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October 21, 2010

Week 8 preview in the Mountain West

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THE SCHEDULE
Saturday
Wyoming at BYU, 2 p.m.
Colorado State at Utah, 6 p.m.
Air Force at TCU, 8 p.m.
San Diego State at New Mexico, 10 p.m.
Something has to give.

Air Force boasts the nation's top-ranked rushing attack and TCU has the No. 1 scoring defense. The matchup is the epitome of strength against strength, and the result could go a long way toward determining the Mountain West Conference champion.

No wonder there hasn't been much bulletin-board material heading into this game. Each coach has gone out of his way to praise the other team.

"This is probably the best Air Force offense I've seen since we've been in the Mountain West," TCU coach Gary Patterson said.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was even more effusive in his praise of the Horned Frogs, who are fifth in the initial BCS standings. Calhoun believes that's too low.

"In talent, preparation, size, speed, the whole bit and experience, there's no way there are three teams that have played better football," Calhoun said. "If the evaluation's done on productivity, playing on the field, performance and what's been earned, to say this is the third or fourth team? No way."

Conventional wisdom suggests the Nov. 6 battle of unbeatens between TCU (7-0 overall, 3-0 in the MWC) and Utah (6-0, 3-0) at Salt Lake City will determine the conference champion. Air Force's bid to spoil that plan took a hit last week when the Falcons lost 27-25 to San Diego State, but the Falcons (5-2, 3-1) still could get back into the mix by upsetting TCU.

Of course, that's easier said than done.

TCU has won its three previous MWC games by a combined score of 103-3. The Horned Frogs had shut out opponents for 10 consecutive quarters before BYU finally mustered a field goal last week in the third quarter of a 31-3 loss.

The Horned Frogs are ranked first in the nation in scoring defense and second in total defense. They are allowing just 9.3 points and 218.3 yards per game. Since beating Oregon State 30-21 in their opener, the Frogs have won each of their past six games by an average margin of 34.5 points.

"They've dominated every game this year," Calhoun said. "I know the initial one was close, but it wasn't [close] when you watch the tape."

This game represents the biggest test for TCU's resurgent run defense. SMU's Zach Line rushed for 139 yards against TCU earlier this season, but the Horned Frogs have allowed a total of 176 yards on 81 carries in the three games since.

But those three games came against Colorado State (ranked 93rd in rushing offense), Wyoming (119th) and BYU (82nd). Air Force rushes for 346.9 yards per game -- or 27 more yards than the combined rushing averages of Colorado State, Wyoming and BYU.

Air Force features three 400-yard rushers: Asher Clark (105 carries, 664 yards, three TDs), Jared Tew (110-540-3) and QB Tim Jefferson (77-464-7). Six Air Force players have run for at least two touchdowns.

"Anytime you're facing a triple-option offense and an older quarterback who can run and really does a good job of throwing, it creates a lot of problems," Patterson said. "We understand we've got a lot of work to do."

Air Force may have even more work ahead. The Falcons threw a decent scare into TCU last season before losing 20-17, but they face a tougher challenge this time. This season's game is at TCU. And Calhoun believes his team is facing a stronger TCU squad.

"I thought they were superb last year, and they're clearly a different football team this year than they were last year," Calhoun said. "That's not hyperbole. That's just based upon looking at the tape."

Best matchup: Utah C Zane Taylor vs. Colorado State DT Guy Miller. The best matchup in the MWC actually is the showdown between Air Force's top-ranked rushing attack and TCU's top-ranked scoring defense, but we've already discussed that at length. So we will use this space to discuss an interesting one-on-one matchup in what otherwise figures to be a one-sided game. Taylor has played a key role on a line that has allowed only two sacks all season while helping Utah average 45.8 points per game. He will be lining up Saturday against Miller, who had 4.5 sacks last week. Miller was named the MWC player of the week after breaking a conference record for sacks in a single game while helping the Rams beat UNLV 43-10. Miller has 6.5 sacks this season, and he will need to wreak some havoc in the backfield Saturday for the Rams to have any shot at hanging with the Utes.

Player on the spot: BYU RB JJ Di Luigi. BYU's shift away from a vertical passing game as it breaks in true freshman QB Jake Heaps means Di Luigi will be getting the ball quite a bit the rest of the season. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported this week, BYU's wide receivers combined to catch one pass -- McKay Jacobson's 4-yard reception -- in last week's 31-3 loss to TCU. BYU TE Devin Mahina caught only one pass, for 5 yards. The leading receiver was Di Luigi, who caught six passes for 37 yards and also ran nine times for 11 yards. Di Luigi has 96 carries and 32 catches this season to lead the Cougars in both categories. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has acknowledged he will continue emphasizing a rushing attack that likely would feature Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya splitting carries. "Some of the strengths right now on our team appear to be the play of our offensive line, especially in the run game, and running backs that run the ball hard," Mendenhall told the Salt Lake Tribune. "So that doesn't mean exclusively that is all you can do, nor does that mean that will generate enough points to win enough games. But in terms of a starting place and an identity to begin from, that's kind of where we are."

Numbers game: San Diego State's 27-25 victory over No. 23 Air Force ended the Aztecs' 25-game losing streak against ranked teams. The Aztecs hadn't beaten a ranked opponent since Nov. 7, 1996, when they won 28-24 over a Wyoming team ranked 16th in one poll and 15th in the other. The Aztecs (4-2) are off to their best start since the 1996 team also won four of its first six games. They also have won their first three home games for the first time since 1996.

What they're saying

"It's not going to drastically change what we're doing offensively. We need to generate more points. It's not all of a sudden going to explode and we're going to have this world-class offense that's scoring 50 points a game. We can certainly score, and we have to play better." -- Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, discussing his team's offensive struggles to the Laramie (Wyo.) Boomerang. Wyoming is last nationally in total offense, 119th in scoring and 119th in rushing

"The offensive staff, I have confidence in. I would like to see [the offense] be more productive, and they know that. I would like to see that side of the ball play with more confidence and more inspired play, with cleaner execution, leading to more points. That has all been stated very clearly to our offensive staff." -- BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, to the Salt Lake Tribune in response to criticism of offensive coordinator Robert Anae. BYU is ranked 115th in scoring and 119th in pass efficiency

"I've known Rocky for a long time. He's as even-keeled of a guy as you want to be around. He knows this is San Diego State versus New Mexico. It's not anything more than that." -- San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, to the San Diego Union-Tribune about Aztecs defensive coordinator Rocky Long, the former head coach at New Mexico. For the second consecutive season, Long isn't speaking to reporters in the week leading up to the New Mexico game. He coached New Mexico for 11 seasons before leaving after the 2008 season. New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs said Long's contract was "mutually terminated"

"I told the team if we don't turn it around, it could cost us at some point in the season. We're living on borrowed time." -- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, discussing the Utes' poor turnover margin to the Salt Lake Tribune. Utah has 12 giveaways and only six takeaways this season

"It's been a tough season so far, so people start to hang their heads kind of early. We need a leader stepping up and saying, 'Hey, there's a lot of game left.' Although we were down at half, there was still a lot of game left. So we need leaders who can kind of get everyone's minds together and make us play our game." -- UNLV S Alex De Giacomo, after the Rebels' 43-10 loss to Colorado State

Etc.: Don't expect a shutout in Saturday's Air Force-TCU game. TCU has scored in 223 consecutive games and Air Force has scored in 214 consecutive games. The only FBS programs with longer current streaks of avoiding shutouts are Michigan (318) and Florida (277). ... BYU junior WR O'Neill Chambers announced plans to transfer after being suspended indefinitely Monday. Chambers, who is from the Orlando area, is the school's career leader in kickoff-return yardage. He had caught five passes for 48 yards this season. ... BYU has agreed to a four-game series with Georgia Tech that includes 2012 and 2014 games in Atlanta plus 2013 and 2017 matchups in Provo. ... Colorado State's victory over UNLV last week ended a 10-game MWC losing streak. The Rams hadn't won a conference game since beating Wyoming 31-20 on Nov. 22, 2008. ... Colorado State's Derek Good is the nation's leading kickoff returner with an average of 37.4 yards per attempt. ... Colorado State QB Pete Thomas has thrown seven touchdown passes and just one interception in his past 110 attempts. Thomas, a true freshman, had one touchdown pass and seven interceptions in his first 113 attempts. ... Here's some good news for New Mexico as it carries a winless record into Saturday's game with San Diego State. New Mexico has won eight of its past nine meetings with the Aztecs. The bad news? San Diego State's victory came last season. ... TCU has lost only one fumble this season and San Diego State has lost only two fumbles. Oregon State is the only FBS team that hasn't lost a fumble all season. ... UNLV WR Phillip Payne has returned to practice during the Rebels' off week, though UNLV coach Bobby Hauck hasn't indicated when Payne will return to action. Payne has sat out the past two games for disciplinary reasons. ... Utah TE Brad Clifford will miss at least two weeks after injuring his shoulder Saturday in a 30-6 victory over Wyoming. ... Utah leads the nation in kickoff returns with an average of 29.2 yards per attempt. ... Utah's Joe Phillips has made 17 consecutive field-goal attempts to match Notre Dame's David Ruffer for the nation's longest current streak. ... Wyoming is the only FBS team with four players who rank among the nation's top 75 tacklers. The Wyoming players on the list are SS Shamiel Gary (tied for 18th, 10.29 per game), FS Chris Prosinski (tied for 30th, 9.57), LB Ghaali Muhammad (tied for 30th, 9.57) and LB Brian Hendricks (74th, 8.17).

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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