season.
LaQuintus Dowell returned against Tulsa and appears to be back making plays on special teams. The Miners will be without starting guard Jerel Watkins who is out with a knee injury and that will snap his 29 game starting streak as he is expected to be out for two weeks. Freshman Jerome Daniels will start in his place at left guard.
Tight end Katrae Ford is expected to return after missing the past couple of games with an injury as well, another Miner making a Houston homecoming this weekend.
The Miner offensive line has produced back-to-back weeks of solid run blocking leading to those back-to-back 200 yards games. Protecting Showers was an issue against a Tulsa team that really mixed in a lot of different blitzes and stunts, something I expect to see Rice follow suit.
On defense the Miners are expecting the return of senior defensive lineman Adam Ayala who has been out the past couple of weeks with an ankle injury. Fellow senior Richard Spencer is still suspended, in my opinion his Miner career is disappointingly over after a very solid and respectable one, though Kugler still has not decided on what will happen.
UTEP is ranked 118th overall in the FBS in rushing defense, while the Owls are ranked 16th averaging 229.9 yards a game.
Expect to see the continued presence of youth on defense, specifically in the secondary. Adrian James will continue to platoon at saftey and corner, as Devin Cockrell returned and is proving to be the Miners best tackler in the open field after a solid game against Tulsa.
The Owls run attack is one of the most dynamic and prolific attacks in the nation lead by 6'1, 235 running back Charles Ross, the leader of the group with 559 yards on the ground to go along with five touchdowns.
The second leading rusher for Rice is quarter back Taylor McHargue. The Owls run tons of read options with Ross and 6'2 220 spell back Tuner Peterson who is averaging 4.3 yards a carry, and also does a solid job of catching out of the backfield. They will also come at you downhill and on the edges with their speed back Darik Dilliard.
It has been solid October for Rice as they have won three in row, and throughout the season have stuck first on the scoreboard in each ball game, including four opening possession drives for touchdowns.
While the Miner defense has given up an opening drive touchdown in every game, getting off to an early start on defense is the only way the Miners will have a chance to win or keep the game close.
As great as the Owls running game has been this season, the passing game has not been up to par as expected coming into the season.
Jordan Taylor leads in the receiving department with 31 catches for 369 yards, second leading receiver is running back Tuner Peterson with 14 catches for 207 yards. The Owl still spread it out and start three receivers but the consistent production just has not been there in the passing attack.
Defensively Showers and Co. will see another 4-2-5 look that will be tailored to stop the Miners potent run game. Most teams have done that by stacking the box with an extra safety which will most likely feature the sure tackling Paul Porras.
Linebacker Michael Kutzler is the leading tackler for the Owls and has emerged as one best defensive players for Rice. The former walk-on has tallied 11 tackles in a game twice this year (Tulsa, Texas A&M) and also has two sacks and an INT.
Safety Paul Porras starts at the Owls "KAT" position, he is a 3-year starter, and the second leading tackler on defense. Julius White has taken over the free safety spot and had four pass break ups against a top notch Houston Cougar passing attack.
The Owls are also very solid at corner back, Bryce Callahan and Phillip Gaines are the starters and also are the top corner duo in C-USA.
Callahan is tied for 6th in Rice history with 10 career interceptions and also returns punts and kicks. Gaines was on the pre-season watch list for the Jim Thorpe award and also has two interceptions on the season, as does Callahan.
The defensive line has not been very productive thus far in the stat department. The Owl starters only have a combined two total sacks, though they rotate a lot of different and decently sized players within the front four. With Watkins out, defensive tackle Stuart Mouchantaf, Stuart may have an advantage in between the tackles.
The Owls also have one of the best kickers in the nation. Chris Boswell will most likely be on NFL training camp roster next fall. He nailed a 50 yard field goal last week in Aggie Memorial and also hit a 56 yarder against Kansas which gave Rice a lead in that game.
This is not a pretty match-up on paper when you compare the Rice run game and the UTEP run defense. The Miners will need to somehow create early turnovers and just turn up the violence by making those offensive players' pads pop, the most physical defense is the most successful one.
They did respond to an improvement I called out, they did manage to hold Tulsa and Trey Watts to under five yards a carry, whereas coming to that game the Miners were giving up close to seven yards a carry.
Although the Miners do have a chance to keep this one close despite the difference in records and lack of production in the Miners run defense. Rice has struggled stopping the run all season long, the Owls have not held an opponent to under a 100 yards rushing this season.
They have also struggled in the second half against running teams, most notably UTSA and Tulsa who both put over 200 yards on the ground against them. They also have shut down on offense in those games, we all know the Miner defense plays decently in spurts in the 2nd half.
The Miner run game this season usually gets going on a high level in the second half, along with a defense that's makes the bend but do not break policy as a 2nd half adjustment for the most part, as they have struggled to create turnovers.
I would like to see more creativity on offense, something I have called out before. There just isn't anything exoctic as far as motion or audibles that can confuse the defnse and utilize the speed depth the Miner do posses on offense. The Miner offense gets predictible at points, where it seems defensive coordinators bring the house and guess right majority of the time.
That has also explained the lack of first half production from the offense, as its possible the script on offense is never broken as the Miners do not seem to adjust too much on what the defense is doing in terms of trying to throw the defense off and keep them guessing.
Rice is in the driver seat in the C-USA west and should represent the division come late November. They are battle tested veteran group that has played a more than respectable schedule.
Each game is a building block for next season and beyond for the Miners in which virtually everyone will return with the exception of some players on defense and offensive line.
The Miners will need their best defensive effort of the year and will have to put up more than 35 to win. Rice is good and possibly the best in the C-USA, but can the Miners improve and play the spoiler?
Rice 38 UTEP 21
UTEP Miners at Rice Owls
Saturday Oct. 26 1:30 PM MDT
TV: CSS Sports Network Direct TV Channel 696
Radio: 9.23 FM The Fox