C-USA Game Of The Week: UTEP vs Houston Preview
September 10th, 2010 By Matt Elder
Houston will be looking for revenge on Friday night as they welcome UTEP to town on the heels of last season's shootout loss. RB Donald Buckram, who ran for 262 yards and 4 TD’s in last year’s game, may or may not be available after being held out of last week’s game with a knee bruise and is day to day heading into Friday night’s affair. Houston is coming off an absolute dominate performance of Texas State last Saturday. Heisman hopeful QB Case Keenum had 5 TD’s in the first half before calling it a day. UTEP on the other hand struggled to find its rhythm against Arkansas Pine-Bluff early on, being down 7-0 midway through the first quarter. Starting QB Trevor Vittatoe looked out of rhythm and the whole offense really lacked a consistent identity without its star RB. After Saturday’s shaky start, I expect Buckram to not only play but to start on Friday night.
Location: Robertson Stadium Houston, Texas
Date & Time: 9/10/10, 10:15pm
Expected Weather: 81 degrees and partly cloudy
Last Year's Result: 58-41 UTEP
Prospects to Watch:
7 QB Case Keenum-Sr.
25 RB Bryce Beall-Jr.
83 WR Patrick Edwards-Jr.
35 WR Tyron Carrier-Jr.
19 WR James Cleveland-Sr.
55 LB Marcus McGraw-Jr.
8 LB Sammy Brown-Jr.
10 QB Trevor Vittatoe-Sr.
3 RB Donald Buckram-Sr.
74 OG Rod Huntley-Sr.
70 OT Alex Solot-Sr.
2 WR Kris Adams-Sr.
46 DE Bernard Obi-Jr.
SS 1 Braxton Amy-Sr.
Case Keenum has absolutely mastered the spread offense of head coach Kevin Sumlin. He is a maestro out there, as he orchestrates his offense down the field both efficiently and effectively. Keenum has a large group of WR’s to choose throw to but his big four are James Cleveland, Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier (pictured #35), and Kierrie Johnson. Cleveland was not 100% last week and it showed as he was limited in his ability. Instead, Patrick Edwards stepped up and continued to show that he is fully recovered from his broken leg of two years ago. Edwards and Cleveland (when healthy) make a dynamic duo in this offense.
Last year’s top rusher Charlie Sims was ruled academically ineligible, so junior Bryce Beall, who split carries with Sims last year, will get his snaps. Beall is no slouch though, being named the C-USA Freshman of the Year in 2008. He is both a threat running the ball but also catching it out of the backfield. UTEP will need to make sure a set of eyes is on him at all times. The most important thing to remember about the Houston offense though is just how dangerous they are, and how quickly they can strike. No lead is ever truly safe against Houston until the final horn sounds. For example look at their numbers from last Saturday. In the 6:15 that Houston actually had the ball on offense in the first half, they scored 49 points and gained 332 yards. Furthermore amongst their seven scoring drives only three took more than two plays to score a touchdown.
Trevor Vittatoe had to fight to retain his job this season, after throwing 13 INT’s last season to only 17 TD’s. People in El Paso were beginning to question whether or not the 5th year senior was still the best fit for this Miner offense. Vittateo also had to overcome offseason shoulder surgery and a suspension from the first half of spring drills due to a violation of team rules. Vittatoe came out of the gate a little rusty, going 17 of 27 for 229 yards and 1 INT on Saturday. He must work hard to knock off any remaining rust if he hopes to keep up with the high powered Cougar offense.
Let’s assume for a second that Donald Buckram doesn’t go on Friday and if that is the case, the Miners seem to be in decent hands as even in Buckram’s absence the team still churned out 234 rushing yards and 4 TD’s last weekend. At wide receiver, former QB Joe Thomas II and Kris Adams will hope to provide two consistent targets for Vittatoe. Adams' production fell last year and now with Jeff Moturi being gone due to graduation, you have even more urgency to find Vittatoe some reliable targets to throw to so that he can get into a consistent rhythm and hopefully once again find his game that allowed him to throw for 33 TD’s and 9 INT’s just two seasons ago. The lone light of consistency for UTEP is their offensive line, which is loaded with senior talent and led by RG Rod Huntley and RT Alex Solot.
Houston is switching to a 3-4 this season and with that hoping to bring a more explosive and high octane attacking style. There is not really much to judge them off as of now since the first team defense only played a half last weekend and they went against an FCS offense. From what we did see though, you can begin to get a little excited about the LB potential on this team. With Marcus McGraw patrolling the middle from sideline to sideline, guys like Phillip Steward and Sammy Brown are given free reign to rush the passer at will. Brown really raised some eyebrows in spring ball with his relentless attacking style of plays and looks to be carrying that over in to the season with ½ a sack and 6 tackles in Week 1.
The defensive line, which was a big concern coming into this season, did a good job of keeping the blockers held up at the point of attack and allowed their LB’s to make plays. The defense also forced 2 fumbles and grabbed 3 INT’s v. Texas State. The starting unit allowed only 7 points in the first half but still had issues containing the running game, as Texas State RB Karrington Bush was able to rack up 91 yards on 19 carries, 51 one of them against the first team and 37 of those came on runs right up the gut. If UTEP has Buckram healthy then it could once again be a very long day for this Houston defense.
The Miner defense is led by senior FS Braxton Amy and he will have to be key if there is any hope for them to potentially slow down Case Keenum and this offense. Amy played very well last week, registering 3 tackles and an INT. His ability to play CF and pick off passes over the middle will likely be tested by Houston early and often. Some looked at last week’s box score and wonder what is wrong with UTEP’s defense? But in reality, outside of Arkansas Pine-Bluff’s initial 80 yard drive to start the game, the Miners D allowed just 198 yards and 3 points the rest of the way.
While the defense lacks a ton of playmakers, a few do exist who will be key for disrupting Houston and that mainly falls on DE Bernard Obi, who will be relied upon to generate consistent pressure from his RE spot. Inside two youngsters will look to collapse the pocket in DT Gernard Reed and Rueben Munoz. Munoz is a smaller more athletic NT than regular starter Isaac Tauaefa and he may be able to give them more snaps without wearing down when going against the fast paced Cougars. Reed is a stud DT who took a redshirt year last year to get bigger and stronger and is the future in the middle along with Munoz. Reed got his feet wet vs. Arkansas PB, registering two tackles and a QB hurry. He will be asked to do much more this week.
Keys to Victory-
How in the world do you stop Case Keenum?
Well the answer is you really can’t, and what I mean by that is that he just has too many options out there for UTEP to cover them all. The best way to attack Houston is with sound fundamental defense. A lot of their offense is predicated upon getting the WR’s the ball in space and allowing them to make a move and gain huge chunks of yardage after the catch. UTEP must be a fundamentally sound tackling team on Friday night. If a WR catches the ball he must be taken down immediately and not even given the opportunity to dance around and make you miss. Guys like Edwards and Carrier have incredible speed, so this will be tricky.
Thankfully for UTEP they get JC transfer Travaun Nixon back this week from a suspension. Nixon is UTEP’s best cover corner and he’s not afraid of the physical style that Houston’s WR’s tend to shy away from. If he can work to help limit Keenum’s options and frustrate his WR’s, it could be the beginning of something special. The other nice thing about UTEP’s DB’s is their size, with no CB listed below 5’10". UTEP immediately has a size advantage over almost all of Houston’s WR’s and their one size WR, James Cleveland, is only an inch taller than the more athletic Nixon (6’2" v. 6’1").
Finally, the defensive line has to get consistent pressure on the QB. When UTEP left their old 3-3-5 defense this past offseason for a more traditional 4-3 look, the onus of the pass rush was once again put on the DL. The sleeper here to watch may be another youngster by the name of Adam Ayala, a redshirt freshman who has a great build at 6’5, 260 pounds and can both rush the passer and play the run. He is still raw and has lots of technical work to do but you can’t teach his kind of size or motor. If UTEP can generate pressure and stay fundamentally sound when tackling Houston’s WR’s in the open field, they can at least give their offense a shot to beat Houston.
Spread’Em Out and Pick’Em Off
The strategy for Houston shouldn’t change much from their usual offensive gameplan. They will look to go with 4 and 5 WR sets almost the entire game and spread out UTEP’s questionable defensive depth, while looking to exploit any mismatches that may occur. I also expect them to do a lot of switching of positions with their WR’s rotating the slot guys out and the outside guys in to try and create other favorable match-ups.
If UTEP goes with a zone defensive attack against Houston, I expect them to use a lot of clear out routes to try and stretch the zone out and really hammer the soft spots. If they try man coverage, expect a lot of crossing routes that will utilize Houston’s elite level speed to gain separation along with “unintentional” picks to get even more hidden yardage. Not much is known about what kind of scheme UTEP will definitely run because last week they kept it very vanilla. Expect Houston to experiment early with different things and adjust as the game carries on, depending on their success level.
What Happens If Donald Buckram Can’t Go?
Well like last week we would expect to see a healthy split of both juniors Joe Banyard and Vernon Frazier carrying the ball. Banyard, a former TCU commit, was the leading rusher for UTEP, while Frazier was not far behind. Frazier is a powerful back with decent speed who played mostly in the second half and was able to effectively wear down the defense and the clock. Also look for UTEP to sprinkle in Leilyon Myers, probably the most electric RB on the team and a threat to score from anywhere. Initially a Washington signee, Myers eventually went to junior college and signed with UTEP in 2009. Look for the three of them to split the carries and be used in a combination of ways to try control the clock and keep the Houston defense off balance.
Something To Watch For:
For those that may recall, when Houston lost to Tulsa in 2009 there was a certain smell in the air that hung over the game like fish that had been left out too long. That was because two Tulsa defensive players managed to re-injure and cure themselves repeatedly over the course of a few Houston drives late in the second half. Now what may seem like bravery, heart, and courage to the most of us didn’t look the same way to the University of Houston. In fact, the university and its coaches questioned the use of faking injuries as a tactic to slow down Houston’s high tempo offense and break their rhythm. It was so serious that Coach Sumlin planned to speak with C-USA officials after last season concerning the issue. So it will be interesting to see if UTEP would attempt to follow suit if this game comes down to the wire and what, if anything, the refs can or will do about it.
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