September 16, 2010

Week 3 preview in the Mountain West

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THE SCHEDULE
Air Force at Oklahoma, 3:30 p.m.
Colorado State at Miami, 3:30 p.m.
BYU at Florida State, 3:30 p.m.
Baylor at TCU, 4:30 p.m.
San Diego State at Missouri, 7 p.m.
Utah at New Mexico, 8 p.m.
Boise State at Wyoming, 8 p.m.
UNLV at Idaho, 10:30 p.m.

Air Force already has shaken up the Mountain West Conference race. Now it has a chance to create some shockwaves across the entire nation.

One week after knocking off BYU, the Falcons are traveling to Oklahoma in an attempt to become the latest Mountain West Conference team to stun the Sooners.

Oklahoma has won 32 consecutive home games, but the Sooners' last loss on their home field came against TCU in their 2005 season opener. Last season, Oklahoma fell to BYU at Arlington, Texas, in its opener.

"They've got a lot of athletes," Air Force defensive end Zach Payne said. "You always see their players up for all the big awards, the Heisman and what-not. We've just got to prepare for it like it's any other game. We prepare for every game like it's a big one. We'll be ready."

No matter how Saturday's game turns out, Air Force (2-0) already has made a statement with its early season performance. A large gulf has separated TCU, Utah and BYU from the rest of the conference the past few seasons, but Air Force's 35-14 victory over BYU last week suggests the Falcons are ready to join that fraternity and make a legitimate run at the conference title.

Air Force ended a six-game losing streak to BYU and held the Cougars to just 88 passing yards. The Falcons held BYU scoreless after the first quarter.

"Our goal every year is to win the Mountain West," Air Force center Michael Hester said. "Not being able to compete for that the last couple of years, that was our biggest focus going into the season. Last year we lost to TCU by three points. We lost to Utah in overtime in a game we could have easily won. The only team that really blew us out last year was BYU [38-21]. Knocking them off -- I know they're replacing a lot of talent -- but to be able to start off with a win like that gives us confidence we can compete with the other teams."

Although Air Force has earned a bowl bid each season since Troy Calhoun took over as coach in 2007, this didn't seem like the year that the Falcons would take the next step. Air Force is breaking in five new starters on the offensive line, which led to speculation the Falcons wouldn't run the ball quite as well as usual.

Air Force never bought into that logic.

That new line has performed well enough that Air Force leads the nation in rushing at 423 yards per game. The Falcons also have averaged 50 points per game to rank seventh in the nation in that category.

"Our group last year, we were always the backups," Hester said. "They'd run the 'ones' together and then they'd run the 'twos' together. We've been together for over a year now. A lot of people think we were coming in new to each other, but we've been repping with each other a pretty long time. We have a pretty good feel of how we play. We're a little smaller, but we feel it's to our advantage to be able to move. You have to be a little athletic with what we do as an offense."

Air Force faces a much tougher challenge Saturday. Oklahoma has an extraordinary amount of talent on offense, with Landry Jones handing off to DeMarco Murray or throwing to Biletnikoff Award contender Ryan Broyles. The Sooners scored touchdowns on each of their first four drives last week in a 47-17 rout of Florida State.

By the end of the weekend, Air Force should have a good measure of its own strength.

Best matchup: Boise State WRs Austin Pettis and Titus Young vs. Wyoming CBs Marcell Gipson and Tashaun Gipson. The Gipson brothers give Wyoming one of the nation's more experienced cornerback tandems, but this weekend may represent the toughest challenge of their careers. Pettis and Young combined to catch 142 passes for 1,896 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, and they arguably comprise the nation's top receiving duo. The Gipsons won't back away from the challenge. Marcell and Tashaun Gipson have each started 27 consecutive games for the Cowboys. Marcell Gipson has been clocked at 4.33 second in the 40-yard dash. But they may not have the height to deal with Pettis, who caught the winning touchdown pass against Virginia Tech in the Broncos' season opener. Pettis is 6 feet 3. Tashaun Gipson is 6-0 and Marcell is 5-10.

Player on the spot: TCU DE Wayne Daniels. So far this season, Daniels has done a good job of matching the production of first-round pick Jerry Hughes. Daniels leads the Mountain West with 3.5 and should get quite a workout Saturday as he chases Baylor's Robert Griffin, who ranks among the nation's fastest quarterbacks. "He's a guy who probably one day will be able to go to the Olympic trials in the hurdles," TCU coach Gary Patterson said of Griffin. "He has world-class speed. You have to worry about that." Of course, first Daniels must work his way past a Baylor offensive line that averages 308 pounds per man. If Daniels can pressure Griffin, this is a game TCU wins. But Baylor is capable of pulling the upset if the Bears give their star quarterback enough time to work his magic.

Numbers game: San Diego State ranks 21st in the nation in rushing at 231 yards per game, a figure that's all the more impressive in light of the Aztecs' recent inability to establish a ground attack. San Diego State had ranked 105th or lower in rushing offense in each of the past three seasons. The Aztecs have eight rushing touchdowns, which already matches their 2009 season total. San Diego State is averaging 6.24 yards per carry this season after gaining 2.9 yards per rush last season.

What they're saying

"If you don't show up on Saturday, you can get smacked in the mouth. I keep going back to '07 Vegas. It happened, it's not going away and I'm reminded about it all the time, but it was a good lesson for our team. It was a crossroads to remember that if you don't play with ... emotion and passion, someone is going to smack you." -- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, to The Salt Lake Tribune about Saturday's game with New Mexico, which has been outscored by a combined 124-17. Three years ago, a Utah team that was coming off a 44-6 victory over No. 11 UCLA lost 27-0 to a UNLV squad that went on to finish 2-10

"Being on the sideline is not really helpful for the team if I'm a good-enough athlete to play another position and help the team in another way.' -- UNLV's Mike Clausen, to the Las Vegas Review Journal about switching from quarterback to safety. Clausen was the starting quarterback for UNLV's season opener. When he lost his starting job to Omar Clayton, Clausen volunteered to move to the secondary

"It's easy to rush for four touchdowns when your line is opening up holes the size of the Grand Canyon." -- San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman, to The San Diego Union-Tribune after rushing for 150 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-17 victory over New Mexico State

"It is more difficult, obviously, when you're playing the type of defenses we faced last week and this week, but still there's no excuse. We've got to be able to run the football better no matter who we're playing. We've got to eliminate negative yards." -- Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, on his 118th-ranked rushing offense. One week after gaining just 58 yards on 30 carries against Texas, the Cowboys are facing third-ranked Boise State

"I don't think it's gone away for the alumni. I think all that stuff still holds in play, which is the fun part." -- TCU coach Gary Patterson, on whether a rivalry with Baylor still exists from their history as Southwest Conference foes

Etc.: TCU QB Andy Dalton has 31 career wins as a starting quarterback, which puts him one away from the MWC record set last season by former BYU star Max Hall. ... Air Force is preparing for the possibility of facing Oklahoma without two of its top rushers. FB Jared Tew has a hand injury and RB Asher Clark has an ankle problem that has left their status uncertain for Saturday's game. If they're unable to go, it likely would result in an expanded role for Nathan Walker. ... Utah has won its first two games of the season and is ranked 14th in the nation, but there's at least one reason for concern. The Utes have allowed a blocked punt in each of their first two games. "It's unacceptable to have two blocked punts in three years, let alone two games," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune. ... Wyoming SS Shamiel Gary wore the No. 12 jersey Saturday against Texas to honor teammate Ruben Narcisse, a freshman linebacker who died in an auto accident last week. Narcisse had been wearing No. 12. "The whole point was to represent Ruben and let everyone know he's not forgotten," Gary told The Laramie (Wyo.) Boomerang. Wyoming LB Brian Hendricks will wear the No. 12 jersey this week. The first 5,000 students to attend Wyoming's game with Boise State will receive a T-shirt with Narcisse's initials, his jersey number and the message "Ruben Narcisse, Always a Cowboy." ... BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall plans to continue using both Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps at quarterback, though he hasn't indicated quite how he would divide playing time. Nelson and Heaps alternated series in the season opener against Washington. But after Heaps threw an interception at Air Force last week, he didn't take a single snap in the second half. "It will probably move away from the every-other-series mode and the reps might become more situational," Mendenhall said. ... BYU LB Brandon Ogletree is questionable for the Florida State game after spraining a medial collateral ligament against Air Force. ... Utah's 38-10 victory over UNLV last week extended its home winning streak to 19 games, a MWC record. BYU had won 18 in a row at home from 2006-08. ... TCU has 27 seniors on its roster to tie Hawaii and Louisville for the most in the nation. Air Force has played 13 true freshmen. The only team to play more true freshmen this season is Florida, with 16. ... Colorado State typically has shied away from playing true freshmen, but that strategy has changed this year. The Rams already have used seven true freshmen, the most they've used in a single season since 1987. Colorado State only used three true freshmen last season. The Rams didn't play a single true freshman in 2006 and used only two in 2007. ... San Diego State is 2-0 for the first time since 1994. The Aztecs have finished with a winning record 10 of the past 11 times they have started 2-0. ... New Mexico is paying the price for opening its season against Oregon and Texas Tech. The Lobos are last in the nation in both total defense (591 yards per game) and scoring defense (62). They also rank 113th in total offense (270) and 117th in scoring offense (8.5).

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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