The Ole Miss Rebels will face the Miners, from that West Texas town of El Paso, Saturday at 6 p.m. CT in Oxford, Miss. This is a rare matchup as the two teams have only met once before, in the 1967 Sun Bowl, where UTEP prevailed 14-7.
UTEP is not a historically successful team in college football and prior to last week’s semi-close game with Oklahoma, (24-7 Sooner win in El Paso), most Ole Miss fans were thankful to see the Miners on the schedule. But, as is often the case with Ole Miss, they seem to catch teams at their best.
You only have to look back to a Wyoming loss in 2005, a Missouri loss in 2007, Wake Forest in 2009, and a crushing loss to Jacksonville State in 2010 to know there are no “gimme” games in Oxford.
For this week’s Friday game plan, scouting UTEP is made easier by the fact that the Rebels' visitor is a very one-dimensional team.
Coach Mike Price doesn’t have the wide receivers or QB to spread the ball around, only accounting for 2,700 passing yards in 2011 in Conference USA. Last year's UTEP team ran the ball well and accounted for over 2,000 yards on the ground.
Gone from this year's UTEP team are the top three running backs from the 2011 squad, but sophomore RB Nathan Jeffery really impressed last week against Oklahoma, eclipsing his freshman year rushing totals in one game at 177 yards in only 21 carries.
UTEP only achieved 48 yards in the air against OU, completing only six passes from starting senior QB Nick Lamaison.
So, how does this stack up against Ole Miss?
Ole Miss' defensive line did not look like a complete unit last week, especially in the first half. Many players were over-running their assignments and frequently out of position. This may have been the result of early-season jitters, since in the third quarter of the game they corrected a lot of that and shut down Central Arkansas’ offense.
Nathan Jeffery is not a big back at 5’9”, 195 lbs, but he does have good speed—and big gaps on the defensive line are exactly what he needs to be successful.
As discussed in the latest Ole Miss Report Card article, we discussed how the linebacking position at Ole Miss is thin, and running a 4-2-5 defense will be another welcome sign to UTEP’s coaching staff.
On defense, UTEP only returned four starters from last year’s team, but really put the fear of God in Oklahoma and Ole Miss. As noted at clarionledger.com, the Miners' defensive linemen are big and quick, according to Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke.
Installing the Game Plan
The plan for Ole Miss on Saturday will be first and foremost to stop Nathan Jeffery and the UTEP run game. This will probably include bringing in a third linebacker or walking a hybrid safety/linebacker (known as the “husky”) down as a weak-side linebacker. Staying in their gaps and walling off the line of scrimmage is priority No. 1 for Hugh Freeze.
Zone blitzing with a corner or safety or will linebacker can also get a shaky QB out of the pocket and hopefully make him rush some passes. Forcing UTEP to rely on its passing game is the best scenario for Ole Miss.
Ole Miss’ new hurry-up offense, however, looks to be a plus for the Rebels over the big D-linemen of UTEP. The Rebs enter Week 2 of the 2012 season as statistically the best offense in the SEC under first year head coach and play-caller Hugh Freeze, with 565 total yards last week, 330 yards through the air.
This is a good test for Hugh Freeze and his coaching staff. If the Rebels can maintain focus on defending the run, playing solid in the secondary and being patient on offense, the points should emerge for Ole Miss as UTEP goes away for the second week in a row, playing well but losing late.
My prediction: Ole Miss 21 – UTEP 13