This week's showdown between TCU and Utah features plenty of intriguing matchups.
A Utah offense that has reached the 50-point mark four times this season faces a TCU defense that has allowed only 10 touchdowns all season. Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn leads the Mountain West in passing efficiency, while TCU ranks fourth in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Utah leads the Mountain West in red-zone offense, while TCU is first in red-zone defense. Utah has won 21 consecutive home games, while TCU has won nine in a row on the road.
But this game could be determined the same way most games across the country are decided each week: The team that runs the ball more effectively will win the game.
TCU's rushing attack has garnered more attention. Ed Wesley has rushed for 938 yards to lead a running game that ranks ninth in the country. But Utah also has established an effective ground attack by relying equally on two backs.
Utah seniors Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide have posted remarkably similar statistics while splitting carries this season. Wide has rushed for 491 yards and nine touchdowns on 98 carries. Asiata has 488 yards and six touchdowns on 104 carries.
Wide has a little more speed, Asiata provides a little more power. But their results are almost identical.
"We just treat them as one entity," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We don't have a special set of plays for one and a different set for the other. They're interchangeable."
They've developed into quite a tandem. Asiata has rushed for 100 yards in a game just once -- a 109-yard effort against Wyoming on Oct. 16. Wide's season-high total is an 82-yard performance last week against Air Force. But they've combined for 122.3 rushing yards per game while helping Utah average 5.3 yards per carry as a team.
"The thing we've been most impressed with is their 'YAC' yards -- the yards after contact," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "They're very good. They run hard, just like what we have here with Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker."
Each player knows what it's like to be a feature back. Asiata was leading the Mountain West at 101.3 rushing yards per game last season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the fourth game of the season. Wide replaced him and rushed for 1,069 yards to earn preseason first-team All-Mountain West honors this season.
Neither will challenge for a conference rushing title, but the presence of both could allow the Utes to earn the BCS bid that eluded them last season.
"We've got a lot of similarities," Asiata sad. "We run hard. We run downhill. When we need to juke, we can."
Asiata's return gives him a chance to provide a triumphant conclusion to an injury-riddled career. When he's healthy, the Utes don't lose.
After breaking his leg in the 2007 season opener, Asiata returned the following season and rushed for a team-high 707 yards as Utah went undefeated and won the Sugar Bowl. Asiata was sidelined for most of last season and missed Utah's 55-28 loss to TCU, but he has returned in time to help the Utes win their first eight games this season.
"I stayed positive," Asiata said. "I wanted to come back from my injury, be strong and go out with a bang."
So far, so good.
The stretch run
Key game the rest of the way
TCU at Utah, Saturday. This one's a no-brainer. This marks the first game ever matching two Mountain West teams ranked in the top 10, as TCU is third and Utah fifth in the latest BCS standings.
The choice at this point in the season would be TCU FS Tejay Johnson, a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. TCU DE Wayne Daniels and LBs Tanner Brock and Tank Carder also merit consideration. And don't forget about Utah CB Lamar Chapman, who has 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. One of these players should emerge as the front-runner this weekend.
Newcomer of the year watch
San Diego State's Hillman is the clear choice here, though Colorado State QB Pete Thomas could make this a little bit of a race if he leads the Rams on a late-season surge. On defense, Utah FS Brian Blechen has started all season and developed into a big-play performer.
Best matchup: TCU special teams vs. Utah special teams. The TCU-Utah showdown features two of the nation's top kick returners. Utah's Shaky Smithson leads the nation with an average of 23.3 yards per punt return. He has scored on two punt returns this season, but TCU has punted only once in its past two games. TCU's Jeremy Kerley is 14th in kickoff return average (28.1) and 17th in punt return average (13.5). Both teams also have quality kickers. TCU's Ross Evans has made all six of his field-goal attempts this season. Utah's Joe Phillips had made 18 consecutive field-goal attempts over the past two seasons before missing a 42-yarder against Air Force last week. Don't be surprised if this game comes down to a big return or a late field goal.
Player on the spot: Colorado State CB Shaq Bell. This true freshman starter faces arguably the toughest challenge of his young career Saturday when the Rams face San Diego State. The Aztecs boast the MWC's two top receivers: DeMarco Sampson (41 catches for 828 yards and eight TDs) and Vincent Brown (41-772-3). No matter which of those receivers Bell defends, he figures to have his hands full. Colorado State ranks 118th nationally in pass efficiency defense, and the Rams won't have a shot at pulling the upset this week unless they find a way to contain Sampson and Brown. That puts plenty of pressure on Bell and DeAngelo Wilkinson, Colorado State's two starting cornerbacks. As a senior, Wilkinson may be more accustomed to this kind of test. This represents new territory for Bell.
Numbers game: Air Force has beaten Army four consecutive times by stopping the Black Knights' offense in its tracks. Army hasn't scored more than 10 points in any of those four games. In three of those games, the Black Knights mustered just seven points. Air Force can win its first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since 2002 by beating Army for a fifth consecutive time. Air Force already defeated Navy 14-6 on Oct. 2.
What they're saying
"The way their fans get into the game, they are loud, noisy and obnoxious. They do a great job, especially when we're on offense. The fans have really bought into everything." -- TCU QB Andy Dalton, describing Utah's home-field advantage to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram
"As a competitor and an athlete, you want to play the best and see how you stack up against the best. They are one of the best. I'm looking forward to it." -- Utah QB Jordan Wynn, discussing Saturday's game against TCU with The Salt Lake Tribune
"[Vincent] Brown and [DeMarco] Sampson are as good a pair of players as there is on the same team." -- Colorado State special teams and safeties coach Larry Lewis, to The Denver Post about San Diego State's talented receiving duo
"I don't know if I've ever been around anything like it. For instance, if we had more than one corner go down [Saturday], we didn't have a fourth corner." -- UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, discussing the Rebels' injury problems to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The newspaper reported that UNLV had 24 players on its injury report last week.
Etc.: Four Mountain West schools are ranked among the nation's top 10 in fewest sacks allowed. Utah is tied for second and has allowed just three sacks. San Diego State is tied for seventh with four sacks allowed. Air Force and TCU are tied for ninth with five sacks allowed. ... Air Force will be trying to stop a former teammate this week. Army FB Jared Hassin began his college career at Air Force before deciding to leave during his freshman year. He spent a year in community college before heading to Army. "I understood," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun told The (Colorado Springs) Gazette. "He wanted to be an Army officer." Hassin now leads Army in rushing yards (669) and ranks second on the team in receiving (127). ... BYU QB Jake Heaps is seeking his third win as a starter Saturday against UNLV. That would give him the most wins ever by any BYU freshman quarterback. ... BYU has started 22 players this season who had no previous starting experience. ... Colorado State has won six of its past seven road games with San Diego State, though the Aztecs enter Saturday's contest as a 17.5-point favorite. ... Colorado State's game with San Diego State represents a homecoming for Rams QB Pete Thomas, who graduated from Valhalla High School in nearby El Cajon, Calif. Thomas' mother, Avis, has collected about 450 game tickets for friends and family members. Thomas has about 60 first cousins. ... New Mexico QB Brad Gruner is out for the rest of the season after slicing the pinkie on his throwing hand while carving a pumpkin. ... San Diego State (6-2) is bowl eligible for the first time since 1998, when it lost 20-13 to North Carolina in the Las Vegas Bowl. ... TCU is the only team in the nation that hasn't allowed a single opponent to throw for 200 yards. ... This will mark TCU's first regular-season game since 1956 in which both teams were ranked in the top 10. No. 4 TCU lost 7-6 to No. 5 Texas A&M on Oct. 20, 1956. ... How disappointing has this season been for Wyoming? The Cowboys produced their highest single-game point total since 2006 on Saturday and still lost 48-38 to San Diego State.