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Three Ball in the Corner
With 6:47 gone in Saturday's matchup between then-No. 7 BYU and No. 4 San Diego State, Cougars junior forward Noah Hartsock launched a three-point shot from deep in the corner. Amazingly, the ball caromed off the backboard and dropped through the net.
More amazing? Over the next 33:13, BYU would hit 11-of-21 three-point attempts and finish 14-of-24 (58.3 percent) beyond the arc en route to a 70-57 win and a possible No. 1 seed in both the Mountain West Conference and NCAA tournaments.
This against a team that came into the contest with a scoring defense that ranked No. 1 in the MWC and No. 7 nationally.
"We've been on the giving end of that, where we've shot that way," said SDSU coach Steve Fisher, whose team fell to 27-2 overall and 12-2 in league play. "It doesn't happen often, but it happened on a huge stage in a monumental game and (BYU) delivered. They were better than a good team; they were a sensational team."
Falcons Stop Skid
Prior to Saturday's 74-57 win over Colorado State, Air Force (14-13, 5-9) had been mired in a season-long four-game losing streak and had dropped six of its previous eight.
Against the Rams, four Falcon players (led by Michael Lyons' 21 points) scored in double figures and Air Force limited CSU to 32.2 percent shooting, the lowest by an MWC opponent this season.
"I thought we played with a great sense of urgency," said Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds, whose team also snapped a three-game losing streak against CSU. "I think the dynamics of the schedule, with our league being so good, sometimes you can play pretty good basketball and not get a win. It's hard on your team physically and mentally. It was good for us to get a win against a good team and let them see that hard work does pay off."
Air Force senior guard Evan Washington set a school record by making his 107th career start on Saturday.
A Senior's Steady Hand
It's not been the easiest of seasons for New Mexico senior point guard Dairese Gary. Directing traffic on a team comprised of four underclassmen, including two freshmen, the all-conference performer has largely served as a coach on the floor.
In Saturday's 80-70 win at TCU, however, the teacher turned into a terror, scoring a career-high 32 points.
With his team trailing 50-46 in the second half, Gary fueled a 27-8 run in which he scored 14 points. His final point total was the most by Lobos player since J.R. Giddens scored 36 against Wyoming on Feb. 9, 2008. Gary's performance came on the heels of a 26-point outing against UNLV on Wednesday and marked the first time a New Mexico player had posted consecutive 25-point games since Tony Dandridge had 29 in games against Utah and Wyoming in 2009. Gary scored 23 points in the second half against TCU and 20 of the team's final 29 over the last 9:33.
The conference's all-time assists leader, Gary also became the league's all-time leader in career starts when he made his 127th on Saturday.
"Because of Darington (Hobson) leaving early for the NBA last year, he (Gary) has been left by himself with a very young, inexperienced team and he's just been tremendous," said coach Steve Alford. "He's been patient with this team and he's been a very good leader. He's had to score more than what he's probably honestly capable of, because that's really not his role and he probably doesn't relish it, but he's just done everything he can possibly do to help us win games."
Willis Hits His Stride
After battling a lingering knee problem for much of the season, UNLV senior guard Tre'Von Willis appears to have found his groove, stringing together two of his strongest performances of the year in an overtime win at New Mexico and a home victory against Wyoming. Willis torched the nets with 14-of-21 shooting from the field, including an 8-of-11 effort from 3-point range, while averaging 20.0 points over the two contests. He has scored in double figures in six of his last seven games with two 20-point outings during that stretch, including his season-high 25 at UNM.
"I think it's really been about him being healthier," said coach Lon Kruger, whose team sits at 22-7 overall and 10-5 in league play. "The last two weeks have probably been a stretch in which he's felt as good as he has all year. He tweaked his knee a little bit at Colorado State (on Feb. 19) and that set him back a little, but he had a really gritty effort against New Mexico, and he probably felt as healthy for the Wyoming game as he has during conference play. I think that combined with knowing there are just a few games left in his senior year has him very focused right now."
Fighting the Good Fight
With TCU (10-20, 1-14) having lost 12 straight and facing the possibility of entering next week's conference tournament with one league win, it might be easy for the team's players to cash it in and start anew in 2010-11.
According to coach Jim Christian, however, such is not the case.
"When you've gone through the stretch we have, it's easy for players to become disconcerted or not try hard," Christian said. "But we've got good kids and I think we have the right kind of foundation to build a successful program with our younger players and the guys we have returning.
"You win with character, and if we're going to turn this around, it's going to take strong-character people to do it. I think we have the people in place to do that. We have players who just keep fighting through it and I think they're starting to see how they fit into the foundation and they're starting to see the big picture. Nobody likes losing, but these guys aren't about to quit."
Slow the Pace, Increase the Wins
Utah coach Jim Boylen, citing concerns about his team's high turnover count, has opted to slow the pace of his offense. The move would appear to be paying dividends, as the Utes (6-8, 13-15) have won three straight after dropping five in a row.
"I just didn't like how we were playing during that first 10 or 12 seconds of the shot clock," Boylen said. "We were turning the ball over way too much and I didn't like our shots-on-goal. So I said if we're not going to get anything during those first 10-14 seconds, let's find a layup or something wide open. If we don't have numbers, we're going to walk it up to halfcourt. It just really came down to poor shot selection, turnovers and poor decisions. I just felt we were putting too much pressure on our guys to score early in the shot clock."
With his team having dropped three straight to in falling to 18-10 overall and 8-6 in league play, Colorado State coach Tim Miles knows his team's chances of garnering an NCAA Tournament bid could be slipping away.
But with this year's tournament field expanded to 68 teams and the MWC Tournament looming at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas next week, the Rams, who averaged a conference-best 80.5 points in games against league leader BYU, can't be counted out just yet. At last year's MWC Tournament, the Rams came within a point of knocking off eventual champion San Diego State.
"I like the idea of having 68 teams," Miles said. "The last four teams to get into the tournament probably do have a little hitch in their giddyup, but that's what makes it great. Kids get a chance to fight their way into the tournament and get a chance to prove themselves. I know coaches who get fired for not making the tournament would like to see more teams in, but at the same time you want a competitive tournament."
The Pleasure's Mine
Five games into his tenure as interim head coach at Wyoming, Fred Langley, who has guided the team to two of its three conference wins, is having a difficult time disguising his passion for the job.
"I'm having a blast," said Langley. "It's always been a goal of mine to be a Division I head coach and to help jump-start a program. But I'm just having a blast, and I think the guys are having a good time. Obviously, we'd like to win some more games, but I'm pleased with the effort and with just how well the guys are staying together."
When former San Diego State point guard Richie Williams graduated following the 2008-09 season, he departed as the Mountain West Conference all-time leader in assists and steals.
Williams would be missed, but with players such as Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Chase Tapley waiting to join the Aztecs in the fall of 2009, many were convinced the team was positioned to stage its best season in years. What they weren't so convinced of was whether anyone on the roster had the ability to fill Williams' shoes.
Enter D.J. Gay, who after arriving at SDSU in 2007 as a prolific high school shooting guard, is in line to earn first-team all-conference honors in his second season of running the point for the Aztecs.
One of two MWC finalists for the Cousy Award along with BYU's Jimmer Fredette, Gay recently went 177 minutes without a turnover and has had one or no turnovers in nine of his last 10 games. His scoring average of 12.1 points per game ranks second on the team, and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0 is tops in the MWC. This despite playing an average of 34.7 minutes per game, a total that ranks second in the league only to Utah's Will Clyburn.
"I told people, 'Don't fret, don't worry, we're in capable hands,' " said coach Steve Fisher, whose team climbed to No. 4 in this week's ESPN/Coaches' poll and faces a first-place showdown with No. 7 BYU on Saturday at Viejas Arena. "I told them it may not be done with flash or flamboyance, but that it would get done.
"And to be honest, it's gotten done even better than I thought it would. I knew D.J. was good. I knew he was steady and reliable. He's proven to be that and a whole lot more."
Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
No. 7 BYU had five players finish in double figures in Saturday's 79-56 win at TCU. And while the bulk of the Cougars' scoring came from the usual suspects --- Jimmer Fredette, Jackson Emery, Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock --- they also got 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting from reserve forward Stephen Rogers, who finished 4-of-4 from the free-throw line to extend his team-leading streak to 18.
Rogers, a transfer from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College, had been averaging 4.2 points per game.
"I think Stephen has really developed into a player who his teammates trust," said coach Dave Rose. "When you bring a new player in, especially a junior college player who has a little bit of experience, you try to fit him in, and sometimes that process takes a little bit of time.
"But, defensively, I think he understands our system much better, and he's found a fit in there. We tried him at the 2, the 3 and the 4 to try and find a way to have him help this team. And I think we've finally found a niche for him that works best. I just think the trust that he's developed with his teammates both on the offensive and defensive end has allowed him to begin playing with a lot of confidence."
Falcons Fighting off Frustration
Air Force (13-12, 4-8) has stood toe-to-toe with its last two opponents, building a halftime lead against San Diego State on Saturday after pushing UNLV to the limit on the road last Tuesday.
Unfortunately, both outings culminated in losses for the Falcons, who are trying to find their feet after dropping three in a row and five of their last seven.
"We've got to learn to finish," said coach Jeff Reynolds. "This time of year, teams that seem to have success do things on a consistent basis. They execute their offense under duress in a halfcourt setting and they guard in a halfcourt setting. Lately, our shooting percentage has tailed off. I think it's a combination of the opponents we've played, plus we're missing some open shots.
"We've been in every game we've played this year with the exception of our game at home against BYU (a 90-52 loss on Feb. 9). Our guys know that if we play our style, if we make shots and contest shots, that we're going to have a shot to win. Any team in this league can beat you, whether it's home or on the road."
The Other Side of the Coin
A year ago, New Mexico was 12-1 in games decided by six or fewer points.
This season, five of the Lobos' seven losses in league play have come by six or fewer points, including Saturday's 62-60 loss to Utah, a setback that came when the Utes' Chris Hines hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.
It's all part of learning how to close out games for a team that starts four underclassmen, two of them freshmen.
"It's hard for coaches and players, but you have to have the ability to move on," said coach Steve Alford. "You've got to move on if you make a bad play or if you make a good play. If you have a good win or a bad loss, you have to get on to the next game.
"Finishing halves, finishing games, it takes a lot of time for young guys. They're trying to find roles where they're comfortable making plays. But it's not just from an offensive standpoint, it's also knowing how to guard in those situations. I love the effort our guys are giving, it's just a learning curve they have to go through."
Despite suffering its 10th straight loss, TCU (10-18, 1-12) drew a sellout crowd of 7,258 for Saturday's game against BYU, the third-largest crowd in the 40-year history of Daniel-Meyer Coliseum and the largest since a school-record 7,267 for the Horned Frogs' Dec. 1, 2003 contest against No. 2 Kansas.
Asked if he can envision the day when sellouts are more commonplace at football-crazy TCU, coach Jim Christian said:
"There's no question. I wouldn't have come (to TCU) if I didn't think that could be the case. We've got to push it along. We've got to have more success, we've got to be able to put a team out there that people want to come see, and not just because of the team we're playing. But there's no doubt in my mind that the kind of thing that happened on Saturday can't routinely happen here."
Down to the Wire
Saturday's win at Colorado State not only pulled UNLV (20-7, 8-5) to within half a game of the Rams for third place in the MWC, it could ultimately impact NCAA Tournament bids.
The Rebels' remaining schedule includes road dates at New Mexico and Utah, sandwiched around a home game against Wyoming.
CSU, meanwhile, plays three of its final four games on the road, beginning Wednesday at BYU. The Rams must also travel to San Diego State on March 5.
"Any time you win a game at this time of year you improve yourself, and anytime you lose one you do a little damage," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "You want to approach the next game as being one you really have to have. And that's the way we have to approach the next (three). To approach it any differently would be a mistake."
Utah's 62-60 win at New Mexico on Saturday, its first at The Pit since 2002, was accomplished without the services of the conference's second-leading scorer, Will Clyburn, who suffered a contusion to his right heel in last Wednesday's win over Wyoming.
The Utes (12-15, 5-8) have also been without the services of senior forward Jay Watkins, who is out for the season with a back injury.
Not to worry. At least not when Chris Hines is available for duty.
Hines, a reserve sophomore guard who had made 10 starts this season and was averaging 4.6 points, hit the game-winner with a three-pointer at the buzzer to finish with a career-high 15 points. Hines knocked down a career-best five three-pointers in the game.
Hines shot 44 percent from three-point range last year.
"He's struggled to make shots this season, but we feel like he's a good shooter," said coach Jim Boylen. "Obviously, to do it in a big game like that on the road is an awesome statement for him. I'm really proud that he stepped up when we needed him.
"That's what has to happen when you have injuries. Guys have to step up and make plays, and Chris did that. I couldn't have been happier for him."
Colorado State (18-8, 8-4), the third-best defensive rebounding team in the league, had more than its share of problems keeping UNLV off the offensive glass in Saturday's 68-61 loss. The Rebels outrebounded the Rams 14-5 on the offensive end, an advantage that led to nine second-chance points.
"I just thought our kids let too many things affect their game," said coach Tim Miles. "We got a couple of charges and I hear it's the ref's fault. I take somebody out of the game because they weren't boxing out and they tell me, 'I was boxing out,' or 'I missed the shot because he fouled me.'
"We were caught up in the wrong things. You hear those kinds of things from a team that's wishing and hoping. Wishing and hoping doesn't get you a win against a team that's playing like UNLV did Saturday night."
A Brighter Tomorrow
When the 2010-11 season concludes for Wyoming (9-17, 2-10), the Cowboys will lose just one senior in forward Djibril Thiam.
In addition to Thiam, Wyoming has been starting a pair of juniors and two sophomores, one of whom, Amath M'Baye, a 6-foot-9 forward, is averaging 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
It should also be remembered that 6-foot-7 redshirt junior forward Leonard Washington, arguably the team's top talent, is sitting out the season per NCAA transfer rules after coming to Wyoming from USC.
"I like to think there are a lot of bright spots," said interim head coach Fred Langley. "Amath is a guy who continues to get better every day. It's unfortunate that Joe (freshman Joe Hudson) suffered a concussion (on Wednesday at Utah), because I think he's been starting to come into his own a little bit. Des (sophomore guard Desmar Jackson), even though he's been coming off the bench and his minutes have been limited, his productivity has actually gone up. And then you have a guy like Leonard Washington sitting there.
"I see a lot of promise, but it's time for results, not just necessarily the future."
Aztecs Don't Miss Beat
While San Diego State coach Steve Fisher still has no idea when his team will regain the services of starting guard Chase Tapley (ankle), the Aztecs haven't exactly found the sophomore's absence a hardship.
James Rahon, a transfer from Santa Clara, has filled in admirably for Tapley, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal in Saturday's 63-57 win at UNLV. Rahon, who was making his fourth start of the season, scored in double figures for the ninth time this season. Arguably the team's best three-point shooter, he has made 12 of his last 23 attempts beyond the arc.
"He's a very good player who is becoming a complete player," said Fisher, whose No. 6-ranked Aztecs improved to 25-1 overall and 10-1 in MWC play. "What he's been able to give us has been extremely important.
"You have to run at him every time he gets the ball to get him off the three, and that opens up space for our big guys inside. He has no fear. He's not afraid to take a big shot. He's been invaluable to us."
Keeping His Cool
BYU National Player of the Year candidate Jimmer Fredette has found the going a bit tougher of late, with opponents trying to unnerve the nation's leading scorer with aggressive, physical defense. It's an approach that at times has tested Fredette's patience.
After averaging 34.0 points per game during the first round of league play, Fredette has averaged 25.6 points thus far in the second round. He finished with 23 in Saturday's 72-59 win over Utah, a win that moved the No. 7/8 (AP/Coaches) Cougars to 24-2 overall and 10-1 in the MWC.
"I think you have to adjust to each referee crew that is going to call the game and accept how it's being called," said coach Dave Rose. "In that aspect, I think Jimmer does a terrific job. It's late in the season, we're going through (conference play) for the second time, and I just think you're going to see a lot of players in a lot of situations throughout the league maybe become a little more chippy."
Falcons Looking to Rebound
Air Force (13-10, 4-6), a team that prides itself on making opponents play its game by slowing the pace, has surrendered an average of 82.5 points in its last two losses. Prior to a 75-61 loss at New Mexico on Feb. 1, the Falcons had allowed 70 or more points only five times this season. Last week's 90-52 loss to BYU marked the highest point total scored by an opponent at Clune Arena in 11 years.
"In February, there are two types of teams," said coach Jeff Reynolds. "There are teams that continue to get better and there are teams who are simply trying to get through it. We think our team is still working extremely hard. Our job is to get better each day in one area and then let the chips fall where they may. Our guys are confident. They know that if we play the way we're capable of that we can be in every game."
Fresh Faces, Big Talents
New Mexico freshman guard Kendall Williams finished in double figures (16 points) for the seventh time in his last nine games in Saturday's 68-62 loss at Colorado State. Williams, who hit 4-of-8 three-point attempts, has scored a total of 294 points this season, the eighth-best total by a Lobo freshman. He also has 112 assists, the fifth-best total for a freshman in New Mexico history. His 41 steals are the most by a Lobo freshman since Phil Smith had 47 in 1980-81.
"Kendall Williams has been extremely consistent for us, and it hasn't just been in league games," said coach Steve Alford, whose team (17-8, 5-5) visits No. 6 San Diego State on Wednesday night. "His assist-to-turnover ratio 4.48/1.84 has just been phenomenal for a freshman. It almost parallels what (senior guard) Dairese Gary did as a freshman, and Dairese has turned out to be a pretty good player for us. We couldn't be more thrilled with what Kendall is doing."
Frogs Refusing to Fold
While TCU (10-16, 1-10) has lost eight straight heading into Wednesday night's game against BYU, a game that will mark just the second sellout in seven years for the Horned Frogs, coach Jim Christian said his team isn't calling it quits.
"I think our kids are still competing, still playing hard" Christian said. "It's been really beneficial for our young kids to play the amount of minutes they're playing and they're improving.
"Obviously, the season hasn't unfolded the way we would have liked, particularly from a personnel standpoint. When you have to make decisions that are the best for the program and you know that in the short term it's really going to hurt your chances of winning, those are tough decisions to make. What we did was for the betterment of all the players in the program. We're trying, we're competing. Unfortunately, we just haven't been able to win."
With UNLV (18-7, 6-5) and Colorado State (17-7, 7-3) both receiving votes in this week's Associated Press poll, Saturday's meeting between the two teams in Fort Collins could put the winner in position to grab a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's that time of year where you start predicting and forecasting and slotting, and that's why it's such a great time of year," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "But what we need to do right now is just focus on getting better each day. We have to keep our focus and our attention on our next game."
The Rebels, who dropped a 78-63 decision to Colorado State in Las Vegas on Jan. 19, host Air Force Tuesday night.
Utes Hope to Get Back on Track
With five regular-season games remaining, Utah is hoping to reverse its fortunes as the MWC Tournament draws ever closer. The Utes (10-15, 3-8), who host Wyoming Wednesday night, have lost five straight after winning three in a row.
"The biggest thing for us is not turning the ball over and making shots," said coach Jim Boylen. "Our defense has improved, our rebounding is good, but we cannot turn the ball over. It's a point of emphasis, it's something we've worked on, but (turnovers) are coming from a variety of areas, not just one guy or one situation. When we take care of the ball and make shots, we're tough to beat."
Utah, which ranks last in the MWC in turnover margin (-3.96), had 17 turnovers in Saturday's loss at BYU.
Rams Continue Rise
Colorado State not only maintained sole possession of third place in the MWC with Saturday's 68-62 win over New Mexico, it may well have made inroads on gaining a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The win over the Lobos was the first for coach Tim Miles since taking over the program in 2007, and avenged a 68-61 loss to New Mexico in Albuquerque on Jan. 12.
"It just gives our guys continued confidence," said Miles, whose team last year came within a point of knocking off eventual champion San Diego State in the MWC Tournament. "We haven't been through anything like this before at Colorado State. As you keep moving forward, you gain a self-assuredness. I think that's what we get out of a game like that more than anything."
Cowboys Put Brakes on Skid
Fred Langley's first Division I victory as a head coach also marked the end of an eight-game losing streak for Wyoming (9-16, 2-9), which knocked off TCU on Saturday 77-67.
"Ironically, the guys weren't going crazy high-fiving each other," said Langley, the team's interim head coach. "I walked into the locker room and nobody was really saying anything. I think everybody was excited, but it was also a relief to know that we got the monkey off our back. And I kind of got the feeling that this group may not be done yet, that they're going to continue to fight and hopefully have the opportunity to get another win as we continue on.
"These kids have been great. Every coach will tell you it's because of the kids that's we're in the business. They've been through a lot this year, but they continue to fight and work their tails off in practice. I'm really proud of them."
Aztecs Breathe Sigh of Relief
Not only did No. 6 San Diego State (23-1, 8-1) escape Saturday's upset bid by TCU (60-53), it also escaped potential disaster when it was announced Sunday that X-rays on the injured feet of starting guard Chase Tapley and key backup Tim Shelton proved negative.
Tapley left the game with a sprained left ankle with 14:40 left in the first half. Shelton exited two minutes later with what was initially feared to be a broken bone in his right foot.
Both are questionable for Tuesday night's game against Utah.
"We have a lot of experienced players this year, and we're fortunate we've had guys be able to come in and step up in these kind of situations," said coach Steve Fisher.
The other positive for SDSU is that it plays three of its next five games at home, where it has won 16 straight, including nine straight against MWC opponents.
Cougars Hurting, Too
No. 7/8 BYU (22-2, 8-1) swept its season series against UNLV with a 78-64 win on Saturday, but not without a cost.
Freshman guard Kyle Collinsworth suffered a concussion and center James Anderson has a shoulder separation.
"We'll know more this afternoon when we get to practice," said coach Dave Rose. "They're both in a situation where we'll evaluate them day to day. I think Kyle is doing better than he was on Saturday. James' shoulder is sore, so we'll have to see what kind of range of motion he has and what he can actually do."
Falcons Solving Road Woes
Air Force (13-9, 4-5), which prior to Jan. 29 had lost 20 straight MWC games away from Clune Arena, won its second consecutive conference road game Saturday when it knocked off Utah 54-49.
The Falcons, who got a career-high 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists from Zach Bohannon, have won consecutive road games for the first time since winning at Colorado State and Wyoming on Jan. 3 and 13, 2007.
Air Force now returns home for Wednesday's rematch with No. 7/8 BYU. The Falcons held strong against the Cougars in the teams' initial meeting in Provo on Jan. 8, pulling to within eight with 3 minutes left before falling 76-66.
"We expected to go (to Provo) and have a shot to win it," said coach Jeff Reynolds. "I didn't leave the (Marriott Center) with a good feeling in my gut, and I don't think any of our kids did."
Lobos Shoot to Extend Winning Ways
New Mexico (16-7, 4-4), which has won three straight after starting the conference season 1-4, will have the opportunity to win four in a row for the first time since mid-December when it hosts Wyoming Wednesday night.
A key reason for the Lobos' recent surge has been the play of junior forward Drew Gordon. The UCLA transfer has averaged 14.6 points and 9.6 rebounds during the streak.
"He's more than 10 games in now, which helps him and his development and helps our team," coach Steve Alford said of Gordon, who due to NCAA transfer rules was not eligible to play until last month. "Our younger guys are also playing better now. When you win a couple of games, you start to get some confidence, and I think that's starting to happen for our team."
Thorns Serving Notice Around MWC
TCU junior guard Hank Thorns, a transfer from Virginia Tech, gave No. 6 San Diego State all it could handle on Saturday, scoring a team-high 16 points and finishing with a game-high eight assists, the 11th time this season he has had eight or more assists in a game.
Thorns, who played all 40 minutes (the second straight contest he has reached the 40-minute total), brought the Horned Frogs (10-14, 1-8) to within five on a 3-pointer with 1:07 left, but SDSU was able to hold on by repeatedly getting to the foul line down the stretch in its 60-53 win.
Saturday's game marked the fourth time this season that Thorns has led the Frogs in scoring.
"If there's a toughness in the way he's playing, it's been in terms of getting guys focused," said coach Jim Christian. "He's been a real leader on our team."
No Dissenting Vote Here
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who is garnering attention for national Coach of the Year honors, would certainly have the vote of UNLV coach Lon Kruger.
The Aztecs, who have beaten the Rebels (17-6, 5-4) five times in the last six meetings, including last year's MWC Tournament title game, will put their No. 6 ranking on the line in Las Vegas on Saturday.
"Any time a club plays consistently well at this point in the year, (Fisher) should definitely be considered," Kruger said. "He's done a great job with a team that's really locked in to what they want to do and what their objectives are. He's done a fantastic job."
Utah 6-foot-7 wing Shawn Glover, who made 13 starts last season as a freshman, scored a career-high 15 points on a career-best five 3-pointers in Saturday's 54-49 loss to Air Force.
Glover has matched a career high with three assists in a game four times this season.
"I think the biggest thing is that we've got him at his true position now," said coach Jim Boylen. "We envisioned redshirting him as a freshman, but we had injuries to our front line early in the season where we had to throw him into the action at the four spot. But he's really not a four, he's a big wing. The combination of his development, his work ethic, his improved consistency at shooting the ball and his ability to get comfortable at the three position has really helped him grow."
Playing With the Big Boys
Prior to the start of the season, Colorado State coach Tim Miles said his team's true measure of progress would be based on its ability to compete with the league's established contenders, namely BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV.
Thus far, the Rams (16-7, 6-3), who were beaten at home last week by SDSU on a last-second shot, are 1-3 against the aforementioned teams.
"We just haven't been able to get over the top," said Miles, whose team gets a visit from New Mexico on Saturday. "You feel like you're so close, but you just don't do enough to win. I like this team. We're steady. Not a lot really rattles us, but not a lot really gets us going, either. It's kind of like a double-edged sword. But I know this team has the confidence to win big games."
No Quit in Cowboys
Despite having lost seven straight after beating New Mexico to open conference play, Wyoming (1-8, 8-15) is far from folding its tent.
Last week, the injury-riddled Cowboys fell 69-62 to No. 8 BYU week after playing the Cougars to a 28-28 draw in the first half. That performance preceded a 59-56 loss to Colorado State in a game that featured seven ties and 14 lead changes.
"We were able to contain two very good offensive teams, and that's encouraging," said coach Heath Schroyer. "I feel like we're getting better. We've settled into rotations, which has taken a long time because of injuries. We're able to be more consistent in practice, so we're able to get into games now and execute game plans."
As it turns out, the Cowboys will have to execute those game plans without Schroyer. On Monday afternoon, the university announced that Schroyer's contract had been terminated, effective immediately. Associate head coach Fred Langley will serve as interim coach for the remainder of the season.
Can't Keep a Good Team Down
If San Diego State was feeling any residual effects of its loss at BYU last Wednesday, it took the Aztecs all of about 180 seconds to rectify matters on Saturday.
SDSU (21-1, 6-1), which suffered its first loss of the season against the Cougars, posted a 96-57 win over Wyoming in a game in which it led 14-0 before Djibril Thiam scored the Cowboys' first points with 3:47 gone. The Aztecs posted their largest margin of victory in the league's 12-year history and made a school-record 17 three-pointers.
This in a contest where two of the team's top three scorers --- Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas --- each finished with two points.
"No matter what you say, you're feeling down after losing your first game of the season," said coach Steve Fisher. "But to our kids' credit, I did not anticipate (Saturday's game) being any different than what it was. We've got a lot of seniors, we've got stability at (point guard) in D.J. Gay and I had no doubt we would come out and play hard.
"And yet there is such a fine line between playing hard and playing passionately hard; sometimes you don't even realize it. We came out and played with great passion and energy. I was very proud of the way we did that and I would have been immensely disappointed if we hadn't."
SDSU, which entered the BYU game ranked No. 4, remained in the Top-10, coming in at No. 6 in this week's Coaches' poll and No. 7 in the AP poll.
Life's Ups and Downs
BYU coach Dave Rose knew his team would have little time to celebrate its win over San Diego State. Waiting in the wings was a trip to New Mexico (15-7, 3-4), where the No. 9-ranked Cougars had come up short in each of their previous two visits.
Make it three.
New Mexico freshmen Tony Snell and Kendall Williams both scored 16 points and Drew Gordon had 15 points and 12 rebounds in the Lobos' 86-77 win at The Pit on Saturday.
The loss was the first for BYU (20-2, 6-1) since Dec. 18 and moved it back into a first-place tie with San Diego State.
While Cougar senior guard Jimmer Fredette (32 points) continued to make his case for Player of the Year honors, it was Snell who rose to the occasion down the stretch, hitting a trio of three-pointers in the final 5:25 after the Lobos had trailed by as many as 13 in the second half.
"The last five minutes of the game, he hit every shot," Rose said. "We got to him, but we got there just a little bit late. A couple of those shots, though, we were right on him. He played with a lot of confidence.
"At this time of year, young players feel a lot more comfortable. The first time a top 10 team (San Diego State) came into their arena, they didn't play quite as well. This time, they were ready and they played a lot better."
Up and Running
A stomach ailment has forced Air Force junior guard/forward Taylor Stewart to miss four games this season. Last season, a broken wrist kept him out of 13.
And while Stewart may have contributed only four points in Saturday's 66-65 overtime victory at TCU, the basket he was credited with on a goaltending call against the Horned Frogs with 11 seconds remaining allowed the Falcons (12-8, 3-4) to snap a 20-game road losing streak against MWC opponents.
"He was sort of out of the rotation after coming back from his stomach ailment, but he's brought great energy and effort on both ends of the floor now that he's 100 percent again," said coach Jeff Reynolds. "He's played more consistently the last two games and that's good to see."
In Need of a Lift
TCU (10-13, 1-7) opened the season with promise after winning nine of its first 13 games, its best start since the 2006-07 season.
The Horned Frogs have since dropped nine of 10 and five straight, leaving coach Jim Christian to ponder his team's next task: a road game at No. 6/7 San Diego State on Saturday.
"Everybody comes into the season with optimism," Christian said. "Everybody comes into the season thinking they have a great chance to win and we're no different. Unfortunately, a game here or a game there can take you either way. It is what it is. We don't have any choice but to work our way out of it."
Junior guard Hank Thorns had 10 assists against Air Force, his sixth game with 10 or more assists this season.
Utah (10-11, 3-4), which had won three straight before falling to Colorado State (15-6, 5-2) on Saturday, will attempt to rebound when it squares off against UNLV (16-5, 4-3) in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
The Utes swept the regular-season series against the Rebels last year, including a 73-69 win in Las Vegas that marked their first win at the Thomas & Mack Center since 2005.
"Utah is always a tough opponent," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "Jim (coach Boylen) does a great job. This year, they have a little bit different team in that a lot of guys are really shooting the ball well and defensively their big guys inside are really tough and scoring more. It's always a tough matchup for us."
Utah junior wing Will Clyburn is leaving a lasting impression on opponents in his first season in the MWC. In addition to ranking second in the league in scoring (18.9) and rebounding (8.3), Clyburn ranks first in the conference in minutes played (36.3 per game).
The junior college transfer posted his seventh double-double of the season on Saturday against Colorado State, scoring a team-high 19 points and tying for the game-high rebound total with 10. He has been Utah's leading scorer 14 times in 21 games and has scored in double digits in 20 of them. Clyburn has also been Utah's leading rebounder 13 times.
"He's done a terrific job of adapting to the system, of understanding how to score in our system in this league," said coach Jim Boylen. "I think what's difficult for defenses is that he scores in a lot of different ways. He can drive it, he can catch and shoot, he can score in transition and he can score off offensive rebounds. His versatility makes him very difficult to guard."
Timing is Everything
Playing in a conference that is enjoying unprecedented success and proving to be as competitive as any in the country, it's not easy being on the outside looking in.
Unfortunately, such is the situation for Wyoming (8-13, 1-6) and coach Heath Schroyer, whose injury-ravaged team dropped its fifth straight at San Diego State on Saturday.
"The league has never been this good," Schroyer said. "It's a tough year to have tough luck, a tough year to be (inexperienced). Timing is everything. When's the last time the Mountain West was rated ahead of the ACC and the SEC (in conference RPI)? That shows you just good this league really is right now."
The MWC is the only league in the nation with two teams in the top five of the latest NCAA RPI rankings. BYU is No. 2, while San Diego State is No. 4. The Mountain West continues to be ranked at No. 4 as a conference, ahead of the ACC, SEC and Pac-10, according to CollegeRPI.com. The top three conferences, in order, are the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12.
Falcons Making Impression
While Air Force may be 2-3 in league play (11-7 overall), it's certainly getting the attention of its opponents.
In last week's 68-55 loss at then No. 6-ranked San Diego State, the Falcons trailed by just four (34-30) at the half and repeatedly frustrated an Aztecs team that is one of only two unbeatens in the nation.
"They don't quit playing," said SDSU coach Steve Fisher. "They deserved to be ahead at halftime. This is the best Air Force team they have had since I was (in Colorado Springs) when they beat us (in 2005) and cut the nets down. They are a very good team that can beat any team in our league."
The Falcons rebounded with a 72-51 win over Wyoming on Saturday.
"I think we are more competitive and I've said all along that we're better," said coach Jeff Reynolds. "But I also know that the league is better. Whether that means we'll get more wins wins in conference play, we're just going to take it one game at a time and see what happens."
Think Before Taking Next Step
Two-time defending regular season conference champion New Mexico (13-7, 1-4) has lost three straight, and coach Steve Alford has a pretty good idea why --- far too many mental mistakes.
The Lobos had 20 turnovers in Saturday's 63-62 loss at UNLV, four of which came in the final 1:14 after they had taken a 61-58 lead on Tony Snell's 3-pointer with 1:52 remaining.
"It's something we've got to continue to emphasize, whether it's in film or in practice or anything else," Alford said. "We've been fortunate to have a very high basketball IQ here the last couple of years; everyone understood how to play. This team is just trying to figure a lot of those things out right now."
Home is Where the Hurt Is
Though it has battled inconsistency, TCU (10-11, 1-5) had been consistently successful at home this season, posting a mark of 8-2 at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum prior to Saturday's visit from Utah. The Horned Frogs' 75-62 loss dropped them below .500 for the first time this season.
"We didn't play hard enough, we didn't play smart enough and you have to give Utah credit," said coach Jim Christian. "But that was a game we had to have to help turn our season around. The kids our disappointed and they're upset, which is the way anybody would be after you've lost three in a row and you're not playing the way you're capable of playing. We've got to find a way to fight our way out of it. Nobody's going to feel sorry for you."
Coming of Age
Football coaches will tell you that you can't teach speed. Neither can you coach maturity or experience, a drawback that often hampered Utah (10-10, 3-3) earlier this season before its current three-game win streak.
"We all try to accelerate maturity and experience, but I feel like there's a comfort level now in the system," said coach Jim Boylen. "It's also helped that (junior center) David Foster is healthy now, that (sophomore center) Jason Washburn has embraced that backup role and that (freshman guard) J.J. O'Brien has given us another ball-handler and a decision-maker who is a tough guy.
"We're growing. You can't dwell on the negative things or dwell on the losses. You have to keep teaching your guys that the wins will come, and I'm very proud of the way our staff has done that. You have to stay with it."
Big Win at Crucial Time
With San Diego State and BYU both sitting at 5-0 in conference play, UNLV (15-5, 3-3) could ill afford a fourth league loss when it hosted New Mexico on Saturday.
"It was a game we needed very badly from a confidence standpoint," said coach Lon Kruger, whose team held on to win 63-62. "Losing by one or winning by one can have a big impact on the confidence of your team. We could have very easily lost that ballgame. When one more shot goes down or one more free throw goes down, it can make all this difference in the world."
Alive on Arrival
Colorado State's Wes Eikmeier is making his presence felt. Having sat out last season per NCAA rules after transferring from Iowa State, the sophomore guard is averaging double figures (10.6 pgg) and ranks second on the team in assists. Eikmeier hit 5-of-9 three-pointers in finishing with a career-high 25 points in Saturday's 94-85 loss to No. 9 BYU. He also contributed five assists.
"Early in the season, he was in all the right spots, but he was missing wide-open shots," said Rams coach Tim Miles. "We just kept telling him to hang in there, and I thought as we got closer to Christmas that he was playing better and better. He was really terrific against BYU."
Searching for Firepower
Devastated by injuries, Wyoming (8-11, 1-4) was able to dress only eight players for Saturday's game at Air Force. The outcome was hardly surprising, as the Cowboys dropped their third straight, 72-51. In doing so, Wyoming scored 26 or fewer points in a half for the fifth time this season in conference play.
"We're executing in a lot of ways, we just haven't been able to capitalize a lot, especially on the offensive end," coach Heath Schroyer told the Casper Star-Tribune. "We've had good looks, we just haven't been able to finish."
Nailing Down the Boards
First came Wednesday's effort against UNLV, when he combined with teammate Malcolm Thomas to outrebound the Rebels' entire roster.
Then came Saturday's performance at New Mexico, where he ripped down a game-high 15 rebounds to post his second consecutive double-double (19 points) in helping lift San Diego State to an 88-78 win at one of the more intimidating venues in the nation.
If Kawhi Leonard seemed imposing as a freshman last season, another year has only seemed to double his resolve.
In SDSU's past two games, Leonard, who has 12 double-doubles in 19 contests this season, has amassed 32 rebounds. He has 10 or more rebounds in four of his last five games (62 rebounds, 12.4 rpg).
"He pursues every ball, and he's very smart and very aggressive when he goes after it," said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, whose team remained No. 6 in the nation after improving to 19-0 overall and 4-0 in MWC play. "Normally, when your big guys are really working, they're running 94 feet. But Kawhi runs more than 94 feet, because he's usually out on the perimeter when a shot goes up. He's done a wonderful job of staying with it and being smart and aggressive with his play."
The Other Guy
While Jimmer Fredette has certainly built a case for being considered one of the premiere players in the nation, BYU coach Dave Rose will tell you there is no player more important to his team's success than Jackson Emery, Fredette's running mate in the backcourt.
The No. 9-ranked Cougars have designated Tuesday's game against TCU as "Jackson Emery Night" in honor of the senior guard recently breaking the school's career steals record. Emery eclipsed the 30-year-old record held by Danny Ainge when he recorded his 196th career steal in a win at Utah on Jan. 14. He also surpassed the 1,000-point plateau against the Utes in the second half.
"He's just a very special player," said coach Dave Rose. "His ability to create havoc defensively is a real skill and a real blessing to our team. When we're in positions where we really need to score, he'll do it on the defensive end by getting a steal and getting us out on the break for an easy basket.
"To be able to break any type of record that has stood for 30 years is pretty impressive, and he's got quite a few more games to build on that."
No Easy Way Out
After turning in two solid performances against BYU and UNLV in its first two conference games, only to watch both agonizingly slip away in the final stages, Air Force must now regroup in time to face No. 6 San Diego State on the road Wednesday night.
"San Diego State is very deserving of their ranking," said Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds. "To go into a place like (New Mexico), where you're in a very hostile environment, they're just a multi-talented team that can hurt you inside as well as outside. And their best offense is probably their defense."
Asked if Air Force would use a similar defensive approach to that of New Mexico, which opted to play the Aztecs straight up and was buried by an avalanche of three-pointers (SDSU's 13 threes tied a school record for most in a MWC game), Reynolds said, "We're going to punt the ball."
TCU coach Jim Christian is still trying to get a true gauge of his basketball team. After the Frogs turned in a strong performance in a win over Wyoming at home last Wednesday, they dropped a 79-69 decision at Colorado State on Saturday in a game in which the Rams dominated the paint and shot 72.4 percent in the first half.
"That's been the frustrating thing for me," said Christian, whose team stands at 10-9 overall and 1-3 in league play. "We've been good at home, but when we go on the road, we're just a different basketball team. We have not been able to build on the momentum we've developed from game to game.
"Our biggest problem is we have not been able to transfer our effort from the practice floor to the game. It's a unique, difficult thing that we're trying to find our way through and we've just got to keep working at it."
Going to Extremes
The good news? New Mexico guard Phillip McDonald, coming off the bench for the first time in his three-year career, tied a career high by scoring 27 points in the Lobos' win over Colorado State last Wednesday. The puzzling? McDonald was 0-for-5 from the floor in Saturday's loss to San Diego State.
The good news? New Mexico guard Dairese Gary finished with 23 points against San Diego State. The puzzling? Gary went scoreless against CSU.
"Phillip is our shooting guard and he needs to score, so that bothers me a little more than Dairese having a game where he doesn't score," said coach Steve Alford. "We don't have to have Dairese in that role. We need Dairese to run the show. He defends the best guard on the other team. And although we don't expect Phillip to score 27 every night like he did against Colorado State, we do need to get more consistent scoring out of him."
Filling the Void
With standout senior guard Tre'Von Willis sidelined by a sore right knee, UNLV got double-digit scoring from four players in rallying to win 64-52 at Air Force on Saturday.
The Rebels, who trailed by five with just over seven minutes remaining, staged a 19-2 run down the stretch as Derrick Jasper (11 rebounds, six assists) fueled the rally with a key block and Chase Stanback finished with a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds).
"Any time you've got a player down like Tre'Von Willis, and you have other guys stepping up and contributing, that's a real shot in the arm for their confidence, especially on the road," said coach Lon Kruger. "Those guys stepped up and put us in a position to win. I think it was also a confidence booster for us in terms of free throws (18-for-21), because we hadn't been very good at the line."
Kruger said he expects Willis to return this week, but was uncertain as to how soon the senior would be at full speed.
Light at End of Tunnel
Utah won for the first time in 29 days with a 68-51 victory at Wyoming on Saturday to snap a seven-game slide, its longest since 1949-50.
"I've had a group that's very willing to be coached," coach Jim Boylen said of trying to hold his team together during the losing streak. "There was a comment made after (Saturday's) game that our kids didn't seem very excited after the win. Well, we're not surprised when we win a game. We feel like we have a good team and we feel like we're doing the right things.
"Keeping the group together is really dependent on the group. My job is to teach and coach. We're still a work in progress, but we've got a willing group, a coachable group and a working group."
In Saturday's 79-69 win over TCU, Colorado State had four players finish in double figures. While the performances turned in by senior forwards Andy Ogide (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Travis Franklin (14 points, 17.3 ppg) were hardly surprising, the Rams also got double-digit scoring from sophomore guards Dorian Green and Jesse Carr, who combined for 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor.
In addition, sophomore Wes Eikmeier contributed nine points and five assists, while sophomore Greg Smith finished with seven points, five assists and three steals.
As to the improvement in his team's balance this season, coach Tim Miles, whose Rams are 12-5 overall and 2-1 in the MWC, said: "The ability to hurt people inside, as well as do some things from the outside, has really helped us."
Adjusting on the Fly
After turning in an impressive performance with an 89-77 win at No. 25 UNLV in its Mountain West Conference opener, BYU, which climbed to No. 10 in this week's ESPN/USA Today Coaches' poll, got a tough test from Air Force in its 76-66 victory on Saturday. In a contest marked by no fewer than 41 fouls, the Cougars (16-1) led by as many as 18 in the second half, but saw the advantage whittled to eight with two minutes left.
"I think that says more about conference play than our guys," BYU coach Dave Rose said Monday. "You have to understand that this is a very competitive conference. The style of play that you get night in and night out is always going to change. You have to adjust to that and still find ways to win games."
The Cougars will also likely have to find ways to win without Chris Collinsworth. Rose said the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward could be facing arthroscopic knee surgery after missing the team's past two contests.
"I think the doctors wanted to see if we could get him back at practice and work it around a little bit, but it's just not responding," Rose said of Collinsworth, who is averaging 5.9 points and 5.6 rebounds. "It's still extremely sore and the swelling seems to change day to day. So, it looks to me like we're probably going to have to go in and 'scope it. We'll know more about it this afternoon or (Tuesday)."
Tough to Take Fight out of Falcons
Air Force (10-5, 1-1), which opened conference play with a win at home over Utah, garnered plenty of respect from BYU coaches and players in the aftermath of its 76-66 loss on Saturday.
Nonetheless, Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds is not about to start taking solace in near-misses.
"It wasn't a moral victory; we lost the game," Reynolds said. "I felt like we did some things well offensively at times. We were able to get the types of shots we wanted but, defensively, (BYU) has so many weapons that we just didn't do enough. We didn't keep them off the boards and we didn't take away enough of their weapons to win the game."
"We're playing better, we're more experienced, we're more healthy," Reynolds said. "Whether that results in more conference wins I'm not sure, because I think the league is much better and I'm not sure we've closed the gap that much."
Lobos Looking to Rebound
Defending regular-season conference champion New Mexico (12-4, 0-1) will be looking to shake off the effects of a 67-66 loss at Wyoming when it hosts improved Colorado State on Wednesday before facing a stern test at No. 6 San Diego State on Saturday.
"The thing that concerns me the most is getting back to the level of basketball we're capable of playing and taking care of what we need to do," said coach Steve Alford. "I did not like our energy level (against Wyoming), I did not like our maturity on defense and I did not like our pace on offense.
"This week is really about taking care of what we do, and hoping we do it well enough to win. ...We've got a great atmosphere at home, but if we play like we did Saturday, it's not going to matter whether we're playing at The Pit or out at the fairgrounds."
If UNLV (13-3, 1-1) wasn't playing with a chip on its shoulder following its conference-opening loss at home to BYU, it certainly gave an impressive impersonation. The Rebels responded on Saturday with an 83-49 win over TCU, a game in which UNLV staged a 24-0 first-half run and ultimately forced 23 turnovers.
The Rebels, who led by as many as 25 in the first half, visit No. 6 San Diego State on Wednesday.
"Whenever you lose a conference home game, I think you come back with a little bit more urgency in the next one," said coach Lon Kruger. "For 40 minutes, that was probably as well as we've played this season in terms of focus, taking responsibility and playing hard on each possession."
Meanwhile, TCU coach Jim Christian, whose team hosts Wyoming on Wednesday after dropping its first two conference contests, said the Horned Frogs need to become tougher, both physically and mentally.
"We're going to learn a lot about our resolve," said Christian, whose team enters the week at 9-8 overall. "The guys on the team have to be more determined. We're coming off an awful performance, one we were embarrassed by. If you have the type of leadership that wants to achieve the goals every team wants to achieve, you don't need me. At the end of the day, it's up to the players. There is no speech or miracle drill. When you play that poorly, it's up to you as an individual to learn from it and get better."
Making His Mark
Utah junior wing Will Clyburn has made an immediate impact on the MWC. A transfer from Marshalltown (Iowa) Community College, Clyburn ranks second in the league in scoring at 18.8 points per game. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday's 71-62 home loss to No. 6 San Diego State, posting his fifth double-double of the year. Clyburn has scored double figures in all 16 games this season.
"He's a big-time player and a big-time kid, which is even more important to me because he's a great person," said Utes coach Jim Boylen, whose team (7-9, 0-2) will be looking for its first conference win when it hosts rival BYU on Tuesday. "I know people talk about (San Diego State's Kawhi) Leonard and (BYU's Jimmer) Fredette, and they're both terrific, but Will is at the top of the league in a lot of categories (Clyburn also ranks second in the MWC in rebounding at 8.3 per game). He's still developing in a new system, but the future is bright for him and the future is bright for us with him."
Getting Back to Work
It will have been eight days since Colorado State played a game when the Rams face New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque on Wednesday. CSU (11-4, 1-0), which opened conference play with a 73-60 home win over Wyoming on Jan. 4, has lost seven consecutive games in the series since posting an 88-79 win at The Pit on Jan. 24, 2007.
"Eight days is a long time off, but we played a lot of games in a short period of time, so we needed some rest and we needed to be away from each other a little bit, too," said coach Tim Miles. "It's my job in the next two days to get our guys highly competitive in practice and get back in that fighting mode, because The Pit is a different kind of beast. Homecourts are always worth about a four-, five-, six-point advantage, but at The Pit it's double that."
Cowboys Come Out Swinging
Despite two of its top players --- junior forward Afam Muojeke and junior center Adam Waddell --- being limited by injury this season, Wyoming (8-8 overall) evened its conference mark at 1-1 on Saturday with a 67-66 home win over defending MWC regular-season champion New Mexico on Francisco Cruz's short jumper at the buzzer.
The win snapped New Mexico's 14-game win streak in regular-season MWC play, the longest in league history.
"It was a great win for us," said coach Heath Schroyer. "New Mexico is a great program and will be for a long time with Steve (Alford) and his staff there. It shows a lot of character from our guys, because for the last year and a half we've been very limited with two of our top players on the shelf for the majority of the time. I think it shows that as our young players continue to grow and develop, and if we can ever get everybody healthy and on the floor at the same time, I've always said that this team has a chance to be pretty good."
Living Large in Land of Giants
While the San Diego State trio of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White represents one of the most formidable front lines in the nation, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher will tell you that no one is as crucial to the success of his No. 6-ranked team than senior point guard D.J. Gay.
Gay, playing on a badly bruised calf, scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half on 4-of-6 three-point shooting as SDSU (17-0, 2-0) erased a one-point halftime deficit in its 71-62 win at Utah on Saturday. This after Gay had finished the first half 1-of-5 from the field (0-of-4 on threes) and was 1-of-4 from line.
"D.J. is a wily veteran who is our most important player," Fisher said. "He doesn't look like he's that good, but he gets the job done. He's unafraid. He takes and makes big shots. He makes plays when you have to have plays made. He never gets overly excited either in good times or bad. Sometimes, some of our other guys, when it's going good, have a tendency to get a little too hyper or get frustrated when it's going bad. D.J. calms everybody down."
Aztecs Raise Bar in MWC
With all five starters returning from a team that finished 25-9 last year and narrowly missed advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after winning the MWC Tournament, many knew that San Diego State's men's basketball team had a chance to be special in 2010-11.
How special? Not only are the Aztecs 15-0 and ranked No. 6 in the nation, they are also the only team in the 12-year-history of the MWC to finish nonconference play undefeated. One of only seven undefeated teams in the country, SDSU opens league play on Wednesday at TCU.
"You have to get a little lucky to win 15 straight," coach Steve Fisher said Monday. "It doesn't matter who you are. We've had some games where we didn't play particularly well, got a little lucky and made some plays down the stretch. We went on the road to some hard places to play and found ways to win.
"We feel good about where we are, but we're smart enough to know that nobody cares now and everybody will prepare harder for you as you get into league play. There are very few secrets now."
Meanwhile, Fisher said he is hopeful that senior forward Billy White, who recently suffered a sprained ankle during practice and did not play in the team's 90-53 win over Occidental on Friday, will be ready for the conference opener.
Something's Gotta Give
No. 15/14 BYU (14-1) opens conference play at No. 25 UNLV (12-2) on Wednesday in a game that figures to serve as a significant measuring stick for both teams. UNLV's return to the rankings makes this the fifth Top-25 match-up between MWC teams and the earliest one yet in the 12-year history of the league.
The contest matches the league's No. 1 scoring offense (BYU, 83. 9 ppg) against the No. 2 scoring defense (UNLV, 60.1 ppg). The Cougars rank first in the MWC in scoring margin (+18.8) and three-point field goals made (7.80 pg), while the Rebels rank No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense (38.0) and are also first in steals with an average of 9.29 per contest. UNLV ranks first in turnover margin (+5.14) and is fourth in three-point field-goal percentage defense (32.5).
"When you talk about (UNLV) defensively, it's such a unique style that they play that you really have to focus on getting into an offensive set to be able to score and not turn the ball over," said Cougars coach Dave Rose. "We've been a good team at not turning the ball over, but Vegas will try and turn us over. We turned the ball over way too many times in our loss against UCLA (19), so turnovers are going to be a big issue in this game."
Key to Success
If Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds had his way, the Falcons (9-4) would reprise the same defensive effort they did in Sunday's 81-48 rout of Florida A&M when they host Utah in the conference opener for both teams on Wednesday.
The Falcons sprinted out to an 18-0 lead and held the Rattlers to 15.6 percent shooting in the first half to take a 40-12 lead at the break, the fewest points Air Force has allowed in a first half since limiting Dartmouth to 12 on Dec. 28, 2008.
"For the first eight minutes of the game, we probably played as well defensively in putting pressure on the ball as we have all year," Reynolds said. "It's a big part of what we do."
Let the Games Begin
New Mexico coach Steve Alford is fully aware that putting together a sparkling nonconference record has little bearing on what transpires when league play begins.
A year ago, the Lobos went 14-1 against nonconference opponents and were nationally ranked before dropping consecutive games against San Diego State and UNLV when league play commenced.
"And I think this league is better this year than what it was a year ago," said Alford, whose team opens MWC play on Saturday at Wyoming. "I'm not sure our team is at that point right now, but every team in this league looks better. We have great respect for the league and a great appreciation of just how demanding it is. The next five days are going to be big for us. We've got to show a lot of improvement before we start things up at Wyoming."
Frogs Battling Through Injuries
TCU got a scare when standout junior guard Hank Thorns suffered a sprained knee against Northwestern State on Dec. 21, but now it's Thorns' running mate, Ronnie Moss, who has the attention of the Horned Frogs' faithful.
Moss, a junior guard who led the team in scoring last season, suffered a concussion in a 69-66 loss at Tulsa last week and may not be ready when TCU (9-6) hosts San Diego State in the conference opener for both teams on Wednesday. Moss did not play in Sunday's 70-61 setback at Rice.
"A concussion is such a hot-button issue right now that we're just going to have to wait and see," said coach Jim Christian. "There are certain (medical) guidelines he's going to have to meet. I know he wants to play, but it's really up to the doctors at this point."
Deep-Six the Mid-Major Tag
UNLV's Lon Kruger has been a head coach in the SEC (Florida) and the Big Ten (Illinois) and an assistant at Kansas State when the Wildcats were part of the Big Eight Conference (now the Big 12). Now in his seventh season with the Runnin' Rebels, Kruger is convinced that the MWC has reached a point where it can go toe-to-toe with the nation's best.
"It's a better league than other people realize, whether you're comparing it to the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference or the Big 12," said Kruger, whose team is off to a 12-2 start and will host BYU (14-1) on Wednesday in the conference opener for both teams. "This league has very good teams, very good players and tough venues.
"Each year, I think we're improving the way people around the country look at our league and just how good it really is."
Utes Hoping to Get Back on Track
Utah (7-7) opened the season by winning six of its first eight. The Utes have since dropped four of their last five, including four straight, a trend they hope to reverse in their league opener on Wednesday at Air Force.
Though the team arguably played its best first half of the season in Friday's loss at Portland (the Utes led 40-32 at the break), the Utes surrendered an 11-point advantage in the final 20 minutes.
"We need to be more competitive at both ends of the floor," said coach Jim Boylen. "Obviously, rebounding and defending one-on-one have been issues with our team; that's where we have to grow and get better. We also need to play at a little faster tempo. This is not a halfcourt, grind-it-out team like we've had in the past. It's a different team, and we're still getting to know each other and finding out who we are."
Playing With the Big Boys
Colorado State, which came within a point of knocking off eventual champion San Diego State in last year's MWC Tournament, is off to a 10-4 start. The Rams had won six straight, their longest win streak under coach Tim Miles, before falling to Hampton 77-75 on Saturday at the San Francisco Hilltop Challenge at USF.
CSU hosts rival Wyoming in the league opener for both teams on Tuesday night.
"We need to become a better defensive team, but we also have to learn how to beat the top four teams (BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV)," said coach Tim Miles. "We've yet to punch through that barrier with the top four teams. The only team we've beaten among those four is UNLV, and we only beat them once. We need to beat those teams consistently, and until we do, we will not move forward."
No matter the caliber of the coach, when a team is absent two of its top players, the going can be tough. And while Wyoming (7-7) is weathering the storm thus far, coach Heath Schroyer also knows that opening league play without a healthy Afam Muojeke and Adam Waddell will put the Cowboys to the test.
Muojeke, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who last season ranked second in the MWC in scoring at 17.9 points per game before rupturing the patella in his left knee, has made just four starts this season and is averaging 18.8 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, Waddell, a 6-foot-10 junior center, has yet to start a game after suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason that led to tendonitis in his Achilles tendon. Waddell, who was limited by knee and ankle problems last season, averaged 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 2009-10. He has appeared in six games this season and is averaging 14.2 minutes.
Team doctors have told Schroyer that neither player will be 100 percent healthy during the 2010-11 season.
"It's tough," Schroyer said. "Two years ago, those guys were the building blocks as freshmen on a team that (finished 19-14) and went to a postseason tournament (the College Basketball Invitational). To not have them for most of last year and again this year has been really tough.
"If you asked any coach in the league how they would fare if they were told they wouldn't have arguably their best two players, at least their most experienced players, for two years, most people wouldn't want to talk about that. But it has allowed our younger players to grow, not only for the present but for the future."
Hoke Gets Contract Extension
San Diego State football coach Brady Hoke, who guided the Aztecs to their best finish in MWC history this season, has agreed to a new contract through the 2015 season.
In just his second season at San Diego State, Hoke led the Aztecs to an overall mark of 8-4, matching the team's highest win total since 1996. SDSU posted its best record in league play since the conference's inception in 1999, finishing in third place with a mark of 5-3.
The Aztecs, who received votes in the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches' polls for the first time in six years, will face Navy in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23. It is SDSU's first bowl appearance since falling to North Carolina 20-13 in the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl.
Hoke has led his teams to bowl games in three of the last four years (2007 and 2008 at Ball State). In 2008, Ball State held a ranking of No.12 in the nation.
"We're losing some teams in this conference that kind of held the league together, but now it's our turn," Hoke said. "It's our responsibility, the responsibility of San Diego State and the Aztec Nation, to hold this league together. And that's what we look forward to doing."
Wisconsin, which averaged a whopping 67.0 points in its final three games of the regular season, is likely to find the going a bit more difficult when it faces No. 3 TCU in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
While the No. 5-ranked Badgers rank No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring offense at 43.33 points per game, the Horned Frogs are No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 11.42 points.
The kicker? Wisconsin's scoring average on offense is tied for fourth-highest in the country --- with TCU.
The Badgers' trio of running backs --- John Clay, James White and Montee Ball --- all have rushed for more than 800 yards while combining for 44 touchdowns. TCU counters with a defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation against the run and is allowing fewer than 90 yards per game on the ground.
"You know what they're going to do and they do a great job of running the football," said TCU coach Gary Patterson. "They're not one of those teams that are going to try to fool you. They come after you and say, 'Are you better than us?' And, for us, we've got to go out and get ready to play and we're going to have to tackle and tackle some more and tackle some more and get ready to go."
The Horned Frogs (12-0) and Badgers (11-1) will be meeting for the first time since a 14-14 tie at Wisconsin in 1970.
Wynn Faces Extended Absence
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday that not only will starting quarterback Jordan Wynn miss the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas on Dec. 22, but that the sophomore signal-caller will also miss all of spring practice after he undergoes surgery on his left shoulder on Dec. 13. Whittingham said Wynn, who initially hurt his shoulder against Iowa State on Oct. 9, is facing a six-month rehab.
Backup Terrance Cain will be under center when No. 19/20 Utah squares off against No. 10 Boise State. Cain's backup will be redshirt freshman Griff Robles.
"We feel good about Terrance," Whittingham said. "Everyone in the country deals with injuries. We will never use injuries as an excuse; that's not our deal. We have confidence in Terrance; he's got a proven track record."
Cain is 9-1 as a starter, having gone 7-1 last year before Wynn moved into the starting role. He directed the Utes to wins against UNLV and New Mexico in September, but has played sparingly since.
The Benefits of Working Overtime
Earning a trip to a bowl game allows coaches and players to extend their seasons, sometimes as long as a month. It's an invaluable period of time that allows younger players to make impressions in advance of the following season.
Perhaps nowhere, however, is that time more valuable than at a service academy, where limitations on players' time makes it a whole different ballgame.
"Because we don't redshirt kids, because we don't have our kids during the summer months or have players enroll early out of high school, the practice time we have right now is even more valued," said coach Troy Calhoun, who will lead the Falcons against Georgia Tech in the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., on Dec. 27. "Anything we can do with our younger guys to expedite their development is paramount to the long haul of our program."
Calhoun has led Air Force to a bowl game in each of his four seasons.
UTEP coach Mike Price may not know everything he needs to about BYU's players, but he's certainly familiar with the head coach.
While serving as head coach at Weber State, Price recruited Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall out of Utah's Snow College. He also coached Mendenhall's brother, Marty, at Weber State.
"I was being fairly highly recruited, but not rightly so because I wasn't a very good player," Mendenhall said. "Coach Price came to the national championship game (Snow College) played against Northeast Oklahoma. I certainly remember those experiences."
Mendenhall, a defensive back, ultimately accepted a scholarship to Oregon State.
BYU, which overcame a 1-4 start to earn a bowl bid for the sixth straight season, will face UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque on Dec. 18. Price has been the head coach at UTEP since 2004.
Utah, which as of Oct. 31 was ranked No. 5 in the BCS and No. 6 in both major polls, has lost two straight for the first time since 2007. Following their 47-7 loss to TCU on Nov. 6, the Utes dropped a 28-3 decision at Notre Dame last week, marking the first time the team has scored in single digits in consecutive games since 1990.
"We've got to find out who we are; we're facing adversity," coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday. "Most everybody in the country goes through it at some point in time. It's nothing unusual in this business and it's nothing unusual to the sport of football. It's part of the deal. We've got to get back to doing the things we did during the first eight ballgames. We've got our work cut out for us."
Having slipped to No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches' poll and No. 25 in the Associated Press poll, Utah this week travels to San Diego State to face the resurgent Aztecs (7-3). Though SDSU is coming off a 40-35 loss at No. 3 TCU, its 35 points were 12 more than the Horned Frogs had allowed in their previous six Mountain West Conference games and the most TCU has allowed this season.
While quarterback Jordan Wynn has endured his share of struggles the last two weeks, completing 40-of-74 passes for 342 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, Whittingham said he plans to stick with the sophomore. Nonetheless, he also indicated he'll make changes if necessary.
Said Whittingham: "We'll think about replacing anybody who struggles and who's not being productive."
Hitch in Their Stride
Prior to last week's 49-10 loss to BYU, Colorado State appeared to be finding its feet. The Rams had won two of their previous three, the loss coming in a 24-19 decision at San Diego State. CSU concludes its season on Saturday in its annual Border War game against Wyoming.
"I really (didn't see it coming)," said coach Steve Fairchild. "Obviously, the blame falls on my shoulders. Emotionally, we weren't ready to play. We didn't have that edge you need. I knew BYU was a good football team; they were coming on. (But) when you go out and play the way we did in the first quarter, the game got out of hand immediately. Fortunately, we had not been playing that way of late and we hope to bounce back this Saturday."
With Air Force starting quarterback Tim Jefferson on the sideline with a broken nose suffered during last week's 48-23 win New Mexico, Connor Dietz entered the game with four minutes left in the first half. The Falcons didn't miss a beat. The junior completed 5-of-7 passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed eight times for 34 yards and scored on a 14-yard run.
Yet to refer to Dietz as a backup would be a bit of a misnomer. He started three games last season before missing the final five contests with a broken hand.
"It's not like we had a guy out there who was completely green," said coach Troy Calhoun. "In the last two springs, he's gotten a ton of work. He's more than ready. He's a competitive guy who has won a lot of football games."
Calhoun said he was uncertain as to whether Jefferson would be ready for Thursday's game at UNLV.
When asked if he considered last week's 40-35 loss at No. 3 TCU a moral victory, San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley cut to the chase.
"Moral victories are done at San Diego State," Lindley told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We're over that. That's not a part of who we are anymore."
It's certainly not part of who Lindley's coach is.
"Since we got here as a staff, the goal and the objective has been to win," said Hoke, who in his second season has orchestrated one of the biggest turnarounds in college football. "It's that way in life, it's that way in the classroom. You've got to compete every day; you can't go out there and not have great focus and great preparation. We haven't believed in (moral victories) since we've been here."
The Weekly Ups and Downs
TCU slipped to No. 4 in the polls this week following its 40-35 win over San Diego State. The Horned Frogs, who remain No. 3 in the BCS Standings, have a bye this week before closing out the regular season at New Mexico on Nov. 27.
"It's our fault that it ended up 40-35, and you have to give San Diego State credit," said coach Gary Patterson. "But we lost an offensive line coach (Eddie Williamson, who suffered a heart attack just before halftime) against a defense that stunts all over the place, and that threw our kids for a little bit of a loop. We also didn't play the way we usually do on defense the last six minutes of the ballgame.
"If (the margin of victory affected the voters), I can't do much about it. I'm not going to trade my team. I didn't think the win was any different than the 15-13 win (No. 1) Oregon had over Cal."
Plenty Left to Play For
While both Wyoming and Colorado State have been eliminated from the 2010 bowl picture, the battle for bragging rights will be on the line when the two teams meet for the 101st time on Saturday in the annual Border War for the Bronze Boot.
"I've been part of Washington-Washington State, Toledo-Bowling Green and Missouri-Kansas, and this one is as big as any of those," said Cowboys coach Dave Christensen. "Some schools don't have as big a rivalry. But I've been at schools where the rivalry game is huge, and this is certainly one of them."
CSU has won 12 of the last 17 meetings in the series and has won six times in its last eight trips to Laramie.
BYU has rebounded with three straight wins and can become bowl eligible for the sixth straight season with a home win Saturday over New Mexico, a notable reversal of field considering the Cougars started 1-4. Saturday's contest marks BYU's final home game of the season before facing rival Utah in Salt Lake City on Nov. 27.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said he believes the adversity endured by the team this season can benefit the team's younger players.
"I think some our (younger) players came here thinking it was going to be another 11-2 or 10-3 year, regardless of what they did in terms of preparation," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "But that baseline has been re-established, which is good considering how long some of these guys are going to be around."
Back to Work
New Mexico was brought back to earth after posting its first win of the season when the Lobos fell 48-23 at Air Force last week. Nonetheless, coach Mike Locksley said the team still had a bounce in its step when it returned to practice on Monday.
"The big coaching point for us right now is that it's going to be very important that we practice with enthusiasm," Locksley said. "It's been a long, long year for us and we need to finish this thing off with some enthusiasm and some momentum as best we can as we get ready to head into next season. It's our job as coaches to try and pull these guys along, and they've continued to let us do that as a team."
A Look at the Future
UNLV freshman running back Tim Cornett earned MWC Offensive Player of the Week honors after accounting for four touchdowns in the Rebels' 42-16 win over Wyoming. During a season in which UNLV has been forced to employ more than 20 true and redshirt freshmen because of injuries, Cornett rushed for three touchdowns and caught a scoring pass. He became the first UNLV player to score four touchdowns in a game since Henry Bailey in the 1994 Las Vegas Bowl.
"I was happy to see him named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week, but any time you see a running back scoring like that, obviously the guys up front are doing a good job," said coach Bobby Hauck. "I'm excited about Tim. I think before his career is over that he will be an awfully good player."
No Further Proof Necessary
With his team having been dealt a loss equaling the fourth-worst in school history, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday that he believes TCU is fully deserving of a shot at the national championship.
The No. 3-ranked Horned Frogs (10-0) are coming off a 47-7 win over the Utes, amassing more than 500 yards against Utah for the second straight season. The Utes entered the game ranked No. 6 in the nation in total defense and scoring defense and boasted the third-highest scoring offense.
"They are definitely one of the top two or three (teams in the nation), if not the best," said Whittingham, whose team has been outscored 102-35 by TCU in the teams' last two meetings. "When we played them last year (a 55-28 Horned Frogs win), I made the statement that they were the best team we'd faced since I'd been at Utah (since 1994).
"This year's version of TCU is better than last year's version. I know (No. 1-ranked) Oregon is playing exceptionally well, (No. 2-ranked) Auburn is undefeated and that (No. 4-ranked) Boise State is in the mix, but from personal experience, TCU is a great football team. And if there's a better one out there, I don't know who it is."
Making the Grade
Colorado State junior linebacker Mychal Sisson, the team's second-leading tackler, put his name in the record books last week against San Diego State when he returned a fumble 88 yards for a touchdown, the longest in school history.
Sisson also collected his first career interception.
"Every time you look up he's making a play," said Rams coach Steve Fairchild. "He has the athletic ability to cover a lot of ground."
For the fourth time in as many seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, Air Force has qualified for a bowl game. Calhoun is the only head coach in the history of the program to lead teams to three consecutive seasons that included at least eight wins and a bowl game.
"It's pretty awesome for these kids to do that, especially at a service academy and playing in one of the best conferences in college football," said Calhoun, whose team captured its first Commander-In-Chief's Trophy since 2002 with last week's win at Army. "But we aren't done one bit. We've got to play better football this week (at New Mexico). We better not have bruises from patting ourselves on the back. We need to realize how lucky we are to have a chance to have a winning season."
Old Before Their Time
While San Diego State ranks No. 1 in pass offense (270.7 ypg), No. 2 in total offense (434.6 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring offense (33.7 ppg) in the MWC, the Aztecs (7-2), who are off to their best start in 33 seasons, face a monumental hurdle this week at TCU.
The Horned Frogs, attempting to finish No. 1 in the nation in total defense for the third straight year, are tops in the country in total defense (215.5 ypg), passing defense (121.9 ypg) and scoring defense (8.5 ppg).
"(Offensive coordinator) Al Borges and the rest of our offensive staff come out of our meeting room and look like they're aging by the day," said SDSU coach Brady Hoke.
Been There, Done That
TCU coach Gary Patterson sees no need to locate a soapbox to champion the accomplishments of the Mountain West Conference in football.
The MWC is one of four conferences with at least one team ranked in the Top-10 of the BCS Standings for at least 17 consecutive weeks (Big 12, Big Ten, SEC) and is one of five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC) to have at least two teams ranked in the BCS Standings for at least 19 consecutive weeks dating back to the first BCS rankings in 2008.
"Until this season is over, I think the Mountain West Conference has already spoken for itself," Patterson said. "That was the one thing we said we wanted to do five years ago and I think we've accomplished that. Whether some people want to admit it or not, they understand who Utah is; they understand who TCU is.
"Sometimes you achieve things without recognition, but sometimes that's the best way to accomplish them."
Fight to the Finish
While Wyoming's opportunity to secure a bowl bid for the second straight season was lost when it fell to San Diego State in Week 8, the Cowboys press on this week when they travel to UNLV.
"Our kids have not quit, which is very encouraging," said coach Dave Christensen. "It's a young team. They know this is not the end of the road for them. We've got 12 seniors who are going to soon be playing in their last game, but the majority of this football team is going to be here for a couple more years, and they know what you have to do to win games.
"A number of people have said, 'Last year, you had great success,' but five plays changed our season last year. One drive on offense or defense in four games this year could have made a different season this year. It's a game of inches and doing all the little things right. The difference between winning and losing changes dramatically if you don't make plays in crucial situations."
The Thin Line
BYU remains in the hunt for a bowl bid, but the Cougars (4-5) must win two of their last three to ensure a sixth straight appearance in the postseason. After facing Colorado State and New Mexico the next two weeks, BYU concludes the regular season at rival Utah.
While Colorado State has not beaten BYU in Fort Collins since 2002, coach Bronco Mendenhall said he's not looking at the remainder of the season being a "must-win" situation each week.
"I see three more opportunities to improve our football team and help them reach their potential," Mendenhall said. "I'd like to take each (game) separately and milk it for everything we can possibly to do to learn and grow as a team. If we do that, I think it gives us our best chance to reach any postseason objectives we might have."
A Stump Grows in Albuquerque
While New Mexico true freshman quarterback Stump Godfrey was expected to redshirt this season, injuries at the position forced coach Mike Locksley to abandon the idea.
In his first career start last week, Godfrey completed 16-of-20 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns to beat Wyoming and give the Lobos their first win of the season. Godfrey also rushed 23 times for 69 yards.
"The big thing about watching Stump in that game is that he progressed with every play, and with every quarter he seemed to get better and better," Locksley said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to build on that (against Air Force) this week."
Who's on First?
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck's team has suffered so many injuries this season that finding available backups isn't necessarily a given. No fewer than 23 true and redshirt freshmen have seen action for the Rebels in 2010.
"It's just where we are, and you have to deal with those things," Hauck said. "There's no use whining about it. We've got to move forward and put the best 11 guys we have on the field. We're having a hard time because you want to be able to be physical with longer practices, but we just flat can't do it. Our young guys need the work and our older guys need the rest. We're just finding it really hard to get better."
Drop-off? What Drop-off?
Its linebacking corps lost three players to graduation, including the team's top tackler. Another linebacker was lost for the season during spring drills, and yet another has been hampered by a foot injury. The team's secondary was also hit hard by graduation, losing three starters, one of whom was an NFL draft pick.
So how badly has Utah's defense suffered as a consequence? This much: The Utes, who are enjoying a bye week before going on the road to face Iowa State, have not allowed a touchdown in the last five quarters. Utah is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense (12.8 ppg, tied for No. 8) and ranks No. 6 in total defense (246.8 yards per game). The Utes are No. 11 in rushing defense, allowing 86.8 yards per game.
"Our defensive staff has done a great job of getting those guys ready each week," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "We didn't return a lot of guys on defense, but if you recruit the right way, you should have good players coming up through your system who are ready to step in and take the place of your departing seniors. That's really the bottom line."
The Flip Side
While San Diego State's offense, which ranks No. 7 in the nation in total yards (509.5 ypg) and No. 18 in scoring (38.25 ppg), has garnered a considerable amount of attention during the team's best start in 29 years, its defensive effort has largely gone unnoticed.
Through four games, the Aztecs (3-1), who are off this week before a road date with BYU, rank No. 12 in the nation in scoring defense (13.75 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (99.30). SDSU ranks No. 21 in rush defense (99.25 ypg) and No. 27 in total defense (296.0 ypg).
For a bit of perspective, before the arrival of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Rocky Long last year, the Aztecs in 2008 ranked 118th among the nation's 120 FBS teams in rush defense. They were 113th in both scoring defense and total defense and 112th in pass efficiency defense.
"I think we're playing together more on defense," Hoke said. "I think we obviously understand the system better than we did a year ago and guys are being very accountable to each other in trying to play their best every time they take the field."
Onward and Upward
Prior to rallying for a 36-34 win over Idaho in its home opener last week, Colorado State was mired in the midst of a 12-game losing streak, the third-longest active streak in the nation among Football Bowl Subdivision schools and the fifth-longest in school history.
Yet to connect last year's nine-game skid with the Rams' 0-3 start in 2010 wasn't fair to the current squad, coach Steve Fairchild said.
"We weren't talking about losing streaks here," Fairchild said. "This team was 0-3. It didn't bear the burden of anything from previous years. We obviously weren't playing well enough to win one of those first three games, but I think all along this team felt like it was getting better."
Meanwhile, the program is mourning the loss of former All-American offensive lineman Anthony Cesario, 34, who passed away on Saturday due to possible heart-related issues.
Cesario was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft and also spent time with the Miami Dolphins before injuries cut short his career. He is survived by his parents and sister. He was single and did not have children.
Services are scheduled for Friday at the Massai Arena on the CSU-Pueblo campus at 10 a.m.
The Road Ahead
After closing out nonconference play at Toledo this week, Wyoming faces the unenviable task of playing the MWC's so-called "Big Three" --- TCU, Utah and BYU -- in consecutive weeks.
Yet coach Dave Christensen, who spent nine years at Toledo as an offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, has more to concern himself with than the schedule. Not only are the Cowboys struggling with depth issues (68 scholarship players), they are also trying to stop a three-game losing streak.
"I'm just worried about going to Toledo right now," Christensen said. "If I was to look at the rest of the schedule and worry about that, I wouldn't be able to focus on the job at hand. We're dying to get a victory here, and this program can't afford to look any farther ahead than this Saturday."
Life After Football
The nation's service academy football teams --- Air Force, Army and Navy --- are a combined 8-3 thus far and have shown the capability of going toe-to-toe with college football's elite, despite myriad recruiting limitations.
Air Force (3-1) hosts Navy (2-1) this week in the 43rd meeting of the series.
"I think university presidents are well aware of the entertainment dollars that can be involved if you're willing to go a route where, in terms of (academics), you can go after a much larger pool of players," said Falcons coach Troy Calhoun. "(But) that's not the case for these three schools. It's the development of young men and young women and the training that's involved to get them ready to become officers.
"There's no right way or wrong way (to build a football program). But what's obvious when you look at the seven power conferences, and it starts with the university presidents, is that there's a very large commitment to getting bigger, faster players and to having more continuity within programs."
Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop
BYU, which finds itself at 1-3 for just the second time since 2005, was hit with bad news for the second straight week when it was announced that junior defensive tackle Romney Fuga would undergo season-ending knee surgery after being injured in last week's loss to Nevada.
Arguably the Cougars' top defensive player, Fuga earned All-MWC honors last year after finishing with 40 tackles.
A week earlier, BYU learned that junior quarterback Riley Nelson, who had started the team's first three games, would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.
True freshman Jake Heaps has taken the reins at quarterback, but finding a replacement for Fuga will be no small task.
"I don't think the void (left by Fuga) is fillable," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Romney this year was playing as well as any nose tackle I've coached before. But maybe even more than that, his consistency and his dedication really embraces the culture of our team. He's one of the more experienced players on our team and knows what it takes (to win). That part of Romney may be missed even more than his play."
Fuga is expected to return in time for 2011 fall camp.
You Gotta Start Somewhere
With its quarterback corps depleted by injuries, New Mexico last week started true freshman Tarean Austin against UNLV. Austin completed 17-of-40 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown and left an impression on Lobos coach Mike Locksley.
"I was really impressed with his poise," Locksley said. "When we made the decision on our No. 2 quarterback coming out of fall camp, his poise played a large role in that decision. He just had the presence of a veteran. Even though he's a young guy and even when things don't go well, he rarely loses his poise. I was proud of the way he competed and I think, obviously, his best football is still ahead of him."
Austin figures to get his second start this week when New Mexico hosts UTEP on Saturday.
Frogs Get Leap-Frogged
Despite running its record to 4-0 with last week's 41-24 victory over SMU, TCU dropped to No. 5 in the AP poll. Oregon now holds the No. 4 spot previously occupied by the Horned Frogs.
"If I was voting, I probably would have voted Oregon (a 42-31 winner at Arizona State) ahead of us," said coach Gary Patterson. "Will I feel that way next week? We'll find out. But I don't think (dropping to No. 5) makes much difference. We've got eight games left to play and we've got a tough schedule; so does Oregon. After that, we'll see how things turn out at the end."
Though not about to quibble with the outcome of the SMU game, Patterson wasn't particularly pleased that the Horned Frogs, the nation's No. 1 defense the past two seasons, surrendered 139 yards rushing to Mustangs fullback Zach Line.
"For me, to allow somebody to run for over 100 yards is like the 11th Commandment in football," he said. "We don't let that happen at our place. A lot of it had to do with tackling. We're excited to be 4-0, but we understand that we need to play a whole lot better when we play (at) Colorado State this week."
Nelson Shoulder Injury Puts QB Out for the Season
BYU junior quarterback Riley Nelson will have surgery to repair a shoulder injury suffered Saturday during the Florida State game and will be out the remainder of the 2010 season.
An MRI has revealed the need for surgery on Nelson's non-throwing shoulder. The anticipated recovery time is 4-5 months.
"We will miss Riley's leadership, toughness and playmaking ability," BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Unfortunately, injuries are part of football. Riley is a great young man and we will look forward to his return."
Nelson had started each of BYU's first three games while sharing time with true freshman Jake Heaps. Nelson completed 20-of-40 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns while adding 148 yards and one touchdown on 31 rushing attempts.
Heaps has completed 30-of-61 passes for 260 yards with an interception and a touchdown. The other two quarterbacks currently listed on the roster are sophomore James Lark and freshman Jason Munns.
BYU, a program with a proud history when it comes to the passing game, is averaging just 4.65 yards per completion through its first three games.
"Any time when you divide the repetitions between quarterbacks, it's been very clear that has affected our execution," said Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Other reasons for shortcomings in the passing game, Mendenhall said, are that his quarterbacks have held the ball too long, receivers are not getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly and the offensive line has experienced problems protecting the passer. BYU has allowed nine sacks.
"We're evaluating everything right now until we're able to add balance to our offense throwing the football," Mendenhall said.
Nice Problem to Have
With sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn working his way back from a thumb injury suffered in Utah's Week 1 win over Pittsburgh, senior backup Terrance Cain has been brilliant, compiling an eye-popping quarterback rating of 204.0.
In Saturday's win at New Mexico, Cain completed 20-of-23 passes and set a school record with an .869 completion percentage. He threw for 248 yards and three touchdowns. In starting the Utes' last two games, Cain has completed 33-of-43 passes (76.7 percent) for 455 yards and five touchdowns. He's also averaging 5.2 yards per rush.
So what happens when Wynn is once again healthy?
"We'll manage that situation as it comes along," said Utes coach Kyle Whittingham. "The first order of business is to determine whether Jordan is going to be available at full capacity. Terrance has certainly played exceptionally well. If there's a way we can get a set of plays or a package of plays for him, we'll do whatever is best for the football team and the big picture. But Terrance has really been something. He's come in and done a great job when we needed him to."
Run Before You Walk
When your team is relying on a true freshman quarterback to bear the brunt of the load, ideally you need to establish the run to alleviate pressure. That remains the goal of Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild, whose first- and second-string quarterbacks, Pete Thomas and Nico Ranieri, are both true freshmen.
Unfortunately for the Rams, who are 0-3 heading into Saturday's home game against Idaho, establishing the run has been no small task. CSU has averaged just 42.7 yards per game on the ground, leading to changes this week in offensive line personnel.
"Regardless of who the quarterback is, our scheme is based on being able to run the football, to be able to use the play-action pass off of running the ball," Fairchild said. "But we're struggling to do that right now. We've got to get some sort of run game going. We've always been able to do that around here in the past. It's key for everybody on our offense."
Fogler Status Up in Air
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun told the Colorado Springs Gazette that receiver Kevin Fogler has a possible concussion and that he was uncertain when Fogler might return to practice.
Although he did not rule Fogler out of this week's game at Wyoming, Calhoun told the Gazette, "He's on the back burner right now."
Fogler, a senior, has caught just two passes this season but is averaging 33.5 yards per catch.
We Meet Again
When Utah State visits San Diego State on Saturday, the game will pit Aggies offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin against Aztecs defensive coordinator Rocky Long. Before going to Utah State, Baldwin served for two seasons as the offensive coordinator at New Mexico, where Long was the head coach.
"Obviously, there's a lot of familiarity there and a lot of respect," said Aztecs coach Brady Hoke. "Rocky and I talked a little bit about it, but I think it's really more about the two of them having a healthy relationship and the spirit of competition."
Not Easy Being No. 1
For the past two seasons and four of the last 10, TCU's defense has ranked No. 1 in the nation. Heading into Saturday's game at SMU, the Horned Frogs rank No. 4, allowing an average of 222.7 yards per game.
"We've played with a lot of effort and a lot of intensity, but I don't think we've played very smart, giving up plays because of missed assignments" said coach Gary Patterson. "I don't think we've played our best football yet as far as playing as a group. But every week we've gotten better."
Better, however, is not acceptable with a defense that has allowed just six touchdowns in its last seven home games.
"We've got a standard here," Patterson said. "We man-blitz, we zone-blitz, we play base defense and we change coverages. One assignment breakdown results in a touchdown."
Finding Their Feet
Wyoming coach Dave Christensen's team will face the top rushing offense in the nation this week when it hosts Air Force. The Falcons are averaging 399.0 yards per game on the ground.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Cowboys, who through three games are averaging 24.3 yards rushing, last in the nation among FBS teams.
"There's no easy answer," Christensen said. "We're in the process of playing with some kids who haven't had a lot of experience in the spread offense. I don't think we're doing a good job of finishing blocks. The play might come off OK, but then we don't sustain (blocks), which is obviously critical."
Bumps in the Road
As if digging out of an 0-3 hole while having been outscored 180-31 weren't challenging enough, New Mexico is now facing a quarterback crisis.
Starter B.R. Holbrook will undergo exploratory knee surgery on Wednesday and is not available for Saturday's game at UNLV. Although backup Brad Gruner is expected to be back in the lineup, he suffered a back injury in last week's loss to Utah, leaving true freshman Tarean Austin to potentially make his first career start this week.
In two-plus quarters of work against Utah, Austin completed 15-of-27 passes for 128 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also finished with a team-high 38 yards rushing.
"Whether he starts or comes off the bench, I think he's deserving of extended playing time," Locksley said. "I also realize he's a freshman. Sometimes the pressure of starting doesn't help him."
Getting on the Same Page
Seldom is there a smooth transition following a coaching change. In addition to dealing with a new coach's philosophies, players must adapt to new systems, challenges that aren't conquered overnight.
Through three games, UNLV, under first-year coach Bobby Hauck, has struggled to find the end zone, scoring just three touchdowns. In Hauck's seventh and final season at perennial FCS power Montana last year, the Grizzlies scored 35 or more points in a game nine times.
"Transition is hard, especially when you transition from one style (of offense) to another," said Hauck, whose team will be looking for its first win in this week's matchup with New Mexico. "Our players have had to learn new (terminology) on both sides of the ball. I have to give our players a lot of credit; they've had a great attitude about it. But it's not easy."
Despite early-season injuries and key losses to graduation from last season's 10-3 team, Utah has forged ahead, utilizing its depth to earn a ranking of No. 14 in this week's Associated Press and USA Today Coaches' polls.
With projected starting linebacker linebacker J.J. Williams having yet to play because of a foot injury, junior Chaz Walker has filled in admirably. A former walk-on, Walker leads the team with 27 tackles. Terrance Cain stepped in for starting quarterback Jordan Wynn (thumb) against UNLV last week and guided the Utes to a 38-10 win, completing 13-of-20 passes for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Sophomore wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, a former quarterback who had two receptions last season, ranks third in the conference with an average of 18.1 yards per catch. True freshman starting strong safety Brian Blechen earned MWC Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 1 for his interception in overtime against Pittsburgh that led to the Utes' game-winning field goal. In all, Utah, which had six players drafted off of last year's team, has played six true freshmen this season.
"We're always looking to upgrade the entire program," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "I don't think you ever get to the point where you think you've arrived and have everything solved. I think the recruiting our assistant coaches have done over the past five years has been very solid, and that's manifested in our roster right now. We have a lot of depth at a lot of positions. It's a good sign when you have a guy go down that you have other people behind him who are ready to go."
Learning On the Run
If it weren't enough that a team that lost nine straight games to end the 2009 season had to open with three straight road games, Colorado State (0-2) is also battling the trials associated with inexperience. On offense, the Rams' starting lineup includes a true freshman quarterback, a freshman guard and a sophomore wide receiver. Both players behind starting fullback Zac Pauga are freshmen. On defense, CSU starts a pair of sophomore defensive ends.
All told, 17 freshmen have played thus far for the Rams.
"We just go out and coach hard like we've been doing and practice hard with good tempo," said coach Steve Fairchild. "It's a matter of slowly getting better in every area, and I see that happening. We're certainly a lot farther along with (quarterback) Pete Thomas than we were in the spring and a lot farther along with the (offensive) line than we were in the spring. We've still got a long way to go, but if you keep going to practice and be productive, you'll get there."
Air Force May Be Without Tew
Though it was feared that Air Force senior fullback Jared Tew may have suffered a broken bone in his hand in last week's win over BYU, Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said Tuesday that X-rays proved negative. However, Calhoun said Tew has extensive swelling in his hand and is wearing a splint. While saying Tew would "not be involved for awhile," Calhoun did not rule Tew out of this week's game at No. 7/9 Oklahoma.
Aztecs to Continue RB Rotation
While highly-touted freshman running back Ronnie Hillman has accounted for 46 percent of San Diego State's 480 rushing yards and 51 percent of the team's 72 carries, coach Brady Hoke said he has no immediate plans to scrap the practice of rotating Hillman with senior Davon Brown and sophomore Walter Kazee.
Hillman, named the MWC Offensive Player of the Week, carried 22 times for 150 yards and scored four touchdowns in last week's win at New Mexico State.
"I think we've got a decent combination in there," Hoke said. "Davon gives you a lot, especially in terms of protection and he can make some good things happen on the ground. Walter Kazee is a guy who, pound for pound, may be the toughest guy on our football team. And then you have Ronnie. (But) at this time, I think we kind of like the rotation that we have."
As for Hillman, who became the first SDSU running back to score four touchdowns in a single game in nine years, Hoke said: "I think he's got really good vision, and he's a lot stronger than you think. When you look at him, he's not the biggest guy in the world (5-10, 185), but he has a good burst when he finds an opening. He has the ability to become a special kind of running back."
No Strain On the Travel Budget
TCU, which hosts Baylor on Saturday, will have played a third of its regular-season schedule in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex before visiting Colorado State on Oct. 2.
The Horned Frogs, ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches' poll, opened the season with a win over Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Following consecutive home games against Tennessee Tech and Baylor, TCU will face SMU in Dallas next week.
"If we win, it's great, because recruits get a chance to come to the ballgames, we don't have to travel and neither do our fans," said coach Gary Patterson. "Our game (against Baylor) is a standing-room-only sellout, and we had almost 40,000 (Amon G. Carter Stadium capacity is 44,358) last week for (Tennessee Tech). For our kids, I think it allows them to get into a routine. The thing that worries me is that the first time we're really going to be on the road it's going to be a conference game, which is always a tougher ballgame."
Hundreds Remember Narcisse
Nearly 1,000 people attended a memorial service on campus Monday for Wyoming football player Ruben Narcisse, who was killed in a one-car accident on Sept. 6. At Saturday's home game against No. 3 Boise State, the university will distribute 5,000 T-shirts with Narcisse's number, 12, and the phrase "Ruben Narcisse: Always a Cowboy."
"I think we're in a much better place than we were a week ago," said coach Dave Christensen. "We're moving forward, but we're not trying to move on, because we're going to be thinking of Ruben every day for the next 4 1/2 years."
Better Early Than Late
If your football team is going to stumble after making a leap into the national polls, it's probably best to get things corrected early before its too late. Such is the thinking of BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team dropped a 35-10 decision to Air Force last week after earning a ranking of No. 24 in the USA Today Coaches' poll.
"If you are to learn valuable lessons and have all the weaknesses exposed, hopefully you can have those exposed early on," Mendenhall said. "I think we got many of our weaknesses -- if not all of them -- exposed in Week 2. The test now is to see whether we can get that resolved in a timely manner."
Mendenhall said junior Riley Nelson will make his third straight start at quarterback this week at Florida State. Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps combined for 88 yards passing against Air Force, the team's lowest total in seven years.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
After facing such heavyweights as Oregon, Texas Tech and Utah to open the season, New Mexico coach Michael Locksley was asked if there could be any positives to the experience gained by playing quality competition.
"I'm hoping there's going to be an upside," said Locksley, whose team entertains Utah this week after being outscored 124-17 in its first two games. "Obviously, we've got our conference opener this week, but as we work further into conference play I'm hoping that the experience we've gained from playing three very tough opponents will benefit us in the long run."
If there's hope, it could come a week from Saturday at UNLV. The Lobos have won seven of the last nine in the series.
No Place for Losers
If one thing is obvious in the way UNLV first-year coach Bobby Hauck does business, it's that losing would appear to rank somewhere between despised and abhorrent. Preaching patience is not easy considering the Rebels are 0-2 after facing two Top 25 teams (Wisconsin and Utah) and will ultimately face nine teams this season who went to bowl games last year. But preaching patience to Hauck is another matter.
"To me, it comes down to winning and losing," Hauck said when asked if his team will be better for its early season trials. "When you don't win, all you get out of it is a loss."
Wyoming Begins Process of Regrouping
Wyoming football coach Dave Christensen can draw on his 21 years of college coaching experience to pinpoint weaknesses in opposing defenses and defuse opposing offenses. He can take raw recruits and transform them into a major talents. He can find ways to win where others might not.
But nothing in his coaching repertoire could have prepared him for this.
As the Cowboys ready themselves to face Texas this week, they are also mourning the loss of teammate Ruben Narcisse, who was killed in a one-car accident early Monday morning. Narcisse, a native of Miami, was a freshman linebacker. Freshman cornerback Trey Fox, freshman wide receiver C.J. Morgan and freshman linebacker J.J. Quinlan were injured in the crash, which took place on Highway 287 between Laramie and Fort Collins, Colo., where they had gone to visit high school friends.
"We're going to try to stay as close to normalcy as well can," Christensen said. "We think it will help get the kids get their minds on something different. There's not a manual on how to do these things. It's something we're going to take one day at a time and make the best of an awful situation."
The Cowboys will wear a decal with Narcisse's initials on its helmets on Saturday. A number of players have asked to wear Narcisse's jersey (No. 12) and will be allowed to do so.
"I'd be lying if I said I knew how we were going to react," Christensen said. "I'm hoping this will pull us together, make us stronger. I don't know; we'll find out."
Skye's the Limit
In Jeremy Kerley, Jimmy Young and Antoine Hicks, TCU has a deep and talented receiving corps. But in last week's showdown with Oregon State, it was sophomore Skye Dawson who led the way with four catches for 69 yards. Dawson was on the receiving end of quarterback Andy Dalton's first four passes.
A sprinter on the TCU track team, Dawson has run a 10.29 in the 100 meters. He won the MWC indoor championship in the 60 meters with a time of 6.69 and is a member of the Frogs' 4x100 relay team that was ranked among the NCAA's top five for most of the 2010 season.
But lest one think Dawson is simply fleet afoot, take a peek in the weight room.
"He's a football player who runs track," said coach Gary Patterson. "When I recruited him, I thought he was going to be just the opposite. But he got pushed around a little last year and he didn't like it. I think he bench-pressed 350 or 360 pounds coming into the season. He doesn't want to be thought of a guy who can't block or do some of the other things we ask our receivers to do."
Meanwhile, TCU moved up two spots to No. 4 in this week's AP poll and to No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches' Top 25. The Horned Frogs have their highest ranking this early in the season since 1956, when they were also fourth in the AP poll.
Easing the Learning Curve
Opening the season with a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks can test a coach's resolve. But when those quarterbacks are operating behind a large and talented offensive line, the maturation process can be greatly excelled.
In last week's win over Washington, neither of BYU's two quarterbacks --- junior Riley Nelson or true freshman Jake Heaps -- was sacked. Nor did either throw an interception while attempting a combined 40 passes.
"When young quarterbacks have a chance to survey the field, it lends to their confidence and helps them feel more secure," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Obviously, it's much different then when they're scrambling and trying to avoid pressure, when they're trying to read out a play. It makes it much more difficult for them to grow and develop."
The Cougars entered the USA Today Coaches' Poll released Tuesday with a ranking of No. 24.
No Longer a Nobody
Chaz Walker walked on at Utah two years ago and was considered a safety before being moved to linebacker last season. He made his first career start at middle linebacker in last week's win over No. 15 Pittsburgh and posted a team-high 11 tackles. Walker has been playing in place of junior J.J. Williams, who continues to be bothered by a foot injury.
Walker was named the team's Defensive Player of the Week.
Upon Further Review
Colorado State ran the ball 25 times in Saturday's loss to Colorado, managing just 49 yards. In his post-game press conference, Rams coach Steve Fairchild cut to the chase.
"There's not a lot to say about the way we played offensively," he said. "If we cannot establish a run game, which we didn't do at any point this afternoon, or if we don't convert on third downs, then we're gonna struggle offensively."
After watching the game film, however, Fairchild said the performance of the team's offensive line and running backs may not have been as subpar as first thought.
"We probably didn't play as poorly in the offensive line as I thought we did," Fairchild said. "Our (blocking) technique at tight end was a little poor; we got too high at times. Our tracks and points of entry from the running back spot we're not as clean as they need to be. But they're all fixable errors. I think we'll run the ball better as things get going. Obviously, we're going to have to if we're going to have any chance offensively."
For the record, CSU's offensive line entered the season with a combined 30 career starts.
In other news from Fort Collins, Adam Klingenberg, a 2006 Evergreen High School graduate who delayed a college football career to join the U.S. Marines, has enrolled at CSU this semester and walked onto the football team. Klingenberg has done two tours in Iraq and remains on active duty until October. Added just Tuesday, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound lineman played nose tackle on the Rams' scout-team defense on his first day. He is a 22-year-old true freshman.
Air Force's Calhoun says Rembert is "Long Shot"
Paired against one of the MWC's top passing units this week, Air Force is likely to be without senior cornerback Reggie Rembert in its game at Falcon Stadium against BYU.
Rembert, a first-team All-Mountain West Conference preseason pick, suffered an injury in the lower neck area above his right shoulder in the first quarter of last week's win over Northwestern State.
Asked if he expected Rembert to play against BYU, Calhoun said, "It's a long shot."
"He's a good player and he's a ways off from being able to play," Calhoun said. "We don't know exactly when that's going to be. Only time will tell. There are still some neuro tests that have to be completed."
In the event Rembert is unable to play, junior Josh Hall would make his first career start.
Up and Running
San Diego State's 218 yards rushing in its 47-0 win over Nicholls State last week marked its highest total since recording 226 against Colorado State on Oct. 25, 2008. The Aztecs scored four rushing touchdowns last week, a feat not matched since Oct. 1, 2005, against BYU.
"I think there were some yards left on the field, and I wasn't really excited about the way we finished some drives, but I think (senior running back) Davon (Brown) has worked really hard and he made some good things happen early on," said coach Brady Hoke.
SDSU is currently rotating three running backs with Brown, sophomore Walter Kazee and freshman Ronnie Hillman. Hoke said he expects that rotation to continue.
"I don't see how we can't continue doing that until we settle on one guy," Hoke said. "Davon will be the starter, but there will probably be four guys (including senior Brandon Sullivan) getting their hands on the ball."
Picking Up the Pieces
With a visit from Big 12 member Texas Tech looming, New Mexico has little time to dwell on its season-opening 72-0 loss to No. 11 Oregon, the fifth-worst defeat in school history.
New Mexico had five turnovers and surrendered 720 total yards.
"As I told our team (Monday), when you have five turnovers in the second quarter and they all result in touchdowns and you have two punts (returned for touchdowns), you won't beat a good high school team," said coach Mike Locksley. "Things like fumbles and interceptions can be corrected. If I thought we were outmanned or just physically beat, then I'd be really concerned. It all has to go back to us not beating ourselves."
Meanwhile, junior middle linebacker Carmen Messina, who led the nation in tackles last season, is listed as day-to-day after suffering a high ankle sprain last week.
"Anyone who knows Carmen knows he's going to try and play," Locksley said. "But if he's unavailable to us, someone else is going to have to step up."
Rebels Look to Get Offense in Sync
Although UNLV coach Bobby Hauck was pleased with his team's tenacity in last week's loss to No. 12 Wisconsin, he also knows that unless his offense can sustain drives, it will get no easier this week at Utah.
The Rebels converted just 4-of-14 third downs against the Badgers and finished with 217 total yards.
"We need to get first downs," Hauck said. "When we have third down, we need to move the chains. Wisconsin, on both sides of the ball in the first half, really dominated third down. We need to get off the field on defense to get the ball back to our offense and move the chains. We only had 15 plays on offense in the first half, and that just won't get it done."
Ready or Not
When No. 24 Utah hosts No. 15 Pitt in the season opener for both teams on Thursday (Versus, 6:30 p.m. MT), Utes coach Kyle Whittingham will get his first true look at a defense with an abundance of new faces.
Utah has had to replace all three of its starting linebackers from last season. As if that hurdle wasn't challenging enough, two projected starters at linebacker -- Nai Fotu (knee) and J.J. Williams (foot) -- will not play. Fotu is out for the season.
In addition, the Utes lost three of their four starting defensive backs from last year. One of the newcomers, strong safety Brian Blechen, is a true freshman and a former high school quarterback.
"At linebacker, even though we have no returning starters, most all of them got a lot of reps under their belt last year in quality situations, not just in mop-up duty, so they're more experienced than they would seem at first glance," Whittingham said. "Our secondary has done very well in practice against our own guys, but we'll see what happens Thursday night when the bright lights are on. I'm anxious to see how they react."
By the way, the Pitt-Utah game is officially a sellout, including standing-room tickets.
Closing the Deal
Among Colorado State's shortcomings in 2009 was its inability to hold leads. The Rams surrendered a number of 14-point advantages and lost four games in which they outgained their opponent.
"When you look at my first year here (in 2008), in games that were decided by less than a touchdown, we were 4-1," said coach Steve Fairchild, whose team opens the season against Colorado on Saturday in the Rocky Mountain Showdown at INVESCO Field at Mile High Stadium. "In games like that last year we were 1-4. It's really just a matter of making a play at a critical time and getting that one stop defensively down the stretch.
"Hopefully, we're going to finish out games better. We're expecting to be in a lot of close games, and when you're fighting to win in the fourth quarter, we need somebody step up and make a big play on either side of the ball."
Out With the Old, In With the (Entirely) New
When Air Force opens the season at Falcon Stadium on Saturday against Southland Conference member Northwestern State, it will do so having replaced its entire starting offensive line from last year's 8-5 team. The only senior is left guard Tyler Schonsheck.
"That was an exceptional group," coach Troy Calhoun said of last season's offensive line. "If you look at the last three years, how well we ran the football and how few sacks we gave up, that was a direct reflection of that group, most of whom had been starters for three years.
"The guys we have going into those spots are going to be good players. I've mentioned a number of times that I think we'll have a quality offensive line by the month of November, and, 12 months from now, I think it will be a really good group. We're going to get them to move along, and, hopefully, get them to play at a higher level a little bit sooner."
While San Diego State's passing attack is recognized by many as the best in the Mountain West Conference, the Aztecs have some ground to make up where the running game is concerned. SDSU, which opens the season at home against Nicholls State on Saturday, averaged a MWC-low 78.3 yards per game last season. No other team in the conference averaged fewer than 100.
And while there may be help on the way with the addition of highly-touted freshman running back Ronnie Hillman, the Aztecs must first prove they can give Hillman room to run to establish a semblance of balance.
"There's no question that we were dreadful running the football (last season)," said second-year coach Brady Hoke. "We put a lot of emphasis in the offseason on getting our offensive line bigger and stronger. I also think that Ronnie Hillman may be capable of doing some things other guys can't.
"But our (offensive linemen) have done a good job in the weight room and they've competed very hard. Their movement is better because they know the offense better, and that's a big factor. I expect them to play better."
If You Can't Stand the Heat...
The Sam Baugh Indoor Practice Facility and Cox Field at TCU features an 80-yard field with a regulation 52-yard width and two full end zones.
But if you're looking for the Horned Frogs' football team when it's August and temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees in Fort Worth, Texas, don't bother searching the indoor practice facility. Apparently, it's strictly for rainy days.
TCU coach Gary Patterson said his team endured a four-day stretch during the second week of fall camp where the temperature on the practice field ranged from 107 to 113 degrees.
The Horned Frogs, ranked No. 6 in the AP poll and No. 7 in the USA Today Coaches poll, host Oregon State on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Beavers are ranked No. 24 in the AP poll and No. 22 in the USA Today Coaches poll.
"We use the Texas heat to our advantage, to get ourselves in shape and get us tough," Patterson said. "The kids fought through it. They know what they have to do."
A Good Backup Plan
While there was little chance that he was going to unseat last year's MWC Freshman of the Year Austyn Carter-Samuels as the starting quarterback at Wyoming, senior Dax Crum nonetheless gave a strong accounting of himself during fall camp.
While Carter-Samuels completed 28-of-53 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns during four scrimmages, Crum connected on 31-of-56 attempts for 312 yards and two touchdowns. The incumbent was intercepted once, Crum twice.
"Austyn has continued to get better and has a strong hold on that position," said coach Dave Christensen, whose Cowboys host Southern Utah in the season opener for both teams on Saturday night. "He performed well every day.
"(But) Dax Crum has improved drastically. He's a much better quarterback right now than he was last year, and we feel very confident and comfortable with him as our backup. Should he have to go into the game, I feel very confident that he can move the offense."
Asked if he thought there would come a time in 2010 when he would settle on a single quarterback, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said that junior Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps could share the team's quarterbacking duties for the duration of the season.
The Cougars open the season at home against Washington on Saturday.
"I'm not sure I'm ever going to reach the point where there will be just one (quarterback) this season," Mendenhall said. "I'm sure we'll know a lot more at the end of the day on Saturday in terms of how their roles expand or diminish or how they complement each other. It's a work in progress. I'm not taking it off the table that we could have just one (quarterback) this season, but at this point it's most likely going to be two."
Transfer of Power
When New Mexico opted to employ a four-man defensive front under first-year coach Mike Locksley last season, one of the first orders of business was identifying defensive tackles stout enough to hold their own at the point of attack. Enter Ugo Uzodinma and Reggie Ellis, a pair of University of Illinois transfers who check in at 6-4, 280 and 6-2, 285, respectively. Both have three years of eligibility remaining. Uzodinma will start on Saturday when the Lobos open the season on the road at No. 11 Oregon.
Add Uzodinma and Ellis to a group that already includes defensive tackle Peter Gardner, blue-chip defensive tackle Calvin Smith and standout defensive end Johnathan Rainey and the Lobos could present a formidable defensive front.
"We feel (Uzodinma and Ellis) give us some depth and some athleticism inside that we didn't have last year," Locksley said. "We feel real good about that group, especially in the fact that they're in Year 2 of our system on that side of the ball."
The Bright Side
No. 12 Wisconsin may be a heavy favorite when it visits Sam Boyd Stadium to take on UNLV in the season opener for both teams Saturday night, but the Badgers may want to recall their visit to Las Vegas in 2007. Then ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll, Wisconsin escaped, 20-13. The Badgers put the game away on a 29-yard touchdown run with 1:53 left.
Asked if his team might have any advantage in Saturday's matchup, Rebels first-year coach Bobby Hauck didn't hesitate.
"We don't have to travel," Hauck said with a laugh.
The Mtn. - Mountain West Sports Network will be made available to Comcast and other current distributors to place on their most popular package or widely distributed level of service as part of a Mtn. Preview Weekend from 12 p.m. MT on Friday, Sept. 3, through 12 p.m. MT on Monday, Sept. 6.
The Preview Weekend includes The Mtn.'s telecast of the Cinch Jeans Rocky Mountain Showdown on Saturday, Sept. 4 between the University of Colorado Buffaloes and Colorado State Rams at INVESCO Field at Mile High in Denver. Kickoff is 12 p.m. MT. Ram Pre-Game Live begins at 10:30 a.m. MT and is followed by a special one-hour live presentation of Xfinity Live at the Stadium at 11 a.m. MT. Ram Post Game Live follows the game.
James Bates (play-by-play) and Todd Christensen (analyst) will call the game with Roger Bailey working the sidelines. Anchors Marius Payton and Bill Doleman are joined on the set at INVESCO Field at Mile High with expert analysis provided by Beau Morgan and Ted Sundquist during Xfinity Live at the Stadium, as well as at halftime and after the game.
The game will be available throughout the state of Colorado on channel 411 (167 Colorado Springs/Pueblo) on Comcast's All Digital (AD) tier, meaning any basic subscriber with a digital box will be able to view the free preview. The Cinch Jeans Rocky Mountain Showdown is available in high-definition (HD) throughout the state on Comcast channel 948 (must subscribe to HD service) and on other partner cable providers taking the HD feed beginning at 11 a.m. MT with Xfinity Live at the Stadium.
DIRECTV will carry the game nationwide on channel 616 (CHOICE and above package in Colorado - SportsPack outside the MWC "footprint") with the HD game feed available on channel 616-1 (must subscribe to HD service).
Availability in other areas is determined by individual cable systems that carry The Mtn. Customers should check with their local cable provider for availability or visit www.themtn.tv for additional details and updated information.
Mick McGrane has covered the Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999. He spent 12 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he served as the beat writer for San Diego State football and men's basketball. He currently represents the MW as a member of the Football Writers Association of America All-America Committee and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. McGrane serves as senior writer to the Mountain West, providing readers with exclusive, in-depth information about the Conference by highlighting its 10 member institutions and contributing feature stories on student-athletes that participate in the league's 18 sponsored sports.
Have a question for Mick? E-mail him at mick@TheMWC.com or check him out on Twitter @MWCMick.
Mark Knudson is a Colorado State journalism school graduate and a 12-year veteran of professional baseball. During his playing career, Mark pitched for three major league teams, including the Colorado Rockies, where he was the first Colorado native to play for the hometown team. He recorded wins over three of the four legendary pitchers who make up the 4,000 strikeout club: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. His win over Ryan came for the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day in 1991.
Since his retirement, Mark has been a feature writer and columnist for Mile High Sports, a radio talk show host and TV analyst for numerous sports media outlets. For the past six years, he was a columnist and baseball analyst for The Mtn., along with being one of Colorado's six Heisman Trophy voters.
Have a question for Mark? Visit him at ElevationSportsNetwork.com or check him out on Twitter @MarkKnudson41.