October 28, 2010

Week 9 preview in the Mountain West

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San Diego State at Wyoming, 2 p.m.
New Mexico at Colorado State, 6 p.m.
Utah at Air Force, 7:30 p.m.
TCU at UNLV, 11 p.m.

Boise State's bid for a spot in the BCS championship game has sparked the hottest debate of the season. TCU is fourth in the BCS standings, just one spot behind the Broncos.

In the meantime, Utah quietly has gone about its business and remains unbeaten as it heads into the meat of its schedule. And that's just the way the Utes like it.

"The same thing happened in 2008," Utah senior DE Christian Cox said in reference to the team that went unbeaten and won the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago. "There was not a lot of publicity. We were kind of creeping up on people. We welcome our role. Our team is a team that doesn't really need a pat on their back and national recognition. We know how special this team is."

Soon, the rest of the nation also could know.

Utah (7-0 overall, 4-0 in the Mountain West) is eighth in the BCS standings - the lowest of any unbeaten team - in part because of a relatively weak early-season schedule. The Utes opened the year with an overtime victory at home over preseason Big East favorite Pittsburgh, which hasn't lived up to expectations. Utah won its next six games by an average margin of 40.3 points, but the opponents in those six games are a combined 10-36.

The schedule gets much tougher from here on out.

Utah travels to Air Force (5-3, 3-2) this week before playing host to TCU (8-0, 4-0) next week. The Utes then visit Notre Dame (4-4) and San Diego State (5-2, 2-1) before closing the regular season at home against BYU (3-5. 2-2).

If Utah wins its next two games and beats Notre Dame on national TV, the Utes would earn some overdue recognition and just might enter the national title chase. But Utah isn't looking beyond the first game in this season-ending stretch.

"I told our football team this week's game with Air Force will be our toughest challenge to this point in the season," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We have enough guys on this team who have played against the academy who know exactly what this game's all about, how physical it is and what a big challenge it is.

"There will be no chance of us overlooking this game."

Although Utah has won four of its past five games with Air Force, all five were decided by eight or fewer points. Last season, Utah won 23-16 in overtime.

"It's been back and forth," Whittingham said. "Last year was a great example of that, playing in overtime. Most every year it goes down to the wire. A lot of that is attributed to the toughness of an Air Force team that never quits, ever. They always hang in there and give the full 60."

While Air Force heads into the game having lost two in a row, Utah is riding a wave of momentum. The Utes are third in the nation in scoring offense (47.7) and fourth in scoring defense (12.9).

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun believes this Utah team is better than the 2008 squad that completed a perfect season by beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

"I think they're much faster, more athletic, especially at the skill positions," Calhoun aid. "And I think defensively this is an excellent Utah football team. What's impressive is you pick pretty much every game, especially here within the last month, and they've been dominant across the board."

Cox said this Utah team has the same chemistry that made the 2008 squad so special, but he noted that the current roster doesn't have as many proven performers in the mold of 2008 stars Brian Johnson and Paul Kruger. But it does have plenty of guys ready to earn that kind of attention.

Jordan Wynn is one of the nation's most promising young quarterbacks. Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata have given the rushing attack a dynamic one-two punch. Cox is part of one of the nation's deepest defensive lines.

If they make it through this demanding stretch unscathed, their names should start getting mentioned much more often. For now, they're happy to succeed without much fanfare.

"We kind of like the under-the-radar thing, people not knowing how good we are," Cox said. "We have some good games upcoming in the next five to really make a push and get some national recognition."

Best matchup: Air Force run offense vs. Utah run defense. Air Force has the nation's top rushing attack. Utah has the nation's sixth-ranked run defense. Air Force averages 326.5 rushing yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. Utah is allowing only 87.4 rushing yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry. Utah has shut down most opposing rushing attacks because of its depth on the defensive line, where the Utes rotate a dozen players each week. Air Force's rushing attack also boasts plenty of depth. The Falcons have three 500-yard rushers in Asher Clark (115 carries, 682 yards, three TDs), Jared Tew (110-540-3) and quarterback Tim Jefferson (86-503-8), though Tew currently is sidelined by a leg injury. Three other Falcons have rushed for at least 150 yards. Air Force also has seven players who have rushed for at least two touchdowns.

Players on the spot: Wyoming DTs Mike Purcell and Patrick Mertens. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman has rushed for 849 yards. His 121.3 yards per game leads the MWC and ranks 10th in the nation. He should be licking his chops in preparation for Saturday's game with Wyoming, which ranks last nationally in run defense. The Cowboys are allowing 5.2 yards per carry and a whopping 239 rushing yards per game. Hillman undoubtedly will gain plenty of yards Saturday, but the Cowboys can't let him go crazy. It's tough to imagine Wyoming having a shot at winning of Hillman exceeds the 150-yard mark. As the Cowboys' two starting tackles, Purcell and Mertens must clog the lanes well enough to keep Hillman from busting loose. Hillman has a hip pointer, but San Diego State coach Brady Hoke doesn't expect it to hinder his star running back.

Numbers game: TCU is the only FBS team that hasn't allowed an opponent to throw for 200 yards this season. TCU allowed 182 passing yards against Oregon State, 58 against Tennessee Tech, 164 against Baylor, 169 against SMU, 116 against Colorado State, 116 against Wyoming, 91 against BYU and 47 against Air Force. Seventy-nine of the 120 FBS teams are allowing an average of more than 200 passing yards per game. The Horned Frogs have allowed the nation's fewest points (9.0), passing yards (117.9) and first downs (12.1) per game.

They said it

"I don't think enough [offensive progress has been made] for any of us to say, 'They have arrived,' by any means. But I am seeing it inch forward, and that's better than inching backward." - BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, to The Salt Lake Tribune. BYU ranks 113th in scoring offense, but the Cougars tallied their highest point total of the season Saturday in a 25-20 victory over Wyoming

"I've never seen that much open grass in my life." - TCU QB Andy Dalton, to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram about his 47-yard run Saturday in a 38-7 victory over Air Force

"You've got to find a way. I don't know how we're going to do it, but we've got [to get] in the weight room, get in the film room and hit the practice field hard. We don't have any time to mope around and feel sorry for ourselves." - Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, talking to The (Colorado Springs) Gazette about bouncing back from a two-game losing streak

"They've done a great job defensively creating havoc. They come from different places. It's much like preparing for Air Force's option offense. It's not something you see all the time, and you only get a few days to get prepared to try and execute against it." - Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, to the Laramie (Wyo.) Boomerang on the difficulty of facing San Diego State's 3-3-5 defense

Etc.: Air Force has played 20 true freshmen this season to lead all FBS teams. Wyoming has started eight true freshmen. Only Texas A&M (11) and Tulane (nine) have started more true freshmen this season. Eastern Michigan also has started eight true freshmen. ... Colorado State RB Leonard Mason sat out last week's 59-6 loss to Utah for being late to a team meeting. The Denver Post reported that Mason will have to earn back his playing time. Mason has rushed for a team-high 296 yards and headed into the Utah game having exceeded the 100-yard mark in back-to-back weeks. ... UNLV has reinstated WR Phillip Payne, who was suspended for the Rebels' past two games after criticizing the Rebels' coaching staff via Twitter. Payne isn't being made available for interviews the rest of the season. ... Although New Mexico is one of only two winless FBS teams - Akron is the other - the Lobos have reason for confidence Saturday at Colorado State. New Mexico's only victory in Mike Locksley's two-year coaching tenure was a 29-27 decision over Colorado State last season. Three of the past four Colorado State-New Mexico games have been decided by a last-second field goal. ... San Diego State received votes in The Associated Press poll this week for the first time since Nov. 7, 1995. The Aztecs also received votes in the coaches' poll for the first time since Sept. 12, 2004. San Diego State is one win away from becoming eligible for its first bowl bid since 1998, when the Aztecs lost 20-13 to North Carolina in the Las Vegas Bowl. ... TCU has outscored MWC opponents 141-10 and has given up just one touchdown in the past 251 minutes, 24 seconds. TCU and Boise State are the nation's only teams to rank in the top 11 in total offense and total defense.

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


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