The Houston Cougars look for revenge Friday night when they host the UTEP Miners. The Miners shocked the Cougars last season 58-41, behind Donald Buckram’s 262 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. Buckram was held out of last week’s game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff to rest his bruised knee, but he’s ready to run in this one.
The line has moved quite a bit. The Cougars opened as 16 ½ point favorites, but with the public playing Houston at over 80% the line has gone up to 20 points at most sportsbooks. The total has also been pushed up by heavy betting, which now sits at an even 75 points at most sites. This game features two impressive offenses and two suspect defenses. As noted, these two teams combined for 99 points last year.
Houston is led by 2nd Team All-America quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum’s numbers are ridiculous – last year he threw for over 5,600 yards and 44 touchdowns. While it’ll be hard to duplicate such gaudy stats, the Cougars have their top 3 receivers back. Each wideout is coming off a 1,000 yard campaign. And tailback Charles Sims was the Conference USA Freshman of the Year. On top of that, the offensive line brings back 3 starters. Simply put, Houston’s offense is awesome.
But their defense is not, and that is why UTEP was able to pull off the upset last year. Houston allowed 227 yards per game on the ground, which makes Buckram’s production more understandable (though he is a great back). So this year the Cougars are switching to a 3-4 defense, hoping an extra linebacker can read the run and make the play. Junior Marcus McGraw accumulated 156 tackles and 4 sacks last year. Having him certainly helps, but other players need to step up if this team has any hopes of being a BCS-buster.
In addition to Buckram, UTEP welcomes back a fourth-year starting quarterback in Trevor Vittatoe. Vittatoe, like Buckram, had a great game against Houston, going 19-30 for over 275 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. The offensive line brings back 3 senior starters, which means UTEP should be able to put up a lot of points this year, though it would help if they had more reliable receivers. The defense, like Houston, needs to get better. Last year the Miners gave up 33.5 points per game, over 200 yards on the ground and almost 250 through the air. At least they were balanced in their futility. With only five defensive starters returning, UTEP is set to struggle again this season.
UTEP head coach Mike Price (yes, from the infamous Alabama/strip club scandal) might be on the hot seat. The Miners should have made a bowl last year but finished 4-8 overall, and only 3-5 in C-USA. But if Price can find a way to steal a win in Houston, and after looking at the Miners’ upcoming schedule, UTEP could have a nice season. On the flip side, Houston travels to UCLA next week. Are the Cougars looking past UTEP for the second year in a row?
This game is setting up to be a shootout between these two Texas schools. I think the over is worthy of a play tonight. What scares me about UTEP is that Houston is terrific against the spread at home, going 8-1 over the past two years. But I like the experience of Buckram and Vittatoe and their ability to upset the Cougars last year. Also, when these teams played in Houston two years ago the Cougars escaped with a 5 point victory. And while 75 points is a lot, UTEP has played over the total 9-3 on the road over the past two years, also going over 10-4 as an underdog. This is the late game on ESPN, so get ready for a late night.
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