Thursday Night Bites: No treat like a night game in El Paso
Cleanse your gameday palates with some giant bat sorbet down El Paso way, won't you?
Texas Southern @ Jackson State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU. The third SWAC game for two teams with identical 1-1 conference records, tonight's Tigers-on-Tigers tilt features a position matchup that could set the stage for high-profile heroics or a mortifying collapse on national television. TSU's starting quarterback is Casey Therriault, the conference's preseason offensive player of the year, who traveled quite the rocky trail to land in Jackson. He's struggled with interceptions early in the season, throwing nine picks to eight touchdowns in four games, and he'll be facing a TSU defense that tops all other 2011 FCS teams in pass efficiency defense and sacked him five times in 2010. Switch the direction of forward progress, and the matchup to watch is TSU tandem Marcus Wright and Martin Gilbert against JSU's top-ranked rushing defense.
South Florida @ Pittsburgh, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN. Will tonight's marquee game even resemble a fair fight? The unlikely undefeateds from Tampa have a long trip to make on a short week, but a look at the Bulls' and Panthers' one common opponent portends an unpleasant evening for the home team. Let's go to the numbers:
Notre Dame fell in a close loss to USF in Week 1 and edged out Pitt in Week 4. The Bulls' problem in South Bend was staying power; they held a 16-0 lead before allowing the Irish to storm back (weather delay pun!) in an ultimately futile 20-point second-half rally. Pitt might not present that problem, however: They, too, held a lead over the Irish, and one over Iowa, and were beaten by late-game comebacks from both. In those two fourth quarters, the Panthers scored a combined total of three points.
The only pairing that comes close to an interesting on-field matchup, on paper, is the guy in the No. 1 Panthers jersey, Ray Graham, against USF's 15th-ranked rushing defense. Graham, who made local headlines for his gaudy 209-yard performance in that first week against Buffalo, is averaging over 125 yards per game, good for 8th nationally.
Now flip that field: Pitt ranks dead last in total defense in the conference, 115th nationally in pass defense, and USF has the always-entertaining B.J. Daniels, who'd be scary enough as a top-10 passer if you didn't know he can run, too, when the moment calls for it. The USF defense is averaging three sacks per game, and the Panthers are giving up an average of almost five backfield downings of poor Tino Sunseri every week. USF also ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss. This might not even be close.
Houston @ UTEP, 8:00 p.m., CBS Sports. Here is a UTEP team devoid of so many weapons that made surprising upsets of seasons past so memorable. Gone is Trevor Vittatoe. Gone is Donald Buckram. The Miners rank 95th nationally in scoring, are allowing an average of 191.5 yards on the ground per game, and are about to play host to and attempt to keep up with pinball wizard Case Keenum and the surprisingly potent ground game that was forced to blossom in his absence for most of last season. And yet, this is the game I will be watching, because this is UTEP. These are the Miners, who beat SMU at home last year after losing to Tulane, and the year before that bested Houston in a shootout and lost by 15 to Memphis the next week. Already in 2011, they've been taken to overtime by Stony Brook, and Houston remains my pick to finish out the season undefeated.
And yet -- and yet -- this is a night game in El Paso. A flock of giant bats could swoop down and carry Bryce Beall away by his shoulder pads, and no one could conclusively declare it to be the most surprising outcome of a UTEP game they'd ever seen. Tonight, the Miners will wear commemorative helmets celebrating the 75th anniversary of UTEP's first bowl team, the 1936 squad who finished with a 5-3-1 record and earned a bid to the second-ever Sun Bowl. They lost, 34-6.