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UTEP at Rice: Three Keys and a Wild Prediction

This current UTEP football team has broke a few UTEP football curses of the past, can they snap another one tomorrow?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

UTEP heads southeast to take on a task that has haunted Miner football teams for the past nine years: winning in the city of Houston and county of Harris.

This task on Friday won't be any easier with a Rice team who has won six out of their last seven, and is the only team that can force a tie-breaker in the C-USA west with current one game leader LA Tech.

What we will see Friday is a Rice team that mirror images UTEP's formulas of success this season, or vice versa.

So does UTEP virtually have to try to beat themselves in a sense?

I try to break it down....

Pass Game Efficiency, and Diversity

It seemed just a few weeks ago we were all calling for more pass and balance in the UTEP offensive play calling market, well now its time to diversify the pass game to create more efficiency.

Autrey Golden proved for the second straight week that him running a cross, or slant route will give a defense fits in trying to keep up stride-for-stride across the middle of the field with the junior burner.

Sending guys like Golden, Jarrad ShawJaquan White, and even Ian Hamilton across the middle could open things in the passing game and its proven to be effective, just not used as much.

UTEP has only done it three times this season to my memory with Golden, and all three times were successful, with one pattern even leading to a late go-ahead touchdown against Old Dominion.

In the UTSA game Hamilton picked apart a UTSA corner on a deep post route that he took from the outside to just past the left hash and piled up a 28 yard gain, while Showers made a perfect read and throw.

Using the middle of the field more in the passing game is what I think will help UTEP to be more efficient and explosive in the pass game.  Overall the Miners have to make grace in their passing situations, whether it's across the middle or any sort of called route or play.

The hitches, bubble and normal WR screens, along with the quick hitters are nice and also proven to be effective, but I would love to see a UTEP receiver, or running back (Aaron Jones) out run a DB from between the hashes, then get a accurate throw from Showers for a big gain.

UTEP has the speed to stretch the field not only vertically, but also with targets gunning across the middle that I feel will open up the pass game as a whole, and take UTEP's big play chances up a few notches.

No Negative Plays

This one will be hard to do against a stouter than stout Rice defense. (Sorry if that's not proper English pero, you get my point)

As a team they rank tops in the C-USA in tackles for loss, and sacks.

Zach Patt had a five sack game this year, and Rice piled up seven sacks in a game against Hawaii earlier this season, and stymied FIU with eight sacks back on November 1st.

Rice's defense has been thriving on negative plays that get offenses out of their early down rhythm, and playing calling which in turn usually forces third and longs.

This will be a huge challenge for an UTEP offensive line that has played lights out in the past four game stretch.

Of course turnovers will give a defense and team huge momentum, but for a defense like Rice a simple first and ten stuff that negates 3-5 yards is part of how they win the defensive battle.

Brian Nordstrom leads Rice with 16.5 TFL's on the season, and is a guy who has to be keyed upon, as does the very athletic Patt.

One of the bigger challenges this offensive line will face this season because its not just the front four, linebacker James Radcliff who went off for 5 TFL's in their defensive shutdown of UTSA a few weeks ago is another impact guy who can fly around and slap you with his Riddell sticker.

They also boast five players on defense who have over five TFL's on the season.

The Rice defense is so stout they have only allowed four scoring drives under five plays all season, and are one of the best tackling teams in the conference.

UTEP has to be creative in keeping the ball in their hands which has been their MO this season in leading C-USA in time of possession since the first week of the season.

Rice will bring all sorts of technique rushes from their front seven, so the UTEP offensive line has to not only be on point once the ball snaps, but key in on their pre-snap preparations they have studied over the week with the multiple techniques Rice will show and use.

Its going to be more than just getting after it physically, the offensive line will surely have its hands full Friday night.

Lay a Hat on Driphus Jackson Early and Often

Its hard to consistently lay hat on an athletic quarterback who is electric in the open field, but just like every game the UTEP defense has shown dominance in this year, its been one, particularly early hit on the quarterback that changes things.

Jackson has been apart of 27 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season, and has only been sacked 20 times in 245 pass attempts.  Rices runs their offense mainly out of the shotgun, but uses Jackson as a decoy in so many diverse play calls.

Rice utilizes their run game to open up big play receivers Mario Hull, and Jordan Taylor vertically in the pass game that usually is baited by play action.

UTEP will have to be assignment sound, and not let their eyes get crossed as Rice will also use a triple run/pass option that helps moves the defense's eyes. Marshall did a good job of staying disciplined, and I believe the discipline they showed is a perfect blue print in slowing Rice down.

Pinning ears back and trying to chase down Jackson won't work every time.  Marshall lacks elite size on their defensive front, but did a great job of using angles, and proper technique in their pass, and overall front four rush to frustrate the Rice offensive line.

They only got to Jackson three times for sacks, but he just never looked comfortable and was out of rhythm, and on film time after time at least one Rice lineman was getting shoved back past the line of scrimmage throughout the game on every play.

Scott Stoker has done a masterful job of play calling when its comes to sending blitzes in certain situations, and this game proves to be a huge challenge from a game plan standpoint of how to attack Rice with an aggressive defensive scheme against an offense that can play with a defender's' eyes.

Jackson isn't one of those passers who can flat out pick a defense apart from the pocket.  Though like I mentioned he has some big play targets who can create space down field, coverage sacks will also be UTEP's best friend in slowing down Jackson and also in making him impatient with his decision making.

UTEP cannot afford to whiff on a blitz or any chance at bringing down Jackson behind the line of scrimmage, as those free blitzer opportunities have to be cashed in for UTEP to do what they do inside their winning formula.

Wild Prediction

UTEP scores two non-offensive touchdowns in a 38-31 "upset"win in the Owls nest.