FACTS & STATS: Site: Rice Stadium (47,000) -- Houston, Texas. Television: CSS, CSN-CA, HOU. Home Record: UTEP 0-4, Rice 2-1. Away Record: UTEP 1-1, Rice 3-1. Neutral Record: UTEP 0-0, Rice 0-0. Conference Record: UTEP 0-3, Rice 3-0. Series Record: Rice leads, 10-6.
GAME NOTES: A pair of Conference USA squads heading in opposite directions meet in Houston on Saturday afternoon, as the Rice Owls play host to the Miners of Texas-El Paso.
Since defeating New Mexico State back on Sept. 14 (42-21), UTEP has been in a downward spiral with four consecutive losses. The Miners recently had a brief two-game homestand, but lost both contests to Louisiana Tech (38-35) and Tulsa (34-20) to fall to 0-3 in conference.
As for the Owls, they have soared to a 5-2 overall record, including a 3-0 start in conference play. They recently embarked on a three-game road trek and came away with wins in all three contests, most recently taking down New Mexico State last Saturday, 45-19. Rice has now won 10 of its last 12 games after closing out the 2012 campaign with five straight victories.
Rice leads the all-time series with UTEP, 10-6, which includes a 6-2 advantage in games played in Houston.
Generating offense has not been a problem for UTEP this season, as it puts up 31.2 ppg and 414.7 ypg while converting an impressive percentage of its third- down attempts (.464). The Miners have demonstrated great balance between the pass (209.8 ypg) and the run (204.8).
In his first season as the starting quarterback, Jameill Showers has shown flashes of brilliance both inside and out of the pocket with 1,259 passing yards and 191 rushing yards, with 15 total touchdowns paired with only four interceptions. He could stand to improve his lackluster completion percentage, however, as he connects on fewer than 58 percent of his throws.
Aaron Jones is one of the league's most effective rushers. He ranks third in C-USA with 557 yards on 99 carries (5.6 ypc) while crossing into the end zone three times. The freshman has rushed for at least 90 yards in all but one game this season.
Showers has the luxury of relying on the big-play ability of Jordan Leslie on the outside. Leslie has caught 26 passes for 485 yards and five touchdowns, and his 18.7 yards per reception is tops in the league among players with at least 20 catches.
Also worth noting is kick-return specialist Autrey Golden, who has averaged 32.1 yards per return on 16 run backs, including a pair of touchdowns.
Even with a solid offensive attack, the Miners have gone winless in the conference this season thanks to their hapless defense, which ranks in the bottom third of C-USA in points (37.7 ppg) and yards allowed (458.3 ypg).
Marcus Bagley leads the unit with 40 tackles, Roy Robertson Harris has 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks, and Richard Spencer has forced a pair of fumbles and recovered one as well. UTEP generates virtually no pass-rush, recording only five sacks in six games, and it has picked off just two passes.
While Rice's offense has been a step behind UTEP's, it is still strong in its own right, ranking fifth in C-USA in both scoring (28.6 ppg) and yardage (402.0 ypg).
Taylor McHargue is built in a similar mold as UTEP's Showers, dangerous both as a passer (1,098 yards, six TDs) and a rusher (302 yards, five TDs). The signal caller has struggled with efficiency, however, as he is completing just 51.1 percent of his passes with six interceptions.
Charles Ross leads an outstanding rushing attack, racking up 545 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games with a knee injury. The senior tallied a career-high 167 yards in last week's win over NMSU. Turner Petersen (226 rushing yards, 207 receiving yards, two TDs) and Darik Dillard (213 yards, two TDs) also see action out of the backfield.
Jordan Taylor is McHargue's top target at receiver. He leads the team in both receptions (31) and yards (369), while scoring a pair of touchdowns. Dennis Parks has broken loose for a few big strikes with 232 yards on just 13 catches.
Defensively, Rice has played well, ranking fourth in C-USA in scoring defense (25.4 ppg) while forcing 15 turnovers.
Michael Kutzler is a multi-talented linebacker, leading the team in tackles (52) while adding 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks and an interception for good measure. Malcolm Hill, Bryce Callahan and Philip Gaines all have two picks apiece, with Callahan adding a team-best eight passes defended. Christian Covington can penetrate the line of scrimmage, racking up 6.0 TFL and he has blocked a kick.
With a first-place team playing host to a last-place squad, the writing appears to be on the wall. UTEP will be able to put up some points, but as it has grown accustomed to this season, it won't be able to slow down the Owls and their potent rushing attack.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rice 38, Texas-El Paso 28
Saturday, October 26, 3:30 p.m. (et)