The Houston Cougars look to stay alive in Conference USA West on Saturday as they take on the UTEP Miners one last time as conference rivals. In preparation for the game, we spoke with Anthony Salom of our SB Nation sister site MinerRush.com to preview the game.
SB Nation Houston: UTEP quarterback Nick Lamaison has been battling injuries this year. How much better is the UTEP offense with him than it is with Carson Meger? Despite ranking near the bottom of the FBS in points scored, are there signs of life in the Miner offensive attack?
Anthony Salom: There's no question that this team is much better with Nick Lamaison in the lineup. He's the most experienced guy we have, and he gives us the best opportunity to win. I look at a game like this past Saturday's against Tulane, we put up 21 points with Nick under center, and only managed 3 with Carson Meger. And, the drive that Carson had, Nick actually started that off and took us into Tulane territory before getting injured. That's not a knock on Meger. He's a capable quarterback, but I don't think there's any question as to who the best quarterback is.
At times we have seen signs of life. As I just mentioned, we put up 24 points against Tulane before Nick went out, and those were all in the first half. We've seen plenty of scoring opportunities washed away by mistakes and turnovers down in the red zone, and we've also been turned over on downs a couple of times this season inside the red zone as well.
We saw the offense move the ball well against New Mexico State, and they put up 41 points. They also followed that up by putting up 26 at Wisconsin. Now, I think think they lost themselves for a bit after that tough non-conference run. Things fell apart heading into C-USA play, but I do think that if Lamaison is healthy, and he's given the time to throw, this offense can definitely move the ball and put up points. We've got to cut down on mistakes, and capitalize on opportunities when they arise.
SBN-H. Other than the quarterback(s), who is the offensive player that most needs to play well on Saturday to help UTEP's chances?
AS: I think the offensive players that need to have a good game this weekend are the guys on the offensive line. If UTEP is going to have a chance to win, we have to be able to sustain drives and put up points. To do that, they are going to have to open up holes for our running backs, and they're going to have to give Lamaison the time he needs to throw. Too many times this season our offense has put the defense in deep holes by the offense going 3 and out. That just can't happen against the Cougars, because they can put up points in a hurry.
SBN-H. On the other side of the ball, UTEP has only allowed 30 points in a game twice in eight games so far this year. What do the Miners do well on defense?
AS: The defense has done an amazing job this year, and that's even after losing perhaps our best safety in senior Richard Spencer. I don't think there's one area that the Miners perform best in. But, if I had to choose one, I'd say they do a great job tackling. In years past, we saw too many missed arm tackles that turned into big gains. That hasn't been much of an issue with this group. Overall, they're an extremely experienced unit that is loaded with upper classmen. They play well together and just know how to get after the football.
SBN-H: Given the emerging rivalry between UTEP and Houston in recent years, and given that Houston's long-standing wish to get out of Conference USA has finally come true, is there a stronger-than-usual desire among Miner fans/players/coaches to beat the Coogs one last time on the way out the door?
AS: I haven't really heard too much from the fan base about wanting to beat Houston more than usual. At this point, considering how poorly this season has gone, they just want to beat whoever it is that is on the schedule. I think the same thing goes for the players and coaches. Anything short of a bowl appearance this season would be a disappointment, and its no secret we'd need to win out for that to happen. So I'd say there's a stronger than usual desire to beat everyone that is left on the schedule.
SBN-H: What is your gut prediction for the outcome of Saturday's game?
My gut prediction for the game is that Houston will be looking to get back on track after what happened last week. And, while our offense has shown signs of life at times, we're a little dinged up, and I'm not sure we can keep pace if this turns into a track meet. I think our defense will be able to keep us in it for a while, but if the offense isn't doing their part, it could really get away from us. But, considering how close this game has been played over the last years, I'll go ahead and say it'll be another close one. I wish I could predict an upset, but Cougars by a touchdown.
SBN-H: After leading the Miners to back-to-back 8-4 seasons in 2004 and 2005, Mike Price has led the team to six straight losing seasons, with a seventh nearly a certainty, barring a miracle run down the stretch. What are the odds Mike Price is the head coach at UTEP in 2013?
AS: I'm not sure that there is any chance that Mike Price will return next year to be the head coach at UTEP. He may have had a shot at an extension had this season gone the way many had hoped it would, but considering it hasn't, most feel the Mike Price era will end after 2012
If you want to check out the questions I answered for Miner Rush, you can check that out here, and always be sure to check out www.MinerRush.com for lots of good UTEP and general Conference USA coverage.