Let’s be frank for a moment. The statistics at the end of last Saturday’s game did not look good for the UTEP offense. They amassed just 255 yards of total offense, over 125 yards less than their season average a year ago. Mike Price’s club was 3-16 on 3rd downs, committed 6 penalties, and failed to score an offensive touchdown in their 24-7 loss. Before you point the proverbial finger of shame their way, let’s cut them a bit of slack.
The Miners were devastated by the graduating class of 2012. From last year’s team, they lost their top three rushers and their number one, three, four, six, and seven receivers. Plain and simple, that is a lot of offense to replace. As a fan base who lost Mike Wallace, Dexter McCluster, and Shay Hodge in a two-year span, we should sympathize with our fellow football brethren. This team needs time to get their feet underneath them, and they make some strides against the Sooners. The UTEP kickers missed three field goals that could have made it 24-16 in the third quarter, a much different game.
The defense helped keep UTEP in the ballgame all night, holding last year’s #4 offense in relative check. More on their defense tomorrow, today is about offense.
Mike Price and son Eric, the offensive coordinator, run a very balanced offensive attack. Last year, the Miners had 410 rushing attempts to go along with 399 passing attempts. Against Oklahoma, they were a little off kilter, running it 36 times opposed to 26 passing attempts.
UTEP figures to try to pound the rock again this week. Ole Miss allowed just 100 yards on the ground last week to Central Arkansas with the Bears averaging under 3 yards per carry. The Rebels will need to continue their success against the run to get to medium-to-long 3rd downs. With experience at linebacker in Mike Marry and Joel Kight, Ole Miss has two players who can plug up gaps well. Defensive tackles Uriah Grant and Issac Gross played well on Saturday up the middle with Grant recording a sack and Gross recording 3 tackles in limited time.
The most promising play-maker against the run may just be sophomore Denzel Nkemdiche. Playing the hybrid spur position, Nkemdiche excelled against UCA, leading the Rebels in tackles with 8. He will need to penetrate the backfield for the defense to force quick 3-and-outs.
If defensive coordinator Dave Wommack’s team can force the Miners into passing 3rd downs, Ole Miss has a good chance to win this game. Like Ole Miss, UTEP is also known to use two quarterbacks, Nick Lamaison, who gets the majority of the snaps, and Carson Meger. The pair was a combined 7-26 for 48 yards against Oklahoma. If UTEP finds themselves in passing downs, they could be in trouble.
Ole Miss boasts a stable of pass rushers who have lightning quick first steps. Gross, is light for a defensive tackle at just 254 pounds, but is deceptively strong. His first step has been raved about by the coaching staff ever since he got to campus.
Channing Ward, cleared late last month, saw little action in the opener, but Freeze said that he will more snaps as the year goes on. There are a multitude of reasons he was the top player in the state of Mississippi last year, his speed is one of them.
Speaking of former top players in Mississippi, CJ Johnson, tops for the class of 2011, is channeling his inner Marshawn Lynch. Johnson was referred to by Freeze as “our best player”, and he proved that on Saturday. The sophomore end recorded 6 tackles, including a sack for seven yards.
If this triumvirate of tenacity can unleash itself on passing downs, the Rebels could pull the quarterback to the ground, or at least force a bad throw. When it comes to bad throws, Wommack has a couple of guys who can pick those off. Dehendret Collins and Cliff Coleman each displayed their ability to make moves on the ball Saturday by recording a pass breakup a piece. Frank Crawford recorded the lone interception for the Rebels, while fellow “dreadhead” Charles Sawyer may have the best hands in the secondary. If Lamaison and Meger are not weary about avoiding poor throws, they may find themselves trying to make a couple of tackles.