Houston has a pretty simple game plan going into its game against UTEP.
Someone, anyone, stop the run.
The Miners gashed the Cougars on the ground last season, rushing for 305 yards in the upset 58-41 win. Donald Buckram did most of the damage, with 262 yards and four touchdowns – and averaged a whopping 8.4 yards a carry.
Buckram is questionable for this game after bruising his knee at practice last week, but coach Kevin Sumlin understands it won’t matter who is in the backfield. His team has got to shut the Miners down tonight (ESPN, 10: 15 p.m. ET).
“Physically, they got after us in both fronts,” Sumlin said. “This game will be pretty simple -- the team that’s able to be physical and win up front is going to win the football game.”
The Cougars have changed their defensive alignment since last season, and now play the 3-4. They allowed Texas State to gain 180 yards on the ground in a win last week, but only allowed 3.2 yards per rush. Last season, Houston allowed 5.1 yards a carry.
Sumlin said he was pleased with the overall effort from his new defense.
“In the first half, our starters on defense gave up one touchdown and 175 yards,” he said. “For the first crew, I thought they came out and did what we asked them to do.”
Of course, one might think the Cougars are out for revenge after what happened last year. They were riding high after consecutive upsets, first over No. 5 Oklahoma State and then against Texas Tech. Houston became a non-AQ darling, jumping up into the polls to No. 12. Meanwhile, UTEP was coming off a 64-7 loss to Texas. Nobody gave the Miners a chance.
Perhaps the attention got to the Cougars. Sumlin refuses to talk the R-word, but UTEP coach Mike Price realizes what’s coming.
“I’m sure our game is going to be circled on their schedule,” Price said. “They were riding high when they came in here last year, and we won the game and we knocked them off the tremendous start they were having.”
The schools seem to always play offensive shootouts. In 2005, UTEP won 44-41 in double overtime. In 2007, Houston rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to win 34-31. In 2008, Houston again rallied from a 28-9 third-quarter deficit. Case Keenum threw the winning touchdown pass in a 42-37 victory.
The teams have totaled over 1,000 yards of offense in their past two meetings. Last year, Keenum completed 51 of 76 passes for 536 yards and five touchdowns, but it was a wasted effort in the loss. Does UTEP have the offensive firepower to stay with Houston if Buckram cannot play?
Price said the offensive game plan would change a little, simply because none of the other running backs have the long-strike ability of Buckram. Vernon Frazier is more of an outside runner, Joe Banyard more of an inside runner, and both would play if Buckram is out. They both played in the opener and gained 183 combined yards.
“But alone, Buckram ran for (262) against these guys last year,” Price said. “He was really a vital part of us keeping ahead of Houston. Very seldom does anybody get ahead of Houston much.”
When asked whether his team was physically prepared for the task of stopping the run, Sumlin said, “I would hope so.”