Texas-El Paso Miners (1-0) at Houston Cougars (1-0)
Kickoff: Friday, 9/10/10, 9:15 PM
"Wait a second," you may be asking. "Does that really say 9:15?"
If you're doing the math, given the high-powered offenses in question, this game figures to finish up around 1:00 in the morning. Such is the lot of Conference USA schools hoping for a date with ESPN. Nonetheless, the awkward timing of the game means the Cougars will get a shot for revenge in front of a national audience.
By now, I'm sure you know the story. Last year, UH raced out to a 3-0 record, with victories over then-#5 Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Coogs were ranked #12, before suffering a shocking and humiliating defeat at the hands of the Miners, 58-41.
The embarrassment stemmed largely from the way Houston lost. The defense was historically bad. UTEP running back Donald Buckram ran for 262 yards on 32 carries. Trevor Vittatoe threw for 276 yards for good measure. Even Case Keenum's 536 yards passing and five touchdown passes couldn't keep Houston in the game.
Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Cougar fan who considers the Miners a serious threat this time around. You could call it cockiness. But such thoughts have a basis in reason:
-The Cougars are riding a 16-game home winning streak, including a perfect 12-0 mark at Robertson Stadium under Kevin Sumlin. The Miners are 4-14 on the road the last three years.
-Houston has done remarkably well in revenge games. When the Coogs lose to a team, and face them again later that year, or the year after, they have won the rematch twelve straight times. Examples include the OSU win a year ago (avenging a 56-37 loss the year prior), a 41-24 victory over then-#23 East Carolina in '08 (after losing 37-35 in '07) and UH's C-USA championship game victory over Southern Miss in '06 (the Golden Eagles beat Houston earlier that year). And the more humbling the defeat, the more vengeful the Cougars seem. Just ask Rice (lost to the Cougars 73-14 in '09 after spanking them, 56-42 in '08) or Tulsa (beat UH 56-7 in '07, lost 70-30 in '08).
-An offense that returns mostly intact, another year of increased recruiting on defense and the offensive line, and a new defensive scheme has the Cougar faithful thinking that this year's squad is measurably better than last year's. Houston also enters the game unranked, and with last year's loss fresh in their minds, so there's no chance the Miners get anything less than Houston's undivided attention.
Houston Offense vs UTEP Defense
Let's start with the positive one. Simply, there's no reason to believe that the Miners will be able to do anything to stop Keenum, et al. There is experience in the linebacking corps, but not much on the defensive line or the secondary. The Cougars will also be UTEP's first 1-A opponent under a new defensive scheme (they switched from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 in the off-season). Finally, there's simply the fact that UTEP's defense has been bad for quite a while. If you take the Miners' best finish in each of the following categories over the past three years, you would get a team that allows 4.8 yards per carry, a completion percentage of 61.6, and surrenders 33.5 points per game. Bottom line, putting up fewer than 40 on this team would be a disappointment.
UTEP Offense vs Houston Defense
This is the first test for first-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart's new defense, and a big test it will be. Even after missing much of Spring practice with a suspension and a shoulder injury that required surgery, Vittatoe is an experienced, talented signal-caller. Buckram missed the season opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but is expected to play on Friday. And even if he doesn't, there are talented backs available, in Joseph Banyard and Vernon Frazier. It's the run game which will receive most of the attention. The Cougars have speed aplenty on defense, but size and strength are question marks. Even with Stewart promising to bring all sorts of pressure, one wonders if the Miners will be able to win the game by grinding out long possessions on the ground.
One of the biggest surprises from Houston's opener was the kicking game. That is both a good and bad thing. It was good, because Jordan Mannisto and freshman punter Richie Leone combined to pound five touchbacks on 11 tries. (And the opening kick of the game went several yards deep, but was foolishly returned by Texas State.) Those five touchbacks matched the total from all of last season. Leone also was impressive in his two punt attempts late. On the other hand, kicker Matt Hogan (who is 12-12 lifetime on field goals, including a 51-yard game-winner against Tulsa) showed that his troubles with the extra point still aren't solved. He missed five of 43 attempts a year ago, and failed to connect on two of his 10 tries against Texas State - one block, one a clean miss. While UTEP has some playmakers like Banyard and Donovan Kemp available in the return game, they don't have anybody with the track record of Tyron Carrier (5 career kick return TDs), and the Miner kicker has one career field goal attempt. Houston should have an edge here.
It's easy to overplay the revenge factor, and the home-field advantage. If UTEP's offensive line dominates Houston's front seven all night, those things may not matter. But I think there's enough talent and depth that the Cougars won't be pushed around as easily as last year. The defense may not play like the '85 Chicago Bears, but they'll do enough to secure a victory.