UTEP and Tulane meet on the football field for the ninth time between the programs' histories, and the last time as conference foes, a series UTEP leads 5-3. The Wave enter Saturday afternoons tilt with a 6-4 overall record and a 4-2 mark in the C-USA, while UTEP comes into the Big Easy at 2-8, with a 1-5 C-USA record.
Sean Kugler on Tulane:
"I think they kinda got the same formula that North Texas has going, they're scoring on defense, they're playing solid special teams. They are physical upfront (defense), they got great size and athleticism on the defense side of the ball. They got great speed on defense, they fly around and they blitz, that's where their strength is. They run the football effectively, they're a solid football team, they're everything their record says. Its going to be an extreme challenge for us."
Tulane is coming off a bye week, while UTEP handled FIU 33-10 last Saturday in the Sun Bowl. The Green Wave lost a 10-7 heart breaker to UTSA in their last piece of action which started a two game losing slide.
No one expected Tulane to neither contend nor be in bowl contention in 2013 after only winning 2 games in 2012. Though tough defense and I guess you can call it the ball bouncing their way a couple times have led to six wins.
The 2013 Green Wave have really hung their hat on the defensive side of the ball to win games. They have recorded 25 sacks and have at least one sack in nine of their ten games, including six sacks against the best offense in the conference in East Carolina. They also have 80 tackles for loss as a team.
They beat ECU, and also Tulsa, both projected to finish at the top of their respective division, as where Tulane was suppose to kick it with Southern Miss. at the bottom. Enter Drake reference here.
They also rank 3rd in the C-USA in stopping the run and 19th nationally, giving up only 125.7 yards on the ground a game. Another gaudy stat is their 16 forced interceptions, and 28 total forced turnovers.
Leading that defensive attack is sophomore defensive back Lorenzo Doss. Doss has six interceptions on the year, and at one point led the nation in picks. Doss also has 11 career interceptions in 22 career games.
Another problematic defensive back is Jordan Batiste. He mans the corner spot for Tulane and has four forced fumbles which ranks him second in the FBS in that stat department. Expect to see him on the corner blitz and maybe a safety/nickel blitz as he has four sacks on the season.
Derrick Strozier is another very talented and ball hawking defensive back. He plays the nickel corner but will also line up at safety. He ranks 2nd in C-USA in passes defended, and is a seasoned senior with over 36 career games notched under his belt.
And you cannot forget about Sam Scofield in the secondary. He leads the team in tackles and solo tackles and is often referred to as the quarterback of the Green Wave defense.
Though not only are they stacked per se in the secondary, they have some decent size upfront as well.
Julius Warmsley will man down the middle as he has 12.5 tackles for loss on the season, including three sacks and two forced fumbles.
Another big cog is LSU transfer Chris Davenport. Davenport goes 6'4 345 lbs in the middle at nose tackle, and provides huge presence, proving that adding size upfront can drastically improve your defensive unit.
The Green Wave also have one of the most experienced line backing cores in the conference. Seniors Zach Davis and Dominique Robinson are fast and good tacklers. The Green Wave do an exceptional job of gang tackling with those two as they both have 40 tackles each.
Freshman Nico Marley has also made a huge impact on defense. The true freshman plays weak side linebacker, though the Wave run what looks like a 4-2-5.
Marley is not your prototypical linebacker in size, he is fast and physical. UTEP has struggled blocks those hybrid linebacker/safety guys all season.
Tulane's offense has to be thanking the defense for the six wins. Overall the Green Wave rank 102nd in the FBS in passing and 104th in rushing.
How do you win six games with those stats on offense? I'm sure head coach Curtis Johnson is starting on that novel.
Orleans Darkwa had a fast start at the running back spot, despite a decrease in his production compared to early on he is still a force to stop. He leads the team with 652 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Rob Kelley is listed as a fullback but will get plenty of carries at tailback, the Miners have struggled wrapping up bigger, stronger backs. Kelly is a load and has over 1000 yards rushing in his career.
Nick Montana will start at quarterback. Yeah is the son of legendary NFL quarterback Joe Montana. Nick has had an up and down season dealing with injuries, though is very capable of picking you apart and getting the big play down field when he has time
His number one target is one of the best receivers in the conference in Ryan Grant. Grant will be playing on Sundays and has caught 60 passes, which is 27 more than the second leader in catches on the team. Grant also adds 777 yards receiving to along with seven touchdowns
Grant can create match up problems within the young Miner secondary, this is a huge late season test for an improved UTEP secondary that really covered well last Saturday.
Justyn Shackleford plays opposite of Grant and has five touchdown grabs on the season and is second in catches.
UTEP had its best rushing and defensive performances of the season last week. UTEP held FIU to only 200 total yards of offense.
While the improvement on defense has not shown up on the stat sheet and scores over the past couple of weeks, the film will show otherwise.
UTEP is playing more disciplined in the scheme, and now really just needs the depth to fill the different packages Scott Stoker likes to mix in, and be able to keep up for four quarters, as the Miners are still undermanned against better teams.
Devin Cockrell is quietly becoming a leader on the defense, not only does he lead UTEP in tackles he has taken over the secondary as a vocal leader.
Roy Robertson has also continued to improve at defensive end and with his size he is learning to disrupt protection and demand attention. I.E. opening up Horace Miller for a safety.
The defensive line as a group had its best outing of the season. This group had high expectations coming into the season and have disappointed, though they controlled the line of scrimmage and dominated FIU.
Offensively it was good to see Nathan Jeffery finally get going. Jeffery had 133 yards rushing, including a 56 yard run for a score.
Sean Kugler stated at his weekly presser that the Miners would utilize a two quarterback system. Blaire Sullivan did a good job last week running the Wild Miner/read option.
Expect to see more of Sullivan on those running plays, and you cannot forget about the threat of him passing the ball.
Using that p word really loosely as UTEP had 53 runs compared to 7 passes. Remember when Kugler preached balance at the start of the season?
I get the run was super effective against FIU, although the passing game has almost been thrown out the window since Jameill Showers was sidelined with a separated shoulder.
The Miners will need to create more balance as Tulane has a done a nice job all year shutting down the run.
It's hard to get a fair judgement on Mack Leftwich. He really hasn't been asked to do much, but when he has, he has delivered.
He showed good arm strength on that bomb to Jordan Leslie, mind you it was in a swirling Sun Bowl wind and was a real nice throw.
The Miners will get help on the offensive line protecting Leftwich, as Jerel Watkins is back and will start at guard. The Miner offensive line really got after it against a weaker FIU front and has played well with Watkins in the lineup.
Controlling the line of scrimmage will be key if the Miners try to establish the run which they will definitely do.
After coming into the year with depth for days at running back things are real thin right now for the Miners.
LaQuintus Dowell missed last week's game and is questionable for this week, leaving the Miners with just three running backs if he doesn't play again.
Someway somehow the Miners need to improve in the special teams areas, particularly the place kicking game. Tulane does a good job blocking kicks which further explains who they are.
Mike Ruggles has been solid at punter averaging almost 42 yards a punt, though Jay Mattox continues to struggle kicking field goals.
We all knew coming into the season that was an area of concern, and after a decent start by Mattox it was thrown out thinking he would improve but has really been a huge weakness all year. He is 5/13 on the season.
With that being said there is no doubt the Miners need to cross the goal line to finish drives, to me watching this offense all season, you need to be more creative and get more guys involved. I'm pretty sure I say that every week.
I expect both teams to try to establish the run game early and its going to come down to turnovers.
As mentioned, Tulane's M.O. on defense is force turnovers, while UTEP has struggled taking care of the rock. Time of possession also is huge for the Miners as it plays into the not turning the ball over factor.
A little bit of history is involved in this game as well, Tulane is playing in its 219th and final home game in the Superdome as they move to Yulman Stadium next year.
Tulane 21 UTEP 10
UTEP Miners at Tulane Green Wave
1:30 PM MDT Saturday, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
Radio: The Fox 9.23 FM English, ESPN Deportes 1150-AM Spanish