Houston-UTEP Preview (With Anthony Salom)

Will Case Keenum and the Cougars be able to escape El Paso with a win on Thursday?

Houston Cougars (4-0) at Texas-El Paso Miners (2-2. 0-1 C-USA)

Kickoff: Thursday, September 29th, 7:00 PM Central

The Line: Houston by 16

All-Time Series: Tied, 4-4 (Cougars 1-4 in El Paso)*

I mean this with the utmost respect for the Texas-El Paso Miners, their fans, their coaches, and their players: UTEP is a huge pest. From 2006 to 2009, the Miner football program won 5, 4, 5 and 4 games a year, respectively. The Cougars won 10, 8, 8 and 10. And yet when the two teams squared off during that period, the Cougars needed to rally from double-digit deficits for wins in three straight years, and the fourth year, the Miners spanked the #12 Cougars by 17 points.

It wasn't until 2010, the year UTEP earned its first bowl berth since '05, and Houston missed a bowl for the first time since '04, that the Cougars managed a comfortable victory. Go figure.

Perhaps no team better epitomizes Houston's longing to be something more than just another Conference USA school, and Conference USA's dragging of the Cougars back towards the rest of the pack, than UTEP.

Pests or no, you almost (almost) have to feel sorry for the Miners. No other team gets the dubious distinction of having to go up against Case Keenum for five straight years. This off-season, UTEP coach Mike Price joked that his team would prepare for the UH game in 2012, expecting Keenum to be the Cougar quarterback. In four tries, Keenum has three wins, and a 536 yard, 5 TD, 0 INT effort in a loss.

The UTEP offense had a rough off-season, graduating its entire starting offensive line, all-time leading passer Trevor Vittatoe, feature back Donald Buckram, and 1000-yard receiver Kris Adams. (It's worth mentioning that Vittatoe and Buckram were injured and missed much of '10.) The Miners struggled mightily to open the season, needing overtime to beat 1-AA Stony Brook, losing their conference opener to SMU, and barely scraping by New Mexico State, 16-10. However, they did show a few signs of life - at least offensively - in a loss to top 25-ranked South Florida last weekend.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Anthony Salom, writer for Miner Rush, and fellow co-host with myself at C-USA Weekly, was kind enough to answer some UTEP questions for us. Miner Rush is one of the many blogs under the SBNation umbrella, and they do a great job not only of covering UTEP athletics, but Conference USA as a whole. Check them out.

Without further ado, here's Anthony's input on the game:

SBNation Houston: The Miners graduated their entire starting offensive line from last year, and have struggled out the gate, gaining less than two yards per carry in their first two games. The numbers were more respectable against South Florida on Saturday. How far would you say the O-line has progressed?

Anthony Salom: The offensive line has taken some big strides over the last couple of weeks. Not only in opening up holes for the running backs, but also doing a better job of protecting our quarterbacks. Through the first two weeks of the season we had something like 69 yards rushing. Now through four weeks, that number has grown to 346. It's still not where we'd like it to be, but the guys up front are definitely showing some great improvement.

SBNH: While Houston has a pretty sizable talent edge over UTEP on paper, no Cougar fan who was around in 2009 doubts the Sun Bowl mystique. How confident is the team and/or fan base heading into Thursday's showdown?

AS: I think the fan base is a little optimistic about the game. We've all seen how Houston was down 27 to La Tech, and how North Texas made it a game for a while as well. We know that Houston will likely win the game, but we also feel that with the strides our team has made over the last weeks, we'll be able to put up a much better fight than people thought we would've coming into the season, or even after the Stony Brook game. I'd like to think that the team is even more confident than the fans are. The score doesn't show it, but this team was in that game at USF. If a couple balls bounce our way, we might have seen a completely different outcome. I think they're building more and more confidence in themselves every week, and come Thursday, they'll be ready.

SBNH: What are the chances Nick Lamaison is healthy enough to play quarterback on Thursday, and how much of a drop-off is there between him and Carson Meger?

AS: I'd say that Nick Lamaison has about a 75% chance of starting. Coach Price has already gone out and said that if Nick is comfortable throwing the deep ball he'll play. I'd like to think he'll start. That will be huge for the Miners, because there is actually quite a big drop off between Nick and Carson. Carson did a great job last week against a very good team in USF, but his inexperience showed at times, and it was pretty obvious he's a bit unrefined. Nick has the experience, and he can make all the throws. The guy originally went to Tennessee, and when that didn't work out he went to play JUCO ball for a while. He put up great numbers, and won titles there. He has what it takes.

SBNH: Gut reaction, what's the final score on Thursday?

AS: I think if Nick is able to play, we're going to see one hell of a game. I know that Houston's run defense has been a bit suspect, and with our starting QB back we may be able to put forth our most balanced offensive performance yet. On top of that, the Miners hold a pretty big advantage in the Sun Bowl against UH, and who can forget 2009? It wouldn't surprise me to see UTEP win, but I won't jump off the deep end here. Houston 34, UTEP 28.

*Two of the UTEP wins (both of them coming in El Paso) are from the first three years of UH's football existence, in 1946 and 1948. The Cougars were not what would be considered 1-A football at that time. In recent history, the record stands at Houston 4, UTEP 2.

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