Rice-UTEP: Five Things To Watch

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I'll spare you another post on how zany the Owls-Miners series has been over the last five seasons, a span in which each game was decided by one score and a series in which Rice has a three-game winning streak. Even the Owls' miserable 1-10 season in 2005 included just a seven-point loss to the Jordan Palmer-led Miners, and given how terrible UTEP has been on the road in C-USA under Mike Price (3-12 since 2006), the Owls have reason to be confident.

Their margin of error might be slim, but the Owls must know that UTEP will play its usual brand of undisciplined and inefficient football, and that at some point on Saturday at HRS the Miners will leave the door to triumph ajar. Have the Owls done enough to bolster their confidence over the past couple of weeks to muster the audacity to walk through that door? If so, an actual win streak could be in the offing. Don't everyone fall out of their seats at once.

1. Can Keep Running Away. Harping on the Owls' sudden commitment to the ground game is acceptable, especially considering the dividends it paid last weekend against Tulane. The Owls don't need to run to gain yards necessarily, but to set up their play-action pass. If UTEP believes in the Owls' commitment to running the ball, it will have no choice but to move its safeties in support. That will leave the secondary available for Toren Dixon to exploit, and as Tulane witnessed, he is more than capable. Besides, the Miners rank 11th in C-USA in rushing defense (209.2 yards/game), so maybe Charles Ross will enjoy his first career 100-yard day.

2. Down, Down, Down. The Owls must get Miners Jr. RB Donald Buckram down to the ground. He is second nationally in rushing (142.2 yards/game) and has been especially prolific of late with back-to-back 200-yard efforts at Tulane (34 carries, 234 yards, 3 TDs) and at SMU (33 carries, 241 yards, 1 TD). If stopping Buckram were easy some team would have done it by now - well, this is Conference USA, so perhaps not - so the Owls should settle for slowing him down. How? Tackle like they've been tackling in recent weeks. That should do the trick.

3. Keep On Maturing. So. QB Nick Fanuzzi will be the focus of the weekly feature, but he deserves mention here too. Some stats: In his first three starts back from a separated shoulder, The Nick posted a 110.17 passer efficiency that would rank 99th nationally if representative of his entire season. In the two games since the Owls' off week, The Nick has a 160.72 efficiency rating, which would rank fourth behind Kellen Moore (Boise State), Max Hall (BYU) and Ryan Mallett (Arkansas). Yes, he's been that good. Oh, and UTEP ranks last in C-USA in sacks (1.10/game) and 11th in total defense (464.3 yards/game). Go get 'em, Nick.

4. Wardlow? Willson? VMcD? Just a suggestion, but how about utilizing those 6-5, 230-plus pound tight ends? You've got three of them, and they're actually pretty gifted. Taylor Wardlow was held without a reception against the Green Wave, as was Vance McDonald. Luke Willson had one catch for nine stumbling yards, his lone reception in five weeks (he has been dinged, though). If your receivers not named Toren Dixon or Patrick Randolph aren't going to step up, perhaps the tight ends should be given the opportunity to assist The Nick in the passing game.

5. The Crying, err, Kicking Game. Will David Bailiff even attempt a field goal this weekend? He pledged to work on the Owls' ills in the kicking game, but can he truly trust that unit right now?

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

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I was confused by the lack of tight end involvement versus Tulane. Their weakest spot on defense is their woefully undersized and undertalented linebackers. Wardlow and VMcD could have had a field day if they were utilized. I have no doubts they got open repeatedly.

I'm just surprised it took until the 4th quarter of the Tulane game for Bailiff to lose all confidence in the kicking team. I wouldn't trot them out for anything but a PAT (and maybe I've got plans for some 2pt tries this weekend) unless they converted 10 straight 40 yard field goals in practice when under all-out block pressure from the 1st team FG blocking team. Seriously. I don't understand how/why that's not the standard anyway. Field goals under 40 yards should be made at at least a 90% clip in games. Anything else should be completely unacceptable.

I hate that the kicking game has once again become an adventure. I really hope we find the key to getting that fixed sometime soon.

It's always something when the Owls play the Miners. The number of bizarre twists and turns is astounding. But a game in which the Owl defense absolutely, positively must wrap up the ball carrier gives me a bad feeling. Of course, in this series it probably means a shootout and some unlikely player will step up for one team or the other and put them over the top. Should be fun.

MK- Any chance of a live chat today?

owl-1983: Nope. - MK

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