THE CHASE BEGINS IN EARNEST. I hit two of four picks last weekend as SDS and UNLV each found ways to lose at home by four points. Utah and BYU came through for me and bumped my record for the year to a cozy 32-9 (.780). This week's action will have all eight MWC teams locked in conference competition for the first time in the 2004 season. Here's my take on how the action will unfold.
@ . This year's edition of the Border War kicks off the MWC's week on Friday night in Fort Collins. The first signs of coach Joe Glenn's impact on the formerly moribund Cowboys program may have been felt last year when the 'Pokes upset the Rams on a snowy afternoon in Laramie. For those who don't recall, that contest was a, 35-28, shootout.
Wyoming's climb toward weekly competitiveness and respectability has continued this year with Glenn's team having posted a 4-2 record. Another pair of wins would make the Cowboys bowl qualified and rank as one of the top surprises in division 1-A football for 2004. Wyoming lost in Provo last week largely because of its inability to defend the run.
BYU entered that game averaging a meager 68.8 yards on the ground per game, but shredded Wyo for 237. Wyoming's Achilles' Heel in 2003 was its rush defense as it yielded 230 yards per game. That laxity had been tightened to the point where the Cowboys were ceding just 113 yards before the BYU game. It seems the cure for a bad ground attack is the opportunity to play Wyoming.
The inability to stop the Cougars' running attack coupled with four interceptions thrown by Corey Bramlet, proved to be Wyoming's undoing. Fourteen fourth quarter points by the home team sent Wyoming to its sixteenth consecutive conference road loss.
CSU's weekend contained good and bad news. The Rams beat San Diego State on the road, but in the process lost QB Justin Holland for the rest of the season to a broken ankle suffered late in the first quarter. True freshman, Caleb Hanie, played well enough in a relief role to rally the Rams to a game winning TD in the 59th minute of play against the Aztecs.
CSU's offense was anemic in totaling less than 200 yards, but a fumble recovery deep in SDS territory late in the game led to the short game winning score by Sonny Lubick's team.
It's likely Hanie won't be asked to throw the ball as often as would be the case were Holland still leading the offense. That development may be doubly beneficial for Hanie and the Rams. First, it will relieve pressure from Hanie in having to direct the Rams' attack with a heavy dose of passing. Second, it will force CSU to run the ball more, and since Wyoming has shown itself to be inefficient in stopping the run, it leads to the likelihood of increased production from CSU RBs Jimmy Green and Uldis Jaunarajs.
From my vantage point all the emotional factors point toward a CSU win in this game. The Rams' first MWC win of the season came on the road, against a solid defensive unit, in SDS. CSU rallied and found a way to win a game after losing its starting QB. Most importantly, Wyoming has not won a road conference game since downing Utah in 1999. It's unrealistic to expect Wyoming's first road win of the season to come against its most heated rival, in a nationally televised game. I will repeat that Joe Glenn's resurrecting of the Cowboys' program has produced successes in a shorter period of time than any reasonable projection could have forecast. The Cowboys will yet have success in the MWC this fall, but not this weekend. My pick is CSU.
@ An annual rite of the college football season is the appearance of another underachieving SDS squad following lofty preseason predictions for the Aztecs. Tom Craft's current crew has done nothing to dispel this habitually accurate assessment of San Diego State teams.
Good enough to scare the daylights out of Michigan in Ann Arbor before the failure to score any second half points cost it the game, this year's SDS team also found a way to lose at home to a CSU team forced to play more than three quarters of a game without its starting QB.
The Aztecs have an inglorious record of playing superbly--even in a losing cause--against more talented opponents, while playing lackadaisically versus lesser talented teams and losing to them.
Coaches will never admit it for public attribution, but they enjoy having SDS on the schedule late in the season when a conference title or bowl berth is out of the question for San Diego State. When the Aztecs have little incentive to play they fold. As a friend of mine likes to say, "When the going gets tough these guys call room service." Far be it from me to dispute that characterization of the Aztecs.
With QB Matt Dlugolecki suffering an ankle sprain last week and his status for this weekend game still cloudy, Kevin O'Connell could be running the inconsistent SDS offense this week in Albuquerque. San Diego State is 1-3 in its past four MWC road games.
DonTrell Moore's knee ligament injury seems to be improving on a weekly basis. He missed the Utah game three weeks ago, but in the Lobos' past two games he's rushed for over 100 yards in each contest. Averaging nearly five yards a carry, Moore has resuscitated a New Mexico offense which has received poor play at the QB spot from Kole McKamey and Tali Ena--each of whom has completed fewer than 50% of his pass attempts and thrown more interceptions than TD passes. The Lobos' total of three TD passes is second worst in division 1-A football.
The Lobos need three victories in their final four games to become bowl qualified. That isn't going to happen, but that's a throw-away sentence or two for another day and an eventuality whose reality will yet dawn on Rocky Long's team. In the meantime, as the home team in this week's game the Lobos will let Moore's capable legs carry them to victory over a dispirited, disconsolate SDS team, whose competitive fires were doused by CSU. My pick is New Mexico.
@ . Coach Urban Meyer's biggest challenge on Saturday may be keeping his team awake long enough to have it beat the Rebels. Pick a stat, any stat. Rest assured that Utah enjoys a decided edge over UNLV in any and every phase of the game you'd care to examine.
The release of the first round of power ratings by the BCS earlier this week, accentuates the Utes' standing as the latest outsider most likely to crash the postseason gala thrown by the extant czar of college football. No team without a BCS affiliation has ever earned a bid to any BCS-aligned bowl. Therein, Utah hopes to establish a precedent. Having completed its non-conference schedule last week by tackling the North Carolina Tar Heels, 46-16, the Utes raised their record to 16-2 under Meyer and 6-0 on the season.
Meyer and his troops know that if they can repeat their MWC championship from 2003 and post an undefeated regular season record, there's a good chance the team will rise high enough in the polls to capture a spot in a BCS bowl. To be sure, Utah will need assistance in its quest in the form of a loss or two by a team currently situated above it in the polls. I'll let other pundits knot their tongues trying to cite and clarify all the permutations of bowl bids and pairings that could surface during this holiday season.
UNLV QBs Kurt Nantkes and Shane Steichen have been surprisingly ineffective in leading the Rebels' offense this fall. HB Dominique Dorsey and WR Earvin Johnson haven't been given much help and a contest against the Utes seems an unlucky juncture for such aid to arise.
LB Adam Seward and SS Jamaal Brimmer will have their hands full trying to halt the avalanche that is Utah's offense.
QB Steve Smith will pilot the balanced Utes' attack that averages over 200 yards a game on the ground and through the air. In five of six games this year the Utes have scored 28 points or more. Only Arizona held Utah to fewer than that--23--and the Utes still prevailed by seventeen. A win by UNLV in this game would rank as the biggest upset in college football this season and be greeted by the BCS amid the sound of clinking champagne glasses. My pick is Utah.
@ . This game appears to be an intriguing pairing of teams whose strengths will reveal the opponent's weaknesses. BYU's offense is starting to hum as the Cougars' running game has prospered in each of the past two games. AFA has had difficulty in stopping the run all season.
AFA has beaten BYU the past two seasons without benefit of a workable FB game or passing attack. With both elements of the Falcons' ground based option attack being so dominant this season, the Cougars' defense seems ill-equipped to deal with the multiplicity of offensive weaponry in AFA's gridiron arsenal.
BYU holds a distinct, 18-6, lifetime edge in the series, while AFA has won five of the past seven meetings between the teams, including a, 52-9, taxidermic dismembering of the Cougars when the teams last met in Falcon Stadium.
This series is in the midst of becoming one of the MWC's most hotly contested battles on an annual basis. When Lavell Edwards coached the Cougars the series was an annual blowout wildly favoring BYU. Fisher DeBerry is a better coach than Gary Crowton and the Falcons' recently established success and momentum against their former PROVOkers is proof of that claim.
A running game that lay dormant until two weeks ago has revitalized a BYU attack that was far too dependent on the uneven performances of its QBs. Jason Beck will likely start at QB for the Cougars and his load will be considerably lighter should RBs Curtis Brown and Tahu Fahi continue their production of the past two games. Beck has started in both of his team's MWC victories this year.
AFA QB Shaun Carney has shown maturity beyond his years in leading the Falcons' option through the first half of the season. If Fisher DeBerry and Chuck Peterson made good use of the open week in AFA's schedule by helping Carney to make better decisions concerning when to pitch the ball and when to keep it, the Falcons' offense may at last detonate an explosion of points which has been absent thus far.
The Cougars' newly productive running game belies the fact the team will still throw the ball frequently. BYU has thrown the ball no less than 26 times a game and as many as an arm-numbing sixty-eight times. Vic Shealy's AFA secondary will be thoroughly tested on Saturday afternoon.
As a defensive coordinator at New Mexico, Bronco Mendenhall had success in configuring alignments that defused AFA's attack. In the two years he's been at BYU the Cougars have lost to Air Force. Whether he's lost his touch, the Cougars' talent is inferior to that with which he worked in Albuquerque or the Falcons are now impervious to his machinations, remain open questions.
Neither defense seems likely to be able to contain the other's offense. I'm uncertain even about to the degree to which either team will be able to slow the other, as this game has all the trappings of a good old fashioned, last-team-that-scores-wins, aspect enveloping it.
I've correctly predicted the outcome of every AFA game thus far in the season. On the other hand, of the nine games over which I've stumbled, three have involved BYU. The Cougars have been a difficult team for me to assess. BYU has played well enough to beat, what is now, a highly regarded Notre Dame team while inexplicably having lost at home to an awful UNLV squad.
I tend to give greater weight to the totality of a series rather than what may be a recently emerging trend in an increasingly competitive rivalry. That strain of myopia may prevent me from seeing that AFA is in the incipient stages of dominating BYU in the same manner in which the Cougars used to run roughshod over the Falcons. Against better my judgment, I'm going to step out on a limb and saw it off behind me in making this selection. My pick is Air Force.
SNOOZE OF THE WEEK: @ . The Clemson Tigers may be the most disappointing team in college football this year. Universally picked in the top twenty-five by every respected preseason media outlet offering a glimpse into the 2004 schedule, the Tigers have fallen on their face by going 2-4 with their only wins having come against Wake Forest on opening day and Utah State last weekend.
Their ACC cohorts, the Maryland Terrapins, have fallen into a deeper sleep than old mister Van Winkle himself. The Terps gained 81 yards against Georgia Tech two weeks ago and followed that Lilliputian effort by piling up 91 additional yards versus North Carolina State seven days later.
That the Tigers are a mere 3 1/2 point pick in this game must serve as a blood coursing slap in the face to Clemson. Maryland hasn't allowed more than 22 points (to Temple?!?) this season, but the siesta being observed by its offense is offensive to any fan of college football.
The somnambulistic offense that is Maryland football seeks to awaken in time to beat the demoralized, toothless Tigers. A few moments of viewing this gridiron equivalent to the boredom accompanying the ubiquitous, pre-recorded, electioneering campaign phone calls which plague your household this fall, will have you lounged out on your La-Z-Boy before the first television mandated commercial break.
The third quarter ills that have plagued the Air Force Falcons throughout 2004 were never more…