The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks take a break from SEC play to clash with the Texas-El Paso Miners of Conference USA this weekend.
UTEP became bowl eligible last weekend with a 28-14 victory over SMU in front of an energized home crowd. That victory halted a three-game skid for the Miners, who opened the season with wins in five of their first six games. They are just 1-3 in true road games but seem to be a confident group despite this week's challenge.
"This next game is going to be a lot of fun," said UTEP coach Mike Price in anticipation of Saturday's clash. "It will be a great experience for our players. It's going to be on national television against one of the best teams in the country. They've only lost to Auburn and Alabama, and they are loaded."
Arkansas has recorded three consecutive wins to move to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in SEC action. Last weekend's victory was the most impressive of the season for the Razorbacks, as they crushed South Carolina on the road by a 41-20 final.
"We put it all together tonight and we have to keep doing that," said Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett after the win. "If we were doing that all season then we wouldn't be in the position we're in."
Arkansas won its only previous meeting with UTEP back in 1989.
Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe leads a UTEP team that is averaging 26.5 ppg and 373.4 total ypg. Vittatoe has completed 55.2 percent of his passes for 2,260 yards and 19 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. Kris Adams is a dangerous wideout for the team, as he has recorded 743 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 37 catches. As for the ground attack, Joe Banyard has rushed for 418 yards and five touchdowns.
Opponents are posting 21.6 ppg against UTEP, which is surrendering 373.0 total ypg. The Miners have been mediocre against both the run and the pass, and with only 13 takeaways and 11 sacks there has been a glaring lack of big plays made. Trevaun Nixon is tops with three interceptions, but the team clearly lacks a defensive standout.
Against SMU last week, UTEP only posted 319 total yards while surrendering 359 yards to the Mustangs. However, the Miners didn't commit a single turnover in the clash and made good on 7-of-13 third-down conversion attempts. Vittatoe completed 17-of-28 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions.
"We made some plays on offense," said Price. "We caught the ball and made some runs. Our defense is improving and playing better all of the time. And we're explosive and solid in the special teams department. We're going into the Arkansas game with some battered guys, but we're together as a team and have confidence."
UTEP will need more than confidence to slow down Arkansas, which is averaging 35.7 ppg and 482.4 total ypg. The Razorback offense is led by Mallett, an elite signal caller who has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 2,752 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Mallett's top target, Greg Childs, was recently lost for the season with a knee injury, but with D.J. Williams, Joe Adams and other talented receivers in the mix, Arkansas should be able to overcome that loss. Knile Davis has played well at the tailback position, as he has rushed for 662 yards and nine scores.
Opponents are posting 22.0 ppg against Arkansas, which is yielding 326.9 total ypg despite the stiff level of competition that exists in the SEC. The Razorbacks are allowing 156.7 rushing ypg and 170.2 passing ypg. With 26 sacks and 16 takeaways, Arkansas has been fairly opportunistic, and last week's effort was strong to say the least.
The fact that the Razorbacks were able to limit the Gamecocks to 295 total yards in front of their home crowd was impressive. Arkansas yielded only 105 rushing yards at a clip of 3.9 yards per carry, and two interceptions were notched against the USC passer.
"It was really important for us to get a lid on them and make them one- dimensional," said Tramain Thomas, a standout defender for the Razorbacks. "We made them one-dimensional tonight and it came out to our advantage. As a whole, our defense just played our hearts out."