GAME NOTES: The 12th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies take a break from the rigors of SEC play to entertain the Miners of Texas-El Paso on Saturday night.
UTEP, which plays its football out of Conference USA, has had a rough go of it here in the first season under head coach Sean Kugler, winning just once in seven opportunities. The Miners have lost all four C-USA bouts thus far, with their most recent being a 45-7 shellacking at the hands of the Rice Owls last Saturday. The team's lone victory came over a New Mexico State squad (42-21 on Sept. 14) that recently put an end to one of the nation's longest losing streaks.
Texas A&M brings a 6-2 record into this contest, with the team's setbacks coming against nationally-ranked SEC rivals Alabama (49-42) and Auburn (45-41). Kevin Sumlin's Aggies responded from the loss to the Tigers by throttling visiting Vanderbilt last weekend, 46-24.
This bout marks the third of a four-game homestand for A&M, which returns to conference action next week versus Mississippi State. The Aggies still have bouts against ranked foes LSU and Missouri on the docket.
Despite residing in the same state, these two teams are meeting for only the third time. Texas A&M has won both prior matchups (1984, 2000), and all have taken place in College Station.
UTEP is one of the top rushing teams in Conference USA, rolling up 211.0 ypg, but the club's effort in the passing game (196.4 ypg) has it in the lower half of the standings. As a result, the Miners are scoring an average of 27.7 ppg, and they hold on to the football for 32:32 to rank third in the league in that category.
Aaron Jones is the Miners' top offensive weapon, as he has rushed for 743 yards and three TDs, averaging 106.1 ypg and 5.8 ypc. Jameill Showers has gained 192 yards and scored four rushing TDs, but he is much more known for his passing prowess, that resulting in 1,263 yards with 11 TDs and only four interceptions. Jordan Leslie paces the receiving corps with 28 catches for 489 yards and five scores, while Ian Hamilton and Eric Tomlinson both have 20 grabs and two receiving TDs.
Shoddy defense has been the problem for UTEP this season, as the unit surrenders 38.7 points (12th in C-USA) and 467.7 yards per contest (13th). The Miners have really struggled to contain opposing ball carriers, allowing them 249.6 ypg (14th) and 22 TDs. The effort against the pass has been better, but still opponents are airing it out to the tune of 218.1 ypg with 14 TDs. A total of 11 players have made at least 20 tackles this season, with Devin Cockrell leading the way with 43. A glaring lack of big plays has hurt the defense, with Dashone Smith coming up with the only interceptions (two), and the Miners rank last in C-USA in sacks with only six.
UTEP piled up 248 yards on the ground last week, 186 coming from Jones, but the team failed to score a rushing TD, all while allowing Rice to run for 265 yards and a pair of scores. Showers was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury after a sack in the second quarter, giving way to Blaire Sullivan who went 6-of-9 for 112 yards with a TD and an INT. Ian Hamilton appeared to be the only viable target down field, and he finished with four grabs for 108 yards and a score.
The Miners allowed only an 8-of-20 passing effort last week, but the Owls managed to generate 259 yards and four TDs on those limited completions. Cockrell logged a game-high 13 tackles, 11 of which were solo efforts, and Wesley Miller broke up five passes.
With 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel leading the way, Texas A&M has the SEC's top offense (48.0 ppg, 584.6 ypg). Of the 60 scores the team has produced, 52 have been TDs, and Manziel has had a hand in more than half of them (six rushing, 21 passing). A 74.3 percent passer who has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards, Manziel is also the team's leading ground gainer with 597 yards on 89 carries. Ben Malena is next with 409 yards, and he has scored eight times. Mike Evans is a big play waiting to happen as he ranks second in the nation in receiving yards (1,086) and he has scored 10 TDs. Malcome Kennedy (40) has only six fewer catches than does Evans (46), but 681 yards and six TDs less. Derel Walker has 29 receptions for 400 yards and a score.
With the offense clicking on all cylinders, the A&M defense need only hold down the fort, but the unit is the reason the team has two losses despite the Aggies putting up more than 40 points in both games. Foes are scoring 32.6 ppg (13th in the SEC, 97th nationally) and generating 473.8 ypg (14th, 110th) against Sumlin's defense, with the effort against the run resulting in a league-worst 210.1 ypg. The pass defense isn't much better, with opponents averaging 263.6 ypg, and the Aggies have permitted a conference-worst 20 passing TDs. Howard Matthews has a team-high 53 tackles, but the unit as a whole has just 11 sacks and 12 takeaways.
A banged-up Manziel was up to his old tricks in last week's rout of Vanderbilt, completing 25-of-35 passes for 305 yards with four TDs and only one interception. He didn't take off that much, rushing only four times for 11 yards. Instead it was Trey Williams and Brandon Williams who handled that aspect of the game, combining for 126 yards and two scores. Kennedy was high man with eight grabs for 83 yards, while Evans turned his five catches into 77 yards and two TDs. Walker (four rec., 59 yards) also had a pair of receiving scores, and LaQuvionte Gonzalez finished with four catches for 52 yards and a TD.
A&M turned the ball over five times (four fumbles) and committed seven penalties to just one for Vandy. Yet they won the game rather easily, despite a near 10-minute deficit in time of possession.
Coach Sumlin made no excuses for the sloppy play, but was happy with his team's execution in other areas.
"I don't know what was going on, we started fumbling the ball, which we don't do," he continued, "In my two big stats for the day, we lost the turnover margin with five turnovers to their three, but third downs were big for us and that's offensively and defensively. That's a big deal for what we do as a no- huddle team. When we're converting 60 percent or so on third down, we're moving the ball and our defense its holding them to 3-of-11, that's as good as it's been here this year."
The Aggies did a tremendous job against the run last week, allowing the Commodores just 95 net yards on 44 attempts (2.2 ypc). They did surrender 234 passing yards, but logged seven sacks and came away with three interceptions, one of which was returned 26 yards for a TD by Matthews at the start of the third quarter. Matthews paced the unit with 14 tackles, while Floyd Raven, Sr. finished with 11. In all, the Aggies made 12 TFL, and Gavin Stansbury had two sacks.
While certainly not throwing in the towel, coach Kugler knows his Miners face an uphill climb this week.
"There's a lot to prepare for. Individually, Johnny Manziel is a special player. There's a lot of things that he does that you don't coach. He has a natural god-given ability to play football. When things aren't there he can make things happen, probably moreso than anybody I've seen."
Even with Showers out of commission for the foreseeable future, the Miners should be able to move the chains against what has been a suspect A&M defense, but there is absolutely no chance the visitors are going to be able to keep Manziel and the Aggies from imposing their will once they have the ball. This one should be over by halftime.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texas A&M 56, Texas-El Paso 10