Both teams come in looking for answers, identities, and positives to build on after opening week blowouts to superior opponents.
For UTEP, the big question will be how the defense recovers after getting shredded by OU, and how they do that without their best defensive player for a half.
UTEP’s defense allowed the top success rate among FBS teams who played FBS teams in week one, and also allowed 9.1 yards per play against the Sooners.
OU got inside the UTEP 40-yard line on 10 of their 11 drives, and averaged close to a touchdown every time they reached the plus side of the field.
Without Alvin Jones who will be suspended for the first half, UTEP will turn to Jamar Smith as their starter at middle linebacker.
UTEP also will start freshmen Trace Mascorro, and Dedrick Simpson along the defensive line as the Miner search for defensive answers and production.
Rice also had a rough time defensively in their season opener, allowing 10 of Stanford’s 13 drives to penetrate inside their own 40-yard line.
The Owls are looking for consistency just like UTEP, as Rice is also showing multiple odd and even fronts defensively via an offseason coordinator change.
Rice returns senior defensive end Brian Womac who has piled up 20 tackles for loss over the past two years, and will be a guy Rice moves around a lot inside their multiple fronts.
C-USA’s preseason defensive player of the year Emmanuel Ellerbee had 10 tackles against Stanford, making that eight double digit tackle games in his last 12 starts for Rice.
Last season, Ellerbee matched the 10th most tackles in a season (118) in school history thanks in large part to seven games with double-digit tackle totals, including the last three to end the year (vs. Charlotte, UTEP and at Stanford).
UTEP’s offense will be tasked with identifying these two defensive studs, and move the ball in an efficient manner. UTEP’s pass catcher will also need to help out quarterback Ryan Metz who was clean in his reads, and decision making last week.
The Miners only piled up 11 first downs, and averaged just 3.4 yards per rush against Oklahoma, numbers that must improve during C-USA play with some playmakers stepping up when it really counts.
Rice’s offense will test UTEP’s 3-4 scheme with more option looks, making the Miners eyes in coverage a huge theme this week.
The Owls did run for 146 yards against Stanford, led by running back Samuel Stewart who averaged 4.7 yards on his 15 total carries.
Overall, both teams have a lot to play for in this one, and answers about both teams will come to light.
Keys to a UTEP win
- Control the line of scrimmage
UTEP did a decent job upfront against Oklahoma, but the offensive execution outside of the o-line was not very good. UTEP should be able to control the line of scrimmage in this game, and create some space/holes for UTEP’s young running backs.
- Contain the option
Miner defenses under Sean Kugler have traditionally struggled defending the option, and mobile quarterbacks in general. Staying within UTEP’s wanted technique and run fits will be key, as Rice can keep the chains, and clock moving if UTEP struggles defending Rice’s option looks out of the spread. If this becomes an issue, it could be another long day for the UTEP defense.
- Start fast
Rice has gone through a lot off the field transgressions over the past two weeks, and a quick UTEP start could bury the Owls before they get started. UTEP started fast on offense with a solid opening drive against OU, but it could be UTEP’s defense that could use a quick start with a big play to flip some early momentum to the UTEP sideline.
Four to watch
Jamar Smith---LB, UTEP
Making his first career start, Smith will replace Alvin Jones who will have to sit out the first half. The JUCO transfer made huge waves in fall camp, and will get his first starting chance against a conference opponent.
Walter Dawn Jr---RB, UTEP
Dawn and the UTEP offensive line were responsible for the Miners lone score against OU last week. Dawn only saw seven carries, but his workload should increase this week.
Emmanuel Ellerbee---LB, Rice
A true sideline-to-sideline linebacker, Ellerbee can create havoc if he’s not identified and sealed off properly in the second level. He’s one of those defenders who always finds himself near the ball.
Sam Stewart----RB, Rice
Stewart is shifty back who at 205 pounds also has some power, and will be difficult to tackle with poor technique. UTEP’s defense was poor in the tackling department last week, and Stewart will make the Miners defense pay if tackling is again, weak.
This is truly a toss-up game on paper, as Rice opened as a -3 point favorite, and the money line has shifted towards the Miners during the week.
Rice’s mindset is the biggest question, but UTEP’s offensive line could be a major deciding factor in the outcome.
I predict the UTEP run game explodes for a big day, while the defense makes just a few more plays than mistakes and the Miners will start 1-0 in C-USA play with a hard fought win at the crib.
UTEP 31 Rice 27