Here’s the fourth edition of the Mountain West Conference football notebook, compiled by Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman with contributions from beat writers covering each of the 12 league teams.
Jon Lee knew the question before it was asked. After all, he’s been hearing it everywhere.
It seems everyone wants to know: Are you growing frustrated?
“Not yet,” he said. “It’s still early in the season.”
The use of the Air Force tailback has, at the least, been perplexing. Lee averaged 6.7 yards per carry over 99 attempts through his first two seasons and opened his junior campaign by ripping into Colgate for 130 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries.
Since then he has received just 10 carries and gained 32 yards in lopsided losses to Utah State and Boise State. In those two games, Air Force has run the ball 101 times.
The simple explanation is that the Falcons tried to open the passing game against the Aggies, then went to an option look against the Broncos that put the ultimate decision-making not in the hands of the coaching staff but with quarterback Jaleel Awini, who called his own number 23 times. Awini ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns.
“The Boise State defense was playing me,” Lee said. “They were playing the pitch, so it was right that Jaleel ran the ball. Different teams are going to bring different schemes.
“It will get better.”
Next game: vs. Wyoming, 8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)
Notable: Receiver Ty MacArthur suffered a concussion while blocking a Boise State linebacker and is questionable. Linebacker Spencer Proctor (broken right thumb) is expected to play this week. Defensive lineman Joseph Champaign (knee) is out, as is backup fullback Aaron Clinton-Earls.
— Brent Briggeman, The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
Boise State’s rebuilt defense got torched in the season opener at Washington. It performed better the last two weeks against UT Martin and Air Force — games that did little to measure the progress of the group’s biggest question mark, the defensive backs.
How much the secondary has improved is a key question going into Friday’s highly anticipated Mountain West showdown between the Broncos and Fresno State Bulldogs in Fresno, Calif.
“We’ll find out this week, there’s no question about it,” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “We’ll have to have improved a great deal from game one to where we are now for us to hang in there.”
The Broncos allowed 592 yards and 38 points to Washington, 357 yards and 14 points to UT Martin and 287 yards and 20 points to Air Force in their first three games. They have collected six interceptions but opposing quarterbacks have completed 63.2 percent of their passes.
Boise State ranks fifth in the Mountain West in pass-efficiency defense, an area that has been one of the program’s strengths under Petersen.
“Game one, obviously not nearly good enough,” Petersen said of the secondary. “Game two, I thought there were some strides. Game three, completely different (offense) — hard to assess. We lost our eyes a couple of times and they got behind us. I think we’re making strides. This will be a huge test for us.”
Fresno State owns the Mountain West’s leader in passing yards (Derek Carr, 330.5 yards per game) and three of the top four players in receptions per game (Davante Adams leads with 9.5). Adams ranks second in receiving yards (89.5 per game).
Carr averages 52 passes per game.
The Bulldogs’ receivers were the best group the Broncos faced last year, Petersen said. He offered a little advice to Adams, who is a sophomore.
“He’s an excellent player,” Petersen said. “He’s an NFL player, without question. He needs to leave tomorrow. But they’ve got other guys who are very good, too.”
Next game: at Fresno State, 7:01 p.m. MT Friday (ESPN)
Notable: QB Joe Southwick set school and Mountain West records for single-game completion percentage against Air Force. He was 27-of-29 (93.1 percent). The Broncos set the FBS team record at 93.5 percent (29-of-31). … Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Weaver, a backup who plays about half the snaps, leads the team with 23 tackles. … Southwick is second to Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton in the MW in pass efficiency (150.4) and completion percentage (73.4). … TE Holden Huff missed the Air Force game and likely will miss a couple more with a foot injury.
— Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman
Upsets happen all the time in college football, so there’s no reason Colorado State (1-2) can’t knock off mighty Alabama (2-0) on Saturday, coach Jim McElwain and one of his players said Monday.
“We’re going in it expecting to win,” senior defensive back Shaq Bell said. “A lot of people won’t believe in us, but we’ll believe in that locker room.”
But even McElwain had to admit it’s not likely, given the way coach Nick Saban runs his Alabama program. The focus is always inward, said McElwain, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator under Saban from 2008 to 2011.
It doesn’t matter, McElwain said, if the Tide are facing Notre Dame in the national championship game or Colorado State in a nonconference contest early in the season.
“One of the things I know from being there is there is no letdown,” McElwain said. “… It didn’t ever matter who the opponent was, because the important thing was how do you move forward? How do you get better? How do you perfect your craft. These guys are going to come out ready to roll.”
McElwain isn’t conceding a loss. He simply was pointing out one of the strengths of an Alabama program that has won two straight national championships and three of the past four. No stone is left unturned in the preparation of Saban and his staff for a game, and he won’t let them rest on their laurels. Last year’s team is just that; last year’s, not this year’s. And there are too many good players competing for starting jobs every day in practice for those who hold those spots to become complacent. Even the stars know they can be replaced.
It’s the kind of program McElwain hopes to develop at CSU. This game, in fact, will serve as a good “baseline” indicator, the coach said, of where the Rams stand in relation to the best college football program in the country. CSU is scheduled to make a second trip to Alabama in either 2017 or 2019 under terms of the two-year contract the schools signed last fall that guarantees the Rams a $1.5 million payday for each of those games.
“Let’s go measure ourselves, and then let’s evaluate and move forward, because we’ve got a long season ahead of us,” McElwain said. “… It’s going to be another learning tool for us.
“… Any team can beat any team on any given day; that’s the age-old deal, right?”
Next game: at No. 1 Alabama, 5 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN2)
Notable: LB Shaquil Barrett blocked two field goals in last Saturday’s 34-17 win over Cal Poly. No CSU player had blocked two in a single season since Erik Sandie blocked three in 2005. Barrett is believed to be the first to ever block two in one game. … Receivers Charles Lovett (knee) and Joe Hansley (ankle) are questionable for Saturday’s game at Alabama, McElwain said Monday. Lovett, the Rams’ leading receiver last season, was injured in an Aug. 20 scrimmage and hasn’t played this season. Hansley, who had seven catches for 90 yards and returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Colorado, has missed the past two games.
— Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan
Sixteen games into Bob Davie’s tenure as head coach, the Lobos finally get a bye week.
Last year, UNM played 13 games without a break. They’ll sit this Saturday after a 49-27 loss at Pittsburgh last week dropped them to 1-2 on the season.
The bye week, Davie said, comes at an opportune time.
“We have so many things to work on,” he said. “… We need to improve, starting with defense. I think the secondary alone missed 13 tackles (at Pittsburgh).”
The Lobos appeared to be en route to a Mike Locksley-era shellacking against the Panthers, outgained 388 yards to 59 in the first half and trailing 42-6 with barely five minutes gone in the third quarter. But, with sophomore quarterback Cole Gautsche running the triple option, UNM rallied with back-to-back touchdowns in the third quarter.
Davie said he’s less interested in deciding on a starting quarterback, between Gautsche and junior Clayton Mitchem — who started against UTEP and Pitt — than in improving the team as a whole.
“I think both (quarterbacks) will play,” he said. “That’s obvious. … It’s a pretty good situation for us.”
Next game: vs. UNLV, Sept. 28
Notable: Sophomore defensive linemen Gerron Borne and Paytron Hightower were suspended indefinitely on Tuesday for unspecified conduct detrimental to the program, Davie announced. Both players are backups. … Running back Kasey Carrier, who rushed for 291 yards against UTEP and led the nation after two games, was held to 22 yards on seven carries against Pittsburgh. Junior Crusoe Gongbay, who played most of the second half, finished with 95 yards on 10 carries. … UNM’s two third-quarter touchdowns were achieved against Pitt’s first-team defense. “(The Panthers) didn’t pull it back ’til the very end,” Davie said. … Gautsche left the game with back spasms early in the fourth quarter but appeared to be OK after the game.
— Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal
Utah State hopes to be running free this weekend when it visits Southern California.
And the Aggies hope the Trojans will not.
Getting yards on the ground will be the top priority for Utah State’s offense, while the Aggies’ defense will need to stop USC’s rushing attack. Both tasks are a high calling against the Trojans, who have had their way in the run game this season on both sides of the ball.
On defense, USC is one of the nation’s best. With an odd-front defense, the Trojans have controlled the line of scrimmage to only let up 43.7 rushing yards per game. The defensive line is one of the best penetrating units in the league, averaging about nine tackles for loss per game.
“Their front seven is stout,” coach Matt Wells said. “They’ve given up three touchdowns in three games. They’re top 10 in like 30 defensive categories, if there’s that many, they’re probably in the top 10 of every one of them. They’re really good.”
The Aggies are coming off a 70-6 laugher against Weber State, in which Utah State put up 267 rushing yards, the best output of the season. Utah State is averaging 219 rushing yards per game with Joe Hill and Joey DeMartino sharing most of the carries.
DeMartino became the first Aggies back to eclipse the century mark this year against Weber State, but he knows USC will be much, much tougher.
“I’m watching StatTracker and they’ve only allowed like 43 yards per game rushing,” he said. “That’s definitely going to be a goal for our offense, because the first thing we want to be is a physical running team, is to get a big yardage game on the ground started against them.”
On the other end, USC back Tre Madden has been a shifty scoring threat for the Trojans. He’s had three 100-yard games to start the year and is a big reason why the team is averaging 196 yards rushing per game.
Stopping the run can be a big boost for the Aggies in slowing down USC’s offense, which relies heavily on play action. Easier said than done, of course.
“He’s a strong runner and I feel like, the way they structure their game, they put him in a position to get those yards,” safety Brian Suite said. “They really want to establish a strong running game, that’s the foundation of every strong offense is you have a strong run game and they want to establish that early.”
Next game: at USC, 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday (ABC)
Notable: Defensive end Connor Williams is day-to-day as he recovers from an unspecified foot injury. The Aggies would like to have the senior all-conference honoree from last year back against USC. … Utah State got some action last week out of its reserves, including true freshman Kennedy Williams, whose older brother is Indianapolis Colt Kerwynn Williams. … Utah State has never beaten the Trojans, losing four games by a combined score of 213-29.
— Kyle Goon, The Salt Lake Tribune
Offensive execution is what coach Dave Christensen will preach this week in practice as the Cowboys (1-2) open Mountain West play at Air Force (1-2, 0-2 MW) on Saturday night.
Christensen said of the 89 offensive plays Wyoming ran in its 35-7 home win over FCS foe Northern Colorado last Saturday, 32 had “execution flaws.”
Two of Wyoming’s five touchdowns were scored by the defense on interception returns. The Cowboys had 437 yards of total offense, but they punted five times, lost the ball on downs once, had two turnovers and allowed four sacks.
“It ranged from making the proper steps at quarterback, steps for some of the offensive linemen, adjusting routes as wide receivers, reading the right hole as running backs,” said Christensen, who is calling the offensive plays this season.
“These are not issues that can’t be fixed. These are all things that these guys are coached to do. It’s frustrating because it’s a lack of focus when those things happen. You can’t sleep-walk through games. If we play that poorly the rest of the schedule we are going to get beat. That message has been delivered and they understand that.”
Junior starting quarterback Brett Smith hurt his right ankle on the third play of the game. Despite it being heavily taped, he didn’t miss a play. Smith said the ankle felt good during Monday’s practice and is expected to be fine for Air Force.
Smith is 1-0 against the Falcons as he ran for two touchdowns and threw for another is a 25-17 road victory in 2011 as a true freshman. He missed last year’s game with a concussion in Air Force’s 28-27 win.
That game will be remembered for the profanity-laced tirade by Christensen toward Air Force coach Troy Calhoun after the game. Christensen believed Calhoun had players fake injuries in the fourth quarter to get more time to plan their next play.
Christensen was suspended for a game and fined $50,000. Video of the exchange went viral on the Internet and was on a lot of national sports shows on television.
“I am not playing one snap, and I don’t think Troy is, either,” Christensen said. “Our focus is on execution and being ready to play Saturday night. My behavior is going to be much better. I will watch my Ps and Qs.”
Christensen said he and Calhoun have talked two or three times since last year’s incident, but didn’t go into what they talked about.
“I’d rather move on now. I want the focus to be on two football teams playing on national TV on a big stage, not on myself and coach Calhoun,” he said.
Up next: at Air Force, 8:15 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPNU)
Notable: Junior wide receiver Jalen Claiborne is back after being suspended last week for what Christensen described as a “violation of team standards.” Claiborne is slated to start at one of the four receiver spots, and also as the team’s punt returner and one of the two deep men on kickoff returns. … Senior starting offensive guard Tyler Strong and redshirt freshman starting outside linebacker Lucas Wacha are questionable this week with injuries. Strong didn’t play last week against Northern Colorado, and Wacha was hurt in that game. … Smith needed only 26 games to tie Casey Bramlet (2000-03) for the school record for touchdown passes with 56. Bramlet did it in 40 games. … Twelve of the last 17 games between Wyoming and Air Force have been decided by 10 points or less, and six by seven points or less.
— Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Fresno State is ranked No. 11 in the bowl subdivision in scoring offense, putting up 46.5 points per game, which at times makes coach Tim DeRuyter wonder where the Bulldogs might be if their offense was moving a tad more efficiently these days.
A 27.3-percent conversion rate on third-down plays is one reason the Bulldogs have had to punt away the football 14 times in their first two games, victories over Rutgers and Cal Poly. And going down the Top 25 teams in the nation in scoring offense, there is not another team that has had to punt that often – and 14 of those teams have played three games to the Bulldogs’ two.
It’s a fairly safe bet that they might need a few points on Friday to take out Boise State in the Mountain West opener and end a seven-game losing streak to the Broncos.
So, the push is on to fix what is stunting the Bulldogs, as it was last week.
It is not just a run game issue, either. The Bulldogs have completed only 53.8 percent (14 of 26) of passes on third down. Quarterback Derek Carr has hit 79 percent (42 of 53) of his passes on first down, 70.4 percent (19 of 27) on second down and 56 percent (14 of 25) on third down.
“I think about it all the time,’’ DeRuyter said. “I think we have a very explosive offense. I think at times we can play very physical (in the run game), but unfortunately sometimes that intensity level or communication or vision for the back, it doesn’t all coincide and when one guy doesn’t do something right a lot of times in an offensive play, it can ruin it, even though 10 guys are doing something right.
“We’ve got to overcome that and be much more efficient. You’re always striving for perfection. It doesn’t always happen, but we’re going to keep working at it.’’
Next game: vs. Boise State, 7:01 p.m. MT (ESPN)
Notable: Last year, Fresno State did not play well away from home, losing at Oregon, Tulsa and Boise State and in the bowl game to SMU. DeRuyter felt they were not ready to handle those environments, especially at Oregon and Boise State. Quarterback Derek Carr: ‘’I think that’s one thing that maybe I did wrong last year, I treated it differently. Like, ‘Oh, it’s a big game.’ When I got out there, it’s the same game. It’s the same stuff. Being older and being more mature, I feel more confident and ready for this one. I’m always confident, but I feel more mature going into it and in my preparation. It’s just another game – trust what I see. Once I finally started to trust what I see, I started doing the right things during the game. I’m going to do that from the start this time, hopefully.’’
— Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee
Head coach Norm Chow is sticking with Taylor Graham as the No. 1 quarterback for Saturday’s road game against Nevada. Graham was 10 of 20 for 95 yards in the past game against Oregon State. But five of his passes were dropped, including a crucial third-down throw to senior Chris Gant in the third quarter. Graham redshirted in 2012 after transferring from Ohio State, where he did not start a game in two years.
For the Rainbow Warriors, it was a good bye this past weekend. Three players who suffered concussions against Oregon State — middle linebacker Brenden Daley and safeties Trayvon Henderson and Kawika Borden — passed the so-called baseline tests and are expected to play against Nevada. Free safety Marrell Jackson (sore knee) and tight end Jordan Pu‘u-Robinson (shoulder) also have been medically cleared to play.
The Warriors will be without special teams coordinator Chris “Demo” Demarest, who received a one-game suspension from the Mountain West Conference. Demarest was suspended for yelling at an Oregon State player who delivered a late hit on Henderson. Demarest will make the trip but remain at the hotel during the game.
Next game: at Nevada, 6:05 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)
Notable: This will be a mini reunion. Nevada offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich is a former UH quarterback and offensive coordinator. Ashley Lelie, a former UH receiver and student assistant, is a Nevada graduate assistant. Lelie is UH’s highest NFL draft selection. He was picked 19th overall in the 2002 draft. Rolovich threw for 543 yards and eight touchdowns in a victory over BYU in 2001, an outcome that led to the creation of the Hawaii Bowl. … The Warriors depart on a commercial flight on Thursday. As part of a membership agreement with the MW, UH pays each visiting team between $150,000 and $175,000 in travel subsidies toward rental of charter flights. The Warriors, however, travel commercially between Hawaii and the mainland.
— Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
The Nevada football team is going into its Mountain West opener with a lot of unknowns at skill positions.
Starting quarterback Cody Fajardo is still nursing a sprained right knee and is questionable for Saturday’s game against Hawaii at Mackay Stadium. Backup quarterback Devin Combs suffered a left knee injury in Saturday’s 62-7 loss at No. 10 Florida State. Coach Brian Polian revealed Tuesday that Combs has a torn ACL and meniscus damage and will undergo surgery. He is out for the rest of the season.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Stewart played the entire second half against Florida State and went 7-for-15 for 49 yards with one interception. He saw his first collegiate action a week prior in Nevada’s 36-7 win over UC Davis.
Stewart is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and has a strong arm, but he has limited experience in the pistol formation.
“(Stewart is) not the athlete Cody is,” Polian said, “but he can throw it.”
Don Jackson, who opened the season as the starting running back, has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. He is questionable. Kendall Brock, the No. 2 back, did not play against Florida State (knee) but is expected back this week.
Chris Solomon had a 108-yard performance against FSU and is the likely starter. The redshirt freshman began camp fifth on the depth chart.
Next game: vs. Hawaii, 6:05 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)
Notable: Charles Garrett, who played cornerback last season and started at safety this season, has been moved back to cornerback. Bryan Lane is back at safety after being moved to linebacker. … OL Connor Talbott (ankle) is doubtful again this week. … Nevada is planning a “whiteout” against Hawaii.
— Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal
SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs return to play after a bye week with a new quarterback at the helm.
After Adam Dingwell threw five picks in the first five quarters of the 2013 season, he was benched early in the Aztecs’ 42-7 defeat to Ohio State on Sept. 7.
Quinn Kaehler showed promise when he came off the bench to lead SDSU to a touchdown and finish 22-of-36 for 216 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Aztecs coach Rocky Long named Kaehler the starter for this weekend’s home game against Oregon State, and Kaehler took first-team reps in practice over the bye week.
Dingwell hurt his back against Ohio State and did not practice during the bye week. He returns as the Aztecs’ No. 2 quarterback this week.
Kaehler is a junior walk-on who transferred from Diablo Valley College in the spring. He threw for 4,044 yards and 38 touchdowns at Diablo Valley in 2012 and completed 60.5 percent of his passes.
Long said the Aztecs picked up Kaehler because they liked his accuracy.
Next game: vs. Oregon State, 5:30 p.m. MT (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: RB Adam Muema missed parts of the last two games with a low ankle sprain. He did not practice last week but will likely be back against Oregon State. … OLB Derek Largent is still recovering from a knee sprain and will not play this week.
— Stefanie Loh, U-T San Diego
SAN JOSE STATE
San Jose State returns from a bye week looking for a road win that would be considered at least a mild upset. The Spartans head to Minnesota for their eighth all-time game against a Big Ten Conference foe.
“I’m excited to go back to Big Ten country,” Spartans coach Ron Caragher said. “We know it’s going to be a physical game.”
It’s a game the Spartans need to win to gather momentum ahead of next week’s Mountain West opener against Utah State, which is quickly looking like one of the conference’s best teams.
A win also would help build a bit of a reputation for SJSU, especially with the Mountain West’s struggles so far this season against BCS-conference teams. But Caragher isn’t focused on any of that.
“A win is a win,” Caragher said. “Regardless of who and regardless of what conference, regardless of their ranking, we just need to take care of San Jose State and play Spartan football.”
There are several uncertainties surrounding Minnesota, whose coach Jerry Kill had an epileptic seizure during the Golden Gophers game on Saturday.
“It’s my understanding that he’s in good health,” Caragher said. “I know that was a scary incident. Certainly hope he’s back in full health and on the opposite sideline.”
Aside from Kill’s status, it’s unknown if quarterback Philip Nelson will play after injuring his hamstring. Starting running back Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for 926 yards last year, may be back after missing the past two games.
Next game: at Minnesota, 10 a.m MT Saturday (ESPN2)
Notable: San Jose State is 2-5 against the Big Ten. That includes a 39-30 win over Minnesota in 1992. The Spartans lost 26-20 to the Gophers in 1991. Both games were play in Minneapolis at the Metrodome. The other Big Ten win was a 38-35 victory over Illinois in 2002. … This is the first of seven nationally televised games this season for SJSU. That total is an all-time high for the school and does not include the game against Stanford, which aired on Pac-12 Networks.
— Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News
Senior Caleb Herring put in a record-setting performance in Saturday night’s 31-21 victory over Central Michigan, but UNLV coach Bobby Hauck isn’t committing to him as the starting quarterback.
Hauck said he would let the competition play out in practice this week between Herring and sophomore Nick Sherry, similar to what occurred last week when Sherry wound up starting against the Chippewas.
UNLV (1-2) hosts Western Illinois (2-1) this Saturday.
“Both of those guys, I think, excel when they’re competing during the week,” Hauck said. “Then I would anticipate both of them will play some.
“I think when you have two guys you feel can play, it’s a benefit to the team. That’s been evidenced in the first three weeks. We’ve used both of them. At different times, both have had success.”
Herring had tremendous success against Central Michigan, coming off the bench to complete 24 of 28 passes for 266 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. He was named Mountain West offensive player of the week.
His 85.7 completion percentage broke the school record of 80.8 set by Randall Cunningham in 1984 against Idaho State.
Herring’s play and a strong defensive effort helped rally the Rebels from 21-0 down, tying the UNLV record for largest comeback. The Rebels came from 21 back in 1976 to beat Nebraska-Omaha.
After being outgained 233-33 midway through the second quarter, UNLV put together a 378-145 advantage the rest of the way.
Next game: vs. Western Illinois, 7 p.m. MT Saturday (no TV)
Notable: Senior cornerback Sidney Hodge underwent shoulder surgery last week and probably won’t play again. He has graduated and has a family. Junior Kenneth Penny broke up three passes while starting in Hodge’s place against Central Michigan. “If you had asked me in August, probably better than I thought he could play,” Hauck said.
— Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal