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Tuesday, September 26, 2023



EL PASO – In the first three games of the season, the Cougars employed a bend-but-don’t-break defense.’

That defense finally broke against UTEP.’

The Cougars, who began last week ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, saw that defense and much more broken in Saturday’s 58-41 upset loss to the Miners before a crowd of 26,793 at the Sun Bowl.’

Dreams of an undefeated regular season, a BCS bowl, a top-10 ranking and a perfect start in Conference USA play – all broken. Not even 664 total yards, 103 offensive plays and five touchdown passes from quarterback Case Keenum could keep those aspirations alive or prevent UH (3-1, 0-1 C-USA) from falling out of the top 25.’

Instead, the Cougars’ defense is left to wonder how it managed to surrender 581 yards (305 rushing) to a UTEP team that recorded only 53 in a loss to No. 2 Texas the previous week. The UH offense will agonize over its missed opportunities, including two stalled drives inside the Miners’ 10-yard line in the first half that swung the momentum in UTEP’s favor.’

Collectively, the Cougars will have to regroup before next weekend’s road game against Mississippi State. Another lesson could await them in Starkville, Miss.’

For now, the lesson is clear: The defense desperately needs to improve.’

‘We made some adjustments as we’ve done in every game, and they stayed a step ahead of us,’ head coach Kevin Sumlin said. ‘We gave up a couple of big plays over the top, which we haven’t done this year. Those runs were killing us, but the big plays over the top got us, too. That ended up being the difference in the game.”

When hundreds of UTEP fans rushed the rain-soaked field at the Sun Bowl after the final whistle, the Cougars were all too happy to bolt from the premises. Perhaps those sprinting fans reminded them of Miners running back Donald Buckram, who steamrolled the Cougars’ defense.’

Buckram rushed for a career-high 262 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries, becoming the eighth running back in UTEP history to rush for 200-plus yards. He averaged an eye-popping 8.2 yards per rush and scored all four of his touchdowns in the second half, when the Miners (2-3, 1-0 C-USA) outscored UH 41-24.’

It was another troubling performance for the Cougars’ defense, which has given up an average of nearly 205 rushing yards through four games.’

‘We kind of concentrate on the pass a lot, but at the same time, we’ve still got to focus on the run because we now know that’s our weakness,’ linebacker Marcus McGraw said. ‘Our weakness has kind of been shown, so all we can do now is come back Monday and try to fix it.” ‘

The offense, which committed two turnovers, will share some of the blame for Saturday’s loss.’

The Cougars jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead on a touchdown pass from Keenum (51-of-76 passing, career-high 536 yards) and a 31-yard field goal from Jordan Mannisto in the first quarter, but their rhythm broke down shortly after that.’

UH went for it on fourth-and-2 at the UTEP 8 on its third drive, but Keenum managed only 1 yard on a sneak and possession turned over on downs. Keenum drove the Cougars to the UTEP 3 on their final possession of the first half, but a holding penalty negated a touchdown and a dropped pass by L.J. Castile in the end zone killed another scoring opportunity. ‘

UH came up empty on that drive when Mannisto missed a 30-yard field goal, leaving the score tied at 17 and sending the Miners into halftime with a wave of momentum.’

‘We had a chance to take control of the game in the first half, and we didn’t do it,’ Sumlin said. ‘When you’re on the road, you’ve got to be able to score touchdowns in the red zone or come away with points, and we didn’t do that.”

The bad breaks continued in the third quarter, when the Miners outscored UH 20-3 to take a commanding 37-20 lead into the final period. Buckram scored on touchdown runs of 8 and 22 yards, and Miners quarterback Trevor Vittatoe (19-of-30 passing, 276 yards, two touchdowns) threw a 74-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Jeff Moturi (six catches, 127 yards). ‘

Keenum, whose 51 completions set a school record, tossed three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to give the Cougars a shot at a comeback, but the Miners killed that bid in dominant fashion.’

For once, the Cougars met their match.’

‘UTEP played a perfect game tonight,’ Keenum said. ‘Trevor’s a great quarterback and did a great job of managing the game, and we couldn’t convert on a lot of the big plays that we needed to.”

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