UTEP's Price still holds Badgers in high regard

BY foxsports • September 21, 2012

MADISON, Wis. — Well, say this about UTEP football coach Mike Price: He isn't afraid to lather on the praise about his team's upcoming opponent, even if most pundits don't share his viewpoint.

Wisconsin is no longer a top-15 team with one of the most formidable offenses in the country. But ask Price about the Badgers, and he's convinced very little has changed from previous seasons.

At least, that's the message he's trying to sell this week.

"The only problem is we're not playing tennis," Price said. "It's a hard-hitting, physical game, and we're playing one of the hardest hitting, most physical teams in America. And maybe the best we'll ever play."

UTEP (1-2) faces Wisconsin (2-1) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in the teams' final non-conference game of the regular season. Although the Badgers clearly aren't playing at a Big Ten championship level, it's still enough to challenge a Miners team that has never defeated a BCS opponent on the road in program history (0-16).

Wisconsin is averaging just 16.3 points per game, down from 44.1 a year ago. The inconsistency this season has led to a quarterback change, from Danny O'Brien to redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who will start for the first time against UTEP.

"I know they've been struggling to find an identity on offense," Price said. "I'm hoping that they struggle one more game. But their defense, my God, they hardly make any mistakes. They're so fundamentally sound. …

"As soon as they get it going on offense, they'll end up marching through the Big Ten, I think."

UTEP will attempt to counteract Wisconsin's physicality on defense with speed on offense. The Miners run a spread attack with four receivers and one running back.

Jordan Leslie and Michael Edwards are UTEP's most dangerous receivers. Leslie recorded a career-high 147 receiving yards last week during a 41-28 victory against New Mexico State. He and Edwards share the team lead with 14 catches apiece.

Quarterback Nick Lamaison has completed 48 of 88 passes for 552 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions — particularly impressive considering his competition thus far includes sixth-ranked Oklahoma and Ole Miss.

"He's pretty cool in the pocket back there," Badgers co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. "Playing Oklahoma, playing Ole Miss, he's seen some athletic defenses and he's got good patience back there."

UTEP played respectable football against both Oklahoma and Ole Miss. UTEP lost 24-7 to Oklahoma and 28-10 to Ole Miss and will complete perhaps its most difficult non-conference season ever against Wisconsin.

"They battled hard through playing Oklahoma and Ole Miss," Badgers defensive end Brendan Kelly said. "Those games, they were close in them. It wasn't like one of those 60-0 games. They've got players that can make big plays. It's going to be a fun challenge this weekend. I can't wait for them to get here to Camp Randall."

Given the competition thus far, Price doesn't anticipate his team being intimidated against Wisconsin. UTEP played at home against Oklahoma and then traveled to Ole Miss in front of 53,133 fans. But Camp Randall Stadium, which seats 80,321 people, should pose a louder atmosphere.

UTEP has played in front of more than 80,000 fans on just four occasions in program history — against Tennessee (1986, 1990), LSU (1997) and Texas (2009). The Miners have lost those games by a combined score of 201-26.

"If it had been four weeks ago, we probably wouldn't be prepared as much," Price said. "The Ole Miss game gave us some preparation. It was loud down there. We practice in the stadium with crowd noise. We are a little bit more prepared for it than maybe at other times of the year when we take on opponents like this."

Defensively, Price noted that teams have slowed Wisconsin's offensive attack by loading up at the line of scrimmage to stop the running game. Badgers running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, has rushed for 320 yards in three games. But he also has needed 84 carries and is averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt. Last season, he averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

"It's been pretty effective, what other people have done," Price said. "I'd like to stack it with about 13 or 14 guys, however."

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said that while Ball's numbers are down, he has appreciated the way Ball hasn't changed his approach and leadership on the team.

"He may not be on anybody's Heisman list right now, but he's high on mine," Bielema said. "I've seen what he's done on a daily basis. He'll get there. He'll get to point where he's back to putting up some of those numbers, and hopefully we'll be able to get it done for him this weekend, because I know there's a lot of people that want to see him have it done here."

Price, of course, isn't one of them. He's hoping Ball and the Wisconsin offense continue to struggle after making a quarterback change, giving UTEP a chance to pull an upset.

"Our guys aren't as big, but they have the same heart that Wisconsin does," Price said. "I look at us as being like a little Wisconsin. I think our players play with physical toughness. But it is going to be a very, very physical game and it will take its toll on our team because they're just bigger than we are and probably stronger."

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