October 6, 2011

Week 6 preview in the Mountain West

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After watching his team get picked apart by an opposing quarterback one more time, TCU coach Gary Patterson could have ripped his team's defense.

He instead chose another target for criticism.

Boise State at Fresno State, 9 p.m.
Air Force at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
UNLV at Nevada, 7 p.m.
Wyoming at Utah State, 8 p.m.
TCU at San Diego State, 10:30 p.m.
"To be honest with you, the group I was most unhappy with was the officials," Patterson said. "The bottom line is they gave [SMU] two touchdowns. ... I don't say these things very often, but to be honest they changed the complexion of the whole football game with five or six calls."

The list of disputed calls by the Conference USA crew included a controversial pass interference penalty that negated an interception by TCU cornerback Jason Verrett. SMU would go on to score a touchdown on that possession.

"I understand why I left Conference USA,'' said Patterson, whose team left Conference USA for the Mountain West Conference after the 2004 season. "SMU did a great job. They won. But I'll tell you, they had a lot of help."

Patterson's anger seemed legitimate. He didn't like the way the officials called the game. Nor did he appreciate seeing a rival school end his team's 22-game home winning streak.

But this also could represent an opportunity for Patterson to take some attention away from his struggling defense.

TCU led the nation in total defense in each of the past two seasons. The Horned Frogs rank 90th in that category this season; they also rank 106th in pass efficiency defense.

They have given up a total of 90 points in their two losses. A third defeat would match TCU's combined loss total for the past three seasons. TCU lost most of the key players from last season's defense and suffered a major blow last month when linebacker Tanner Brock suffered a season-ending foot injury.

End Stansly Maponga has 4.5 sacks and has forced four fumbles, but the Frogs need to find other playmakers to join him.

Patterson insists his young defense played better against SMU than it had in one-sided victories over Portland State and Louisiana-Monroe. The problem was that TCU gave up too many big plays, a continuation of a season-long trend. He noted that TCU often forced SMU into second-and-long or third-and-long situations, only to allow the Mustangs to keep the drive alive.

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But as TCU gets set for a conference game Saturday at San Diego State, Patterson still sees plenty of reason for optimism.

"We've got to get a better pass rush with our zone blitz and other things," Patterson said. "But aside from that, I'm excited about the progress of Stansly Maponga. He's becoming a big-time player. I'm excited about Jason Verrett. He had a hard game in the Baylor game and now hasn't given up a touchdown pass [since] and had a big interception on the first drive of the game that was taken away in the SMU game. There are a lot of positives going on."

TCU's two losses obviously have eliminated the Frogs from any chance at a third consecutive BCS appearance, but this team still has plenty of incentive. A victory over San Diego State would allow TCU to break an MWC record with its 19th consecutive conference win. TCU currently shares the record with BYU, which won 18 conference games in a row from 2006-08.

TCU would love to make sure that streak doesn't get snapped before it heads to the Big East next season. That quest starts Saturday by holding San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman in check.

It's worth noting that Patterson isn't the only person saying good things about TCU's defense this week. San Diego State coach Rocky Long also believes TCU's defense is much better than it looked in its losses to Baylor and SMU.

"I think TCU's really good on defense," Long said. "I think you have to give credit to the two offenses that put up those points."

TCU now must try to back up Long's statement by silencing his offense.

BEST MATCHUP: Air Force run offense vs. Notre Dame run defense. Air Force ranks third nationally with 364.5 rushing yards per game and averages 6.9 yards per carry. The Falcons have three players with at least 180 rushing yards in Asher Clark (41 carries, 382 yards, three TDs), QB Tim Jefferson (49-210-4) and Mike DeWitt (29-180-2). That Air Force has so many talented rushers prevents opposing defenses from keying on just one player. Air Force's offense will face perhaps its toughest test of the season thus far against a Notre Dame defense that ranks 19th against the run. The Irish are allowing 2.9 yards per carry and 91.2 rushing yards per game despite facing some potent rushing attacks. They limited Pittsburgh's Ray Graham to 89 yards on 21 carries and held Michigan State to 29 rushing yards on 23 carries. Notre Dame's defense could be operating at less than full strength Saturday. E Ethan Johnson is questionable after missing most of a 38-10 win over Purdue last week with a high ankle sprain.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: UNLV QB Caleb Herring. In his last game, Herring threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns as UNLV suffered an embarrassing 41-16 loss to FCS program Southern Utah. UNLV had last week off to try to correct the mistakes it made in that debacle, and now Herring will try to bounce back Saturday at Nevada. Herring had thrown only one interception in UNLV's first three games before his disastrous performance against Southern Utah. He needs to continue trying to play mistake-free football in order to keep his job and enable UNLV to stay competitive. The Rebels are giving up 42.8 points per game to rank 118th in scoring defense. The last thing Herring needs to do is create more scoring opportunities for the opposition.

KEEP AN EYE ON: The final minute of the Wyoming-Utah State game. If recent history offers any indication, this game could go down to the wire. Each of Utah State's three losses was decided in the final minute of regulation or in overtime, and the Aggies led by at least eight points in the fourth quarter of all those games. Wyoming beat Weber State 35-32 in its season opener by scoring a game-winning touchdown with 22 seconds remaining and edged Bowling Green 28-27 by blocking an extra-point attempt with three seconds left.

NUMBERS GAME: San Diego State has 12 takeaways and five giveaways to tie for fifth among all FBS programs in turnover margin. The Aztecs have posted a positive turnover margin in five consecutive games. The last time San Diego State recorded a positive turnover margin in five consecutive games was in 2002. If the Aztecs commit fewer turnovers than TCU this week, it would give them a positive turnover margin in six consecutive games for the first time since 1986.

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"SMU has had a lot of help from us to improve their program, and I don't appreciate being treated [that way]. They're getting no help from Gary Patterson. They shouldn't ask me about going into a conference. They shouldn't ask me about how they played. They shouldn't ask me about their players. They shouldn't ask me about anything because they're not getting any help, period, anymore. We've bent over backwards to make sure that they improved their program because I believe that's what you do." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, talking to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about SMU. Patterson took offense to a comment from SMU WR Darius Johnson, who said, "I really don't like these TCU people" after the Mustangs' 40-33 overtime victory last week.

"I don't think they lost much. Maybe a little experience, but that's all." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, on TCU's transition from two-time MWC offensive player of the year Andy Dalton to Casey Pachall at quarterback

"That one will never go away. There are certain ones over the years that hang with you, both wins and losses." - UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about trying to move on after falling 41-16 to Southern Utah in its last game. That represented UNLV's first loss to an FCS program since 1994.

"He was having a phenomenal year, and I refuse to be that person who comes in and loses the game for us. ... [This opportunity] means a lot. It's something I've been waiting for and hoping for. You've got to make the most of it." - Boise State CB Quaylon Ewing-Burton, to the Idaho Statesman about replacing injured CB Jerrell Gavins in the starting lineup. Gavins, who made three interceptions in Boise State's first three games, will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Ewing-Burton made his first start in place of Gavins last week and recorded seven tackles in a 30-10 victory over Nevada.

"I've never really been a fan of Notre Dame. I've always hated how everybody has always loved Notre Dame. It's one of those things where I say, 'It's just another team on the schedule.' " - Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, to The (Colorado Springs) Gazette.

POLL WATCH: Boise State is ranked sixth by the coaches and fifth by The Associated Press, down one spot in each poll. Wisconsin leapfrogged the Broncos in both polls this week. TCU's loss to SMU ended the Horned Frogs' string of 46 consecutive weeks in the national rankings. TCU is unranked for the first time since Oct. 15, 2008. TCU's fall also ends the Mountain West's streak of 53 consecutive weeks in which it had at least two teams ranked in the coaches' poll.

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ETC.: Air Force QB Tim Jefferson earned his school-record 24th career victory as a starter Saturday when the Falcons edged Navy 35-34 in overtime. His 24 wins also rank fourth in Mountain West history and third among active FBS quarterbacks, behind Boise State's Kellen Moore (42) and Houston's Case Keenum (29). ... Boise State WR Geraldo Boldewijn will make his 2011 debut Friday at Fresno State. Boldewijn was unable to play in the Broncos' first four games because of NCAA eligibility concerns. ... Colorado State has received approval from the MWC to wear all-white uniforms for its Oct. 15 home game with Boise State. The Rams also are asking fans to wear all white. According to team historian John Hirn, this will mark the first time Colorado State has worn all-white uniforms for a home game since 1956, when the school was known as Colorado A&M. ... UNLV's trip to Nevada is part of a 35-day stretch between home games for the Rebels, which is tied for the second-longest span between home games in school history. The 1982 UNLV team went 37 days without a home game. UNLV last was at home Sept. 24 and doesn't play another home game until Oct. 29 against Colorado State. ... New Mexico's 42-28 loss to New Mexico State last week marked its most one-sided defeat to its in-state rival since a 33-6 setback in 1968. ... San Diego State LB Rob Andrews has a broken foot that will sideline him for six to eight weeks. Andrews has made 17 tackles this season. ... TCU QB Casey Pachall is on pace to set single-season school records for completion percentage and touchdown passes. Pachall has completed 69.8 percent of his passes and has thrown 13 touchdown passes through five games. Andy Dalton completed a record 66.1 percent of his passes in 2010 and threw for a school-record 27 touchdowns last season. ... Wyoming's game with Utah State pits two of the nation's most productive true freshman quarterbacks against each other. Wyoming's Brett Smith ranks 29th nationally in total offense and 42nd in passing yards per game. Utah State's Chuckie Keeton is 91st in total offense and 100th in passing yards per game. The only other true freshmen to rank in the top 100 in each of those categories are Marshall's Rakeem Cato (80th in total offense, 66th in passing yards), Louisiana Tech's Nick Isham (48th, 39th) and Memphis' Taylor Reed (81st, 71st). ... Air Force's game with Notre Dame will represent a reunion for the Niklas family. Air Force LB Austin Niklas is the older brother of Notre Dame OLB Troy Niklas.

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

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