2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Mountain West notebook: Week 3

Published: September 11, 2013, 10:54 pm, by Brent Briggeman

MOUNTAIN DIVISION

 

AIR FORCE

Beginning with Friday night’s game at Boise State, Air Force enters a bizarre stretch in which six of its next nine contests begin after 5 p.m. Mountain Time and another kicks off at 9:30 a.m.

With Monday’s announcement that the Sept. 21 home game against Wyoming will start at 8:15 p.m., the Falcons only have one more Saturday afternoon game on the schedule – a 3 p.m. start against Notre Dame on Oct. 26. Two games – home vs. Army on Nov. 2 and at Colorado State on Nov. 30 – are still awaiting start times.

With the late starts, two Thursday games and two on Fridays, it will be difficult for Air Force to develop routines.

“I kind of like it, to be honest. The Friday night games will remind me of high school,” receiver Sam Gagliano said. “I like a challenge and the adverse part of it. It will help test our resolve and help us see what kind of team we can be.”

Coach Troy Calhoun, an Air Force graduate, has expressed displeasure in the past with midweek games and their impact on his team’s class time. However, he sees some positives in learning to prepare for things that might be out of the ordinary.

“A bunch of our guys one day will be asked to do something where they can’t tell you that kickoff is going to be 1:15, two weeks from tomorrow,” Calhoun said. “They’re going to be asked to carry out an assignment of significance where you don’t always know where kickoff is, and you’ve got to be prepared.”

Next game: at Boise State, 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN)

Notable: Quarterback Kale Pearson will have surgery in three weeks to repair damage to the ACL in his right knee and miss the remainder of the season. The junior was injured in the second quarter of the season opener. … Last week’s 52-20 loss to Utah State was the Falcons’ most lopsided home defeat under Calhoun.

— Brent Briggeman, The Gazette (Colorado Springs)

 

BOISE STATE

Missed tackles have been a critical issue for the Boise State defense in the first two weeks of the season. Now the Broncos will have to deal with Air Force’s rushing attack, which puts a premium on tackling.

The Broncos missed more than 30 tackles in the opener against Washington. They were better against UT Martin, but Air Force will provide a better gauge of that progress.

Coach Chris Petersen said the Broncos have worked on live tackling more than usual with their young defense, which has seven new starters.

“If (offenses) create space, you’re going to miss tackles,” Petersen said. “So we’ve got to get more guys to the point of attack. One guy is not going to make the tackle in space. If you see one guy out there missing tackles, it’s probably not just his fault.”

Youth, Petersen said, has played a role in the missed tackles.

“Really good defenses, you don’t have a lot of huge tackling issues,” he said. “When you have young guys, they’re thinking about a lot of things. … It comes with experience. Good players who have been out there a long time are going to tackle better than new and young guys.”

The Broncos rank 98th in rushing defense at 210 yards per game this season. Air Force ranks 18th in rushing offense at 294 yards per game.

Two years ago, the Falcons rushed for 264 yards in a 37-26 loss in Boise. That was against one of the Broncos’ most talented defenses.

What did Petersen learn from that experience?

“That I was really hoping that we wouldn’t be in the same league as them,” he said. “It’s not fun to go against them.”

Next game: vs. Air Force, 6 p.m. MT Friday (ESPN)

Notable: Backup middle linebacker Travis Saxton (knee) is out for the year. … Six true freshmen have played this season, including five on defense. … Punt returner Shane Williams-Rhodes ranks sixth in the nation with a 23.7-yard average.

— Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman

 

COLORADO STATE

There’s more than one team on Colorado State’s schedule running the triple-option offense these days.

So the Rams (0-2) spent some extra time preparing for the run-oriented scheme during spring drills and fall camp that coach Jim McElwain hopes will have some residual value this week as his team prepares for Saturday’s home opener against Cal Poly (1-1). The Mustangs are ranked No. 14 in both major Football Championship Subdivision polls this week.

The Rams didn’t focus on the specifics of each team’s version of the offense, McElwain said, but they did spend time learning the basic principles they’ll employ to try to slow down the rushing attacks of Cal Poly, Air Force and New Mexico. The Rams allowed Air Force to run for 459 yards last season in a 42-21 loss to the Falcons but limited New Mexico to just 137 rushing yards later in the season in a 24-20 win over the Lobos.

“We worked on it for the three opponents that we’re going to see that run it, from a principle standpoint,” McElwain said. “There are different guys, so we have to prepare for each one differently.”

Cal Poly’s version, McElwain said, is a lot like Air Force’s. It’s a triple-option offense run out of a variety of different formations. And like the Falcons have done several times to Colorado State in recent years, the Mustangs will make opponents who focus too much on stopping the run pay with a formidable passing attack. Cal Poly is averaging almost as many passing yards (235.0) as rushing yards (239.5) a game after a win over San Diego and loss at Fresno State.

That’s where that extra work against the triple option will pay off the most, CSU safety Trent Matthews said. It’s not a once-a-season look anymore, with only one week’s worth of practice to prepare.

“It’s going to help a lot,” Matthews said. “Secondary-wise, we need to look at what we can do to execute and know what keys to look at. I know the coaches are going to coach us well on that, so we just have to be prepared.”

CSU’s run defense, among the worst in the nation a year ago when the Rams allowed 202.4 yards a game, has shown improvement through two games this season, allowing an average of 130.5 rushing yards in losses to Colorado and Tulsa. Both of those teams ran pass-oriented spread offenses, though. This will be a different kind of test.

“I think that this one gives you a different set of concerns,” McElwain said. “I think that our linebackers are playing fast, and that’s going to be huge — that they can get out there where they need to. And obviously the run support by the corners; I would be remiss not to mention how well our corners are playing right now. I think they are really competing, and they need to be a force on the edges.”

Next game: vs. Cal Poly, 1:30 MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)

Notable: RB Donnell Alexander (hand) and WR Charles Lovett (knee) were practicing again Monday after sitting out with injuries and are expected to return this week. Alexander was the Rams’ leading rusher last season and Lovett was the leading receiver. … WR/PR Joe Hansley (ankle) wasn’t able to practice and is questionable this week, McElwain said. … Although junior Garrett Grayson has taken every snap at QB in the first two games, McElwain said he would consider giving the two players he beat out for the starting job — sophomore Conner Smith and true freshman Nick Stevens — some playing time this week to spark what has been an anemic offense.

— Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan

 

NEW MEXICO

After a season-opening home loss to UTSA, coach Bob Davie said his players were the most disappointed he’d seen them after any game since he took over the program in 2012.

So, in the midst of preparing for Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh, Davie encouraged his players to savor last week’s 42-35 overtime victory at UTEP.

“Capture what this feels like compared to what it felt like one week ago at the same time,” he said of his message to the players. “That difference between winning and losing is unbelievable.

“That (the satisfaction of winning) is what got me back into coaching,” said Davie, who spent 10 years as an ESPN/ABC game analyst after being fired as head coach at Notre Dame in 2001. “If you could just capture that and sell what it is on the market, you’d make a pretty good penny.”

But Davie added that he sees his young team no differently this week, after a victory, than he did after the UTSA loss.

“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “We have to get better. If you like that feeling, there’s only one way to feel it again, and that’s to get better.”

Next game: at Pittsburgh, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, (ESPN3/ACC Network)

Notable: Sophomore quarterback Cole Gautsche had not been cleared to play as of Monday after missing the UTEP game with concussion systems sustained late in the UTSA game. That decision likely will be made Wednesday, Davie said. If Gautsche plays against Pitt, he likely would share time with junior-college transfer Clayton Mitchem, who played the entire game at UTEP. … Senior center Dillon Farrell strained an MCL against UTEP and is expected to miss the Pittsburgh game but return for UNLV on Sept. 28. The Lobos have an open date on Sept. 21. … As a program, New Mexico is 1-8 all-time in games played east of the Mississippi River. The only victory came in Dayton, Ohio, in the now-defunct Aviation Bowl, 28-12 over Western Michigan, in 1961.

— Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal

 

UTAH STATE

As far as encores go, Weber State is a little underwhelming.

The Aggies are coming off a 52-20 thrashing of Air Force, the program’s first win in the Mountain West, and have a tough slate of USC, San Jose, BYU and Boise State looming.

That is, after facing the Wildcats in Utah State’s first home game of the season. But even though Weber State fell 70-7 to the Utes last week, coach Matt Wells said his team’s focus isn’t wavering.

“I think it’s all about who we are and what we do, that’s big for me this week that we move on and improve as a team in all three phases of our team,” he said. “We all know of what’s gone on in the landscape of football these last two weeks. That’s got our guy’s attention.”

In short: Wells wouldn’t like his program to be the latest victim of an FCS team. Oregon State, Kansas State, San Diego State and Iowa State have been ambushed in games they were similarly favored to win. To be the next “State” in that list is an unsettling thought for the Aggies.

Still, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic, starting with quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The junior is third in the nation in total yardage, and his national buzz is rising after a helmet-sticker worthy performance against the Falcons in which he threw five touchdown passes.

“I’m very confident that there’s more room for improvement and the coolest thing about coaching him is that he knows
it before we do,” said Wells, who started in Logan as Keeton’s position coach. “He wants to be better and I still think he can improve in a few areas, but he’s been very, very solid and very productive.”

Even a 32-point conference win revealed weaknesses. Particularly in the secondary, the Aggies were penalty-prone for the second straight week. Numerous drops by Air Force receivers helped bail out the defense before it finally shut down the Falcons for a key third-quarter stretch.

Wells said he’s looking for more consistent play out of his defensive backs, and also wants to limit penalties for avoidable personal fouls.

Next game: vs. Weber State, 6 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN3)

Notable: Defensive end Connor Williams sat out for Air Force with an unspecified foot injury. Wells said he would probably return after the Weber State game. … Utah State is inducting six Aggies into its hall of fame, notably booster Jim Laub who is the namesake of the football building and recently donated $5.5 million to construct a new basketball and volleyball facility, the largest single gift Utah State athletics has ever received.

— Kyle Goon, The Salt Lake Tribune

 

WYOMING

The Cowboys rolled up 564 yards and scored six touchdowns in their 42-10 home-opening victory over Idaho last week, but coach and new play caller Dave Christensen wasn’t happy. Wyoming punted on its first four possessions, including two three-and-outs.

“I guess it’s a good problem to score 42 points and be disappointed in the way you played offensively, but that is how I feel,” he said.

Wyoming scored touchdowns on six of its next eight drives. Junior quarterback Brett Smith, despite starting 1 of 10 for 11 yards, had his second consecutive game of throwing four touchdown passes, and the team ran for more than 200 yards for the second straight contest.

The story of the Idaho game, however, was the defense.

It recorded seven quarterback sacks, half of its total all of last season. It also had seven three-and-outs and eight tackles for loss. The Cowboys allowed 344 total yards, and a good chunk of that came in the fourth quarter after they led 42-0.

“That’s probably one of the best games that I’ve seen the front seven play since I’ve been here and, quite frankly, watching college football this year,” senior free safety Marqueston Huff said.

Sophomore defensive end Eddie Yarbrough recorded three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He was named the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the Week. Huff earned that honor the week before. It is the first time two Wyoming players won the league’s defensive player of the week award since its inception in 1999.

Wyoming (1-1) hosts Football Championship Subdivision foe Northern Colorado (1-1) on Saturday. The Cowboys lost their lone game against an FCS foe last season, 24-22 to Cal Poly in Laramie. Smith didn’t play in that game because of a concussion.

Eleven FCS teams have defeated FBS teams through the first two weeks of the season, and seven others have come within a touchdown of picking up victories.

“I don’t think last year needs to be brought up just because there is so much motivation we are getting from other sources,” Smith said. “We just want to continue to get better.”

Smith now holds the school record for touchdowns responsible for (72), is second in touchdown passes (55 and one shy of tying the record) and fifth in passing yards (6,137).

 Up next: vs. Northern Colorado, 2 p.m. MT (No TV)

Notable: Junior cornerback Tyran Finley, who started the season opener at No. 23 Nebraska, underwent season-ending surgery Monday. Finley, a junior college transfer, was hurt late in the Nebraska game and was on crutches last week. Wyoming will petition the NCAA to get Finley a medical redshirt. … Sophomore buck Siaosi Hala’api’api is questionable with a knee injury. … Junior receiver Jalen Claiborne, who caught two touchdown passes against Nebraska, was suspended by Christensen this week for a “violation of team standards.” Claiborne was one of four starting receivers and also returned punts and kickoffs. Junior Keenan Montgomery will start for Claiborne at receiver. Junior receiver Dominic Rufran will return punts. Rufran and junior receiver Trey Norman will return kicks. Christensen said Claiborne will practice this week and will be back next week. … Wyoming has not played Northern Colorado since 1949, but in that game it set an NCAA record for most points in a game with a 103-0 victory. … Wyoming will pay Northern Colorado $275,000 for this game.

— Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

 

WEST DIVISION

 

FRESNO STATE

Fresno State has scored 52 points in a victory over Rutgers and 41 in a win over Cal Poly and has a lot of weapons to work with including quarterback Derek Carr and receivers Davante Adams, Josh Harper and Isaiah Burse. But the Bulldogs are having some trouble with the little things – short-yardage runs and third-down plays.

The Bulldogs are tied for 104th in the bowl subdivision in third-down conversion percentage at 27.3 (9 of 33). They are only 5 of 12 on third-and-1 or third-and-2.

That 41.7 rate when needing only two yards for a first down is barely better than the Bulldogs fared last season on all third-down plays (40.5 percent) when  they ranked 59th in the nation – and weren’t happy to be that low in the rankings.

Coach Tim DeRuyter put a lot of that problem on the offensive line and said coaches would look at everything – including lineup changes – to get that fixed. The Bulldogs play at Colorado this week, which is ranked 13th in rushing defense and 15th in third-down conversion defense, though they have beaten Colorado State and an FCS opponent in Central Arkansas the first two weeks of the season.

“It is (important), and that’s why we’re going to emphasize it again this week and see if we can improve,’’ DeRuyter said. ‘’If you want to win a championship, you’re going to have to be able to convert third-and-shorts to finish games, to finish drives, and we don’t have enough confidence in it right now to do that so we have to work it.

“We’re looking at everything. If we can’t get the ones to do it then we’ll look at someone else, so we’re looking at everything right now.’’

The biggest thing is we’re not communicating and sustaining blocks up front. We’re almost worse in third-and-1 to -2 than we are in third-and-8 or -9 and a lot of that just comes down to communication and execution and just having the grit and determination that we’re going to find a way to get a yard. We’re not there yet, but we’re going to get there.’’

The Bulldogs’ options are somewhat limited within an offensive line that lacks experienced depth – at the walk-through on Monday, the No. 1 line was the same as it has been since the start of the season, with Austin Wentworth at left tackle, Alex Fifita at left guard, Lars Bramer at center, Cody Wichmann at right guard and Justin Northern at right tackle.

But four of those five started at least five games last season, so there is experience there. Enough that they should be able to punch holes in a championship subdivision defense like Cal Poly, but the Bulldogs couldn’t convert a goal-line situation last week. Fresno State had a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line and then second-and-goal and third-and-goal at the 1. The Bulldogs ran the ball on the first two plays, threw it on the third and ended up having to kick a field goal.

“We’re going to fix it,’’ DeRuyter said. “We should be better than that. We have one new guy in there and Alex is relatively young because we moved him from tackle to guard, but we have to be better there.’’

Next game: at Colorado, noon MT Saturday (Pac-12 Networks)

Notable: Fresno State lost backup free safety Rodney Mathews to a knee injury against Cal Poly. It has moved backup corner Shannon Edwards to free safety and slot receiver Dillon Root to corner to try to cover up a position group where there is not a lot of depth. … Burse returned punts 61 and 58 yards for touchdowns last week – on the first, Fresno State had a punt block on, so when he fielded the punt, Cal Poly had him surrounded. He broke a tackle, then broke to his right upfield and back to the left on his way into the end zone. “He’s so dynamic,’’ Carr said. “The one touchdown we had a block called, which means there’s no one blocking and he still got the ball, ran around everywhere and scored the touchdown. I mean, that’s freak kind of stuff. He’s a freaky athlete and it’s stuff that we know he can do.’’

 

HAWAII

It appeared the Rainbow Warriors found their groove with their best drive of the season — nine plays and 80 yards — to tie the game at 14 against Oregon State entering the intermission. But they struggled in the second half, with none of the five possessions lasting longer than 2 minutes, 5 seconds, and eventually lost 33-14.

The Warriors shuffled the offensive line, with David Griffin starting at right tackle and Frank Loyd Jr. at right guard. But they converted once in 11 third-down situations, including three drops, and never found an offensive rhythm other than that second-quarter scoring drive. They had six three-and-out drives totaling 7 minutes, 11 seconds.

Quarterback Taylor Graham was 10 of 20 for 90 yards. Although Sean Schroeder was at the controls for the final three possessions, Graham will remain as the No. 1 quarterback.

The Warriors suffered three key injuries. Middle linebacker Brenden Daley, a co-captain who makes the defensive calls, suffered a concussion in the first half. Kawika Borden, a safety and long snapper, was injured making a tackle on a punt coverage. Safety Trayvon Henderson suffered a concussion when he was struck out of bounds after the play ended. Borden and Henderson were part of the rotation in place of free safety Marrell Jackson, who did not play because of a knee injury.

Next game: Sept. 21 at Nevada

Noteworthy: Running back Joey Iosefa, defensive tackle Kennedy Tulimasealii and tight end Jordan Pu‘u-Robinson are expected to make their 2013 debuts against Nevada. Iosefa has recovered from a fractured foot, Tulimasealii from a torn MCL and Pu‘u-Robinson from a sprained shoulder. … Kody Rasmussen, a defensive lineman, has transferred from Colorado. He is the third transfer from an FBS school, following linebacker Jeremy Castro (UCLA) and receiver Quinton Pedroza (Utah). … Because of the bye this weekend, the Warriors will have full practices Wednesday and Thursday and an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday. … The Mountain West has suspended special teams coordinator and safeties coach Chris Demarest for one game for his “inappropriate actions on the sideline” during the Oregon State game.

— Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

 

NEVADA

The Wolf Pack’s preparation for its first trek into the Sunshine State to face No. 10 Florida State got off to an inauspicious start when their starting quarterback and co-starting running backs did not practice Sunday.

Quarterback Cody Fajardo took a shot to his right knee late in the second quarter of Nevada’s 36-7 victory over UC Davis on Saturday in Reno. He appeared to be in a lot of pain but got to his feet fairly quickly and then played most of the third quarter until the game was in hand. After the game he was limping noticeably but said he would be OK.

“He’s fine,” coach Brian Polian said at Sunday’s practice. “We gain more out of him for keeping him in the training room and getting treatment.”

Don Jackson, the co-starting running back in the Wolf Pack’s one-back offense, turned an ankle in Thursday’s practice and did not play Saturday. He was at Sunday’s practice but did not take part in drills. Kendall Brock had the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career (116 yards, two touchdowns) and rested Sunday, but Polian said he was fine, too.

Jackson was named the starter ahead of Nevada’s opener at UCLA on Aug. 31, but Polian said both he and Brock would see significant playing time. Jackson asked the coaching staff to let Brock start because Brock didn’t miss any practice time in training camp and Jackson missed a little more than a week with a minor leg injury.

Next game: at Florida State, 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN)

Notable: The Wolf Pack drew 27,052 fans for Polian’s home opener, which coincided with Chris Ault Night. The former coach was on hand for the pregame dedication of Chris Ault Field at Mackay Stadium. … Starting offensive lineman Connor Talbott reinjured an ankle against UC Davis and is questionable for the Florida State game. He and Jackson are expected to be the only starters who are potential scratches. Reserve cornerback Tere Calloway (knee) is doubtful.

— Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal

 

SAN DIEGO STATE

The Aztecs are on a bye this week.

Next game: vs. Oregon State, Sept. 21

 

SAN JOSE STATE

San Jose State will take a physical approach during its first of two bye weeks this season. The Spartans, who lost to No. 5 Stanford 34-13 on Saturday, don’t play until they travel to Minnesota on Sept. 21.

“This is a get-better week,” coach Ron Caragher said. “I need this football team to approach this week as an opportunity to improve, to home in on fundamentals and to get after it and stay well-conditioned.”

SJSU will focus on a lot of work with starting units battling each other, something that was common during spring and fall camp but less frequent during the season. Caragher has a particularly high-tempo practice scheduled for Sunday to help keep the team used to game speed.

The Spartans come in to the week off disappointed that they were unable to “slay the giant” a year after falling by just three points to the eventual Rose Bowl champion. The offense still hasn’t been fully unleashed two games into the season, but Caragher saw positives in SJSU’s 22 first downs collected against Stanford.

Next game: at Minnesota, Sept. 21

Notable: DB/KR Damon Ogburn Jr. (hamstring), LB Christian Tago (hamstring) and backup QB Blake Jurich (illness) saw action against Stanford, with Ogburn and Tago earning starts. The Spartans didn’t suffer any additional injuries against the very physical Cardinal.

— Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News

 

UNLV

After UNLV gave up more than 50 points to each of the first two opponents, the Rebels’ problems would seem to lie with their defense.

They don’t.

Five touchdowns were given up with the defense off the field and a sixth TD was set up by a 36-yard fumble return to the 9-yard line.

UNLV’s defense, which allowed an average of 399 yards in the first two games, played well enough to give its offense a chance. But the Rebels were undone by three touchdowns on interception returns and two on special teams plays.

“Nobody, especially us and especially against a Pac-(12) or a Big Ten team, is going to win when you do those things,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.

Now the Rebels (0-2) enter Saturday’s home game against Central Michigan (1-1) as 7-point favorites, but know they need to clean up those damaging mistakes.

“I feel like our best game is yet to be seen, and that’s where a lot of guys are still confident,” senior linebacker Tim Hasson said. “We know we’re better than how we’ve played the last two games. So everybody on the team is still ready to go and fired up and ready for next week.”

Next game: vs. Central Michigan, 8 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)

Notable: Hauck left open the possibility of starting senior Caleb Herring at quarterback over sophomore Nick Sherry, who has thrown 11 interceptions over his past five starts. But Sherry remains first on the depth chart. … Central Michigan will start redshirt freshman quarterback Cooper Rush, who began the season on the third team. He came off the bench Saturday to rally the Chippewas to a 24-21 victory over New Hampshire, completing 19 of 32 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns.

— Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal