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UTEP at Western Kentucky: Game Preview

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The first time UTEP travels to Western Kentucky land has more riding on the early November road trip than most figured there would be back in August.....

Tom Gonzales-MinerRush.com

That's why you play the games and try to not feed fully into the preseason talk/hype, unless your absolutely bored and need a fix of info to get you through the dog days of the preseason.

Ask UTSA, North Texas, Texas Tech, and well....UTEP fans.

Who would have thought the Miners would be sitting 5-3, tied for second place in the C-USA west standings, and have a shot at punching their bowl ticket in the second weekend of November?

Probably the homers did, but now that we're in early November, the reality minus Orange goggles is: UTEP is one win away from bowl eligibility.

Taking their first ever trip to Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Miners will face a team that was beaten and bruised up 59-10 style by a LA Tech team that pretty much did the same thing to UTEP back in early October.

This is a true fire meets steel match up that pits an offense that could care less about time of possession, against the opposite offense that leads the nation in time of possession.

Then there is the defensive story lines that makes this game a true "too close to call" game sitting 24 hours away from kickoff.

One defensive unit is a tick away from the bottom of the nation in total yards allowed, while the other has put together the best two game stretch of defense in school history since the year I was born: 1988.

Western Kentucky features a quarterback who has put up impressive overall numbers, but also does things an elite, NFL prospect type quarterback is supposed to.

Not only can Brandon Doughty put up yards, points, and NCAA 14 Play Station 4 numbers, the kid is one of the best third down quarterbacks in the country.

Doughty is 50/82 for 630 yards, 6 TD's with no interceptions on third down conversions this season.  To me one of the more important marks of a run and shoot, chuck and duck, or whatever you want to call an offense who throws it around 40-plus times is getting off to fast starts and keep things flowing on third downs.

The Hilltopper signal caller is 47/53 for 524 yards with 4 TD's on opening drives since he has been the starter, and that impressive stat line has helped WKU score on their first offensive possession in 14 out of their last 19 games.

Not only is Doughty a sound proven veteran, he has a deep catalog of versatile targets at his disposal.

Willie McNeal is the WKU active career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, and is used a lot out of the slot.  McNeal is second on team with nine catches on third down, averaging 12 yards a catch on those downs, so keeping him in check on those later downs should be key for the Miner secondary.

Taywan Taylor is the leader of the corps in receiving yards, he does most of his damage on first and second downs, and has a streak of four straight games with a touchdown catch.

If you had to name a go-to-receiver from their deep plethora of pass catchers, I would label Jared Dangerfield as such.

The junior leads WKU in receptions, and is the only receiver out of the group who has a more than 10 catches on each set of downs this season.  Four times this year Dangerfield has had no less than 7 catches and 70 yards in four separate outings, and he also ranks third in the C-USA averaging 4.5 catches per game.

But its not just the receivers getting love in the passing game, WKU has a legit play maker at tight end as well.

Mitchell Henry was named John Mackey Tight End of the Week after his 7 catch 128 yard performance at Middle Tennessee. Henry should be on a NFL camp roster next year, and has already surpassed his career season highs in receiving yards, and touchdowns this year.

They are a true spread team, though they will show some two tight end sets, mixed with some two back looks, though are a true pass first scheme.

WKU has one of the best offensive lines the Miners will face down the stretch of the season.

Anchored by right tackle Cameron Clemmons who is starting his 27th straight game Saturday, the unit has only allowed 14 sacks in 370 pass attempts this season.   Physically solid, mentally sound, and experienced will describe a group that is hard to crack, though will be challenged with a heavy blitz scheme from the UTEP defense.

They also help open holes for a load of a running back WKU uses in Leon Allen.  Allen goes 6'0 235 lbs, and has rushed for over 700 yards, and has over 200 yards receiving as well.

He is also averaging 125 all purpose yards a game, while Anthony Wales who spells Allen at running back ran for 138 yards with three touchdowns against UAB back on October 4th.

The depth and chemistry WKU has on offense will surely test the Miners who have been flat out dominate in takeaways, and controlling the line of scrimmage the past two weeks.

UTEP will not slow down the WKU attack with just a base look, so expect the usual exotic, and pressure filled looks from Scott Stoker's group.   The Miners find themselves 10th in the nation in turnover margin, and that will be the calling card for win number six in a foreign stadium Saturday afternoon.

Over the past three weeks the UTEP secondary has had its best cover games in quite sometime. Guys like Devin Cockrell, Nick Gathrite, Adrian James, Wesley Miller and Jameel Erving have been playing at All-Conference levels and should help Miner fans sleep better tonight when the thought of facing an uber explosive offense comes to mind.

The Miners have shown their full depth outside those mentioned within the secondary, and that depth will surely be tested against a deep receiver, and overall skill player group WKU has on offense.

On offense the Miners will face statistically one of the worst defenses in the nation, who are searching for some sort of an identity to finish the year.

One identity WKU has on defense is their red zone defense. WKU's defense ranks 25th in the nation in red zone defense, and also has three 80-yard plus returns for touchdowns this season in part of their red zone defense.

WKU ranks 126th in the nation in scoring defense, while they are also giving up nearly five yards a carry, and 227 rushing yards a game.

This will be ball control offense at its finest if UTEP can run efficiently and avoid negative plays via penalties or TFL's created by the Hilltoppers.

Its been a trend of second half non-existence from the Hilltopper defense. where for some reason opponents have run double the amount of plays they ran in the first half in the final two quarters.

Main defensive troubles for WKU: stopping the run and allowing big plays.

Senior cornerback Cam Thomas is another NFL tweener who has 10 career interceptions, and is a Thorpe Award nominee.

WKU will show multiple looks on defense, especially up front, while mixing up their coverage's, they showed a lot man-to-man in the first half against LA Tech for what its worth.  They are a base 4-3 defense, and came away with a first half takeaway against LA Tech on a well covered tip drill interception.

WKU made some drastic personnel changes in where some offensive players are now on the defense, they have a couple of good, physical cover guys but the overall chemistry just hasn't been there.

Sean Kugler hinted that Eric Tomlinson is not expected to play this week, making it two straight weeks Tomlinson battles a knee injury and probably won't be a go.

UTEP would love to get back to more two tight end sets than they showed against Southern Miss minus Tomlinson, though Kugler also said the Miner have to get back to more two back, power looks.  This means more playing time for tight ends Katrae Ford, and freshmen Cole Rogers, and Sterling Napier if UTEP does indeed go back with more two tight sets.

Like I mentioned earlier, expect and full ground and pound attack, maybe something similar to New Mexico, and NMSU, though mixed in with the triple option spread looks with play action being key in opening up the vertical pass game.

Kugler also noted that Jameill Showers had one of his worst decision making games of the season last week against Southern Miss., so expect Showers to come out with a chip on his shoulder, and also he may keep the ball more on the zone read options.

Autrey Golden broke a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last week, as special teams continues it's great improvement over the past couple of games.  Kugler also stated that they would make a change on their PAT personnel after the blocked field goal attempt Southern Miss. created last week.

WKU's kickoff specialist only has five touch backs on the year, so expect the coaches to really key on springing Golden loose as they now have a couple of blocking schemes on the kick off return that have proven to be successful.

Kicker Garrett Schwettman is 16th nationally in points per game with 9.6 points per outing, and they will also rotate Willie McNeal, Kylen Towner, and Taywan Taylor as punt and kick returners.

Towner took a kickoff back 94 yards for a score against Old Dominion, and 1,399 of McNeal's career 3,273 all purpose yards have came from returns.

Obviously this is the deepest, most explosive offensive teams UTEP will face all year, and after facing a third string, and second string quarterback in the past two games, the ultimate test for the improved UTEP defense looms at 2:00 p.m. Mountain Time tomorrow.

Keys for the Miners is zero turnovers, not limit turnovers, but no turnovers.  The Miners also need to break a few big plays themselves on offense, and continue getting of the field on third downs with pressure, and blanket coverage from the secondary.

Of course the main offensive goal is to sustain drives and keep the WKU offense off the field, but if UTEP can cash in on some big returns on special teams, and chunk plays on offense early in the game, WKU will break down on defense thus allowing those screw you drives in the second half.

Defensively, just like the past few games, UTEP needs a physical tempo setting play early on.

Getting to Doughty will not be easy, though Scott Stoker has really been an offensive coordinator's nightmare the past two games, and that is one advantage UTEP has on paper going into this huge conference battle.

The confidence the UTEP defensive line is playing with is the exact confidence of a defense who has had eight sacks the past two weeks, after only recording two sacks in their first five outings and find themselves rolling.

WKU will do what they do, and yes the defense will probably give up some yards.   But the big play gene has been implemented from the start of camp by the tough preparation and play calling from Stoker, resulting in scheme confidence, and great defensive play that is flying around and laying wood, while becoming a reliable source in winning games.

The Miner winning formula has been mental toughness in key situations, big plays on defense to swing momentum, and efficient enough offense.

UTEP doesn't have to play lights out in all phases, though dominate one, and not self inflict themselves in the other phases.

Easier said than done on the road right?

But when that formula is being used to build a program, we should start expecting that out Sean Kugler's UTEP teams.

Prediction: UTEP 42 WKU 38