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October 13, 2011

Week 7 preview in the Mountain West

MIDSEASON RECAP: League-by-league breakdown
MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | Others

Colorado State's chances of puling off the biggest upset of the season depend on whether it can get a big performance from one of the season's greatest individual surprises.

San Diego State at Air Force, 8 p.m.
UNLV at Wyoming, 2 p.m.
New Mexico at Nevada, 4 p.m.
Boise State at Colorado State, 6 p.m.
Defensive end Nordly Capi didn't open the season in Colorado State's starting lineup, but he was pressed into duty after Broderick Sargent tore an ACL in the Rams' season opener. All he did in that game was set an NCAA single-game record by forcing four fumbles in Colorado State's 14-10 victory over New Mexico.

Capi hasn't looked back since. Midway through the season, the sophomore from Orlando has averaged 1.6 sacks per game and has forced five fumbles to lead all FBS players in both categories.

Now he gets a chance to test his pass-rushing skills against Boise State, a team that protects its quarterback as well as any school in the country. Boise State is one of four FBS programs that have allowed only two sacks all season.

"I couldn't see this coming," said Capi, a former three-star recruit from Ocoee (Oh-co-eee) High. "I'm still excited. I try to remain humble, just take it one week at a time and hope I keep adding to it. I'm trying to make my family and friends proud back home, give my mom and dad something to gloat about."

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As much as he tries to stay humble, Capi also has accomplished enough by this point to set some ambitious goals for the rest of the season. He wants to collect 50 overall tackles and at least 10 sacks. He also has former Louisville star Elvis Dumervil's NCAA single-season record of 10 forced fumbles in his sights. Capi is halfway to that total with seven games remaining.

The flurry of forced fumbles shouldn't come as much of a shock. Capi's always had a knack for forcing fumbles. He returned fumbles for touchdowns of more than 80 yards twice during his high school career. Capi said he acquired an ability to strip the ball away from opponents after watching New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora on Sundays.

"I always wanted to try to do what he did," Capi said.

But everything else about Capi's remarkable season has been a major stunner. For one thing, how did a kid from central Florida end up all the way at Colorado State? Capi, who recorded 24 sacks in 19 games as a starter at Ocoee, said he received interest from Illinois, Marshall and FCS program Jacksonville State as well as Colorado State. He chose Colorado State after visiting the campus on a rare mild weekend.

"When I came up here, it really wasn't that cold," Capi said. "I figured this would be the least cold. I was sadly mistaken. It just felt like a regular cold front in Florida.

"After spending the spring here, it's like a [Florida] cold front times 20."

Capi earned some playing time as a true freshman last season, but he didn't record any sacks. Nobody projected him to deliver this kind of sophomore season. Colorado State coaches assumed their top pass rusher would be Sargent, the guy Capi replaced.

But ever since he moved into the lineup, Capi has showcased the athleticism that made him a three-star recruit. Capi had participated in track, basketball and even spent a couple of months playing water polo in high school before treading water for such a long time proved too grueling.

"That's one of the hardest sports in the world," Capi said.

He's made football look rather easy while living up to his name. Capi said his unusual first name has a Haitian background and translates to "strength." So far this season, nobody's managed to find a weakness in his game.

Instead of experiencing a letdown after his huge performance against New Mexico, Capi has maintained his torrid pace. He has recorded at least one sack in each of Colorado State's first five games. Capi's eight sacks thus far represent the highest single-season total by a Colorado State player since Clark Haggans had eight in 1999.

Capi's production is the biggest reason Colorado State ranks third nationally with 3.8 sacks per game, behind only Texas A&M and Rutgers. His breakthrough performance has helped Colorado State continue playing respectable defense even after suffering major injuries to Sargent and linebacker Mychal Sisson, who is tied for second among all active FBS players with 40 career tackles for loss.

"He's a great finisher is what I think he is," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "We've seen a fair amount of speed guys, which he is. He's got really good speed and athleticism. But I think the one thing that really kind of sets him apart is he's pretty relentless and doesn't give up. Everyone's going to get blocked out there. It's the good guys that get off blocks, and I think he does that really well."

Petersen's team presents a big challenge. Boise State's Kellen Moore is one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks, in part because his line usually gives him so much time to throw. Capi could spend at least part of the game lined up against Nate Potter, a legitimate All-America candidate.

Boise State thrives on protecting the passer. Colorado State loves to rush the passer. Colorado State won't have a chance of winning the game unless it wins that matchup.

"I'm looking forward to it," Capi said. "Those guys play so well together. They've got a lot of chemistry. But I think our d-line plays pretty well together. It's going to be a good match."

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Best matchup: Colorado State offensive line vs. Boise State defensive line. We spent the top portion of this story discussing Boise State's pass protection and Colorado State's pass rush, but the other battle at the line of scrimmage could prove equally compelling. Colorado State QB Pete Thomas has plenty of ability, but he won't have a chance of doing much against Boise State's defense unless he gets plenty of protection. Colorado State has a veteran line with four returning starters, but the Rams already have allowed 13 sacks. They'll have their hands full against an exceptional Boise State line.

Player on the spot: UNLV QB Sean Reilly. After Caleb Herring struggled mightily during UNLV's two-game losing streak, Rebels coach Bobby Hauck decided to switch quarterbacks. The new starter is Reilly, a 6-foot-4 junior who threw for 2,425 yards and 26 touchdowns with six interceptions last season at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. Reilly will make his first career start for the Rebels when UNLV plays at Wyoming this week. UNLV's quarterback production can't be any worse than it was in its past two games. Herring threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns against Southern Utah, then went 1-of-14 for 8 yards last week against Nevada. But the Rebels can't settle for merely average play from their quarterback. UNLV is allowing 41.6 points per game, so Reilly needs to put up big numbers for the Rebels to have a chance to win.

Keep an eye on: San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman: Hillman, the MWC's leading rusher, has run into a little bit of a slump. After rushing for 497 yards and eight touchdowns in his first three games, Hillman lost a couple of fumbles against Michigan and gained just 55 yards on 20 carries against TCU. It's no coincidence that San Diego State lost both games. San Diego State depends heavily on Hillman and has trouble winning when he's off his game. The Aztecs need Hillman in peak form to beat Air Force in a game that likely will determine the third-place finisher in the MWC standings. He could have a huge performance against an injury-riddled Air Force defense that ranks last nationally against the run. The Falcons are allowing 235.2 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.

Numbers game: TCU K Ross Evans made two field goals and three extra-point attempts in last week's 27-14 victory over San Diego State to give him 356 career points, matching the conference scoring record. Former New Mexico RB DonTrell Moore also scored 356 career points from 2002-05. Evans also owns the TCU career scoring record previously held by LaDainian Tomlinson, who scored 324 points from 1997-2000.

What they're saying

"In my opinion, not looking at it as a football program but looking at it as a university and what it does for us, it's a no-brainer. And that's the way I looked at it. Is there a Texas or Oklahoma in the Mountain West? No. But I feel like we can compete. But can you win on a day-to-day basis? That's what we have to answer." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram on the Horned Frogs' move to the Big 12

"I still think the Mountain West is good. I really do. If those other teams would have stayed, it would have been unbelievable. It would have been perfect. As we know, there's no perfect situation out there. There just isn't. That's just the landscape we're in now. But I still think it's good." - Boise State coach Chris Petersen, to The Idaho Statesman about whether he had any second thoughts about the Broncos' move to the MWC now that Utah and BYU have left the league and TCU is on its way out

"Basically, Caleb's working hard, trying as hard as he can, and right now it's not going well enough. Sean's also been working hard, and now he's getting a chance. That's kind of all I need to say." - UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, to the Las Vegas Sun about switching from Caleb Herring to Sean Reilly at quarterback

"This would start a change in this program, a win like this, to show that we can contend with the top teams in the nation. We need this win." - Colorado State S Ivory Herd, to The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan about the Rams' game with Boise State. Colorado State is listed as a 32-point underdog

"I think Air Force is as good an offensive football team as there is in the country." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, to The San Diego Union-Tribune

Poll watch:Boise State is ranked fifth by The Associated Press and sixth in the coaches' poll, the same ranking it held in each poll last week. Boise State is the only ranked team in the conference.

Etc.: Air Force DE Ben Kopacka is questionable for Thursday's game with San Diego State after missing the Notre Dame game last week with a shoulder injury. Air Force DE Zach Payne and NT Ryan Gardner remain sidelined until mid-November. ... Boise State leads the nation in third-down defense. Opponents are just 16-of-66 (.242) on third-down conversions. ... Colorado State will be wearing all-white uniforms Saturday against Boise State and is seeking a stadium "whiteout" as part of a promotion to fight cancer. According to team historian John Hirn, Colorado State last wore all-white uniforms on Nov. 10, 1956, when the school was known as Colorado A&M and the team nickname was the Aggies. Colorado State last wore white jerseys at home (with yellow pants) for a 21-9 victory over Air Force on Sept. 6, 1980. The Rams used white jerseys that day because of the heat. Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild played quarterback for the Rams in 1980. ... UNLV RB Tim Cornett has a hip injury that makes him questionable for the Wyoming game. Cornett had three touchdown runs and one touchdown catch in a 42-16 victory over Wyoming last year. ... Since coming off the bench late in a 48-45 overtime loss to Sam Houston State, New Mexico QB B.R. Holbrook has led seven touchdown drives in 78-plus minutes. New Mexico had been averaging 8.7 points through its first three games of the season. The Lobos have averaged 36.5 points over their past two games. ... San Diego State CB Leon McFadden sat out the second half of the loss to TCU last week with head trauma, but he's expected to play Thursday against Air Force. ... TCU set an MWC record last week by winning its 19th consecutive conference game. BYU won 18 conference games in a row from 2006-08. The Horned Frogs also have won 10 consecutive conference road games, one shy of the record held by BYU. The Cougars won 11 consecutive MWC road games from 2005-07. ... Wyoming has shuffled its starting defensive line. Gabe Knapton is moving from tackle to end this week, while DT Ben Durbin is expected to make his first career start. ... Colorado State has distributed a school-record 830 credentials for Saturday's game. The previous record was 650 for a Colorado game in 1996 when the Buffaloes arrived in Fort Collins ranked fifth in the AP poll.

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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