Here’s the eighth installment of the weekly Mountain West Conference Football Notebook, compiled by Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesmen with contributions from newspaper beat writers from around the league.
Next game: Oct. 26 vs. Notre Dame
The Broncos’ young defense has made major strides in the past two games, which were separated by a bye.
The Broncos were 98th in total defense (440.8 yards per game), 85th in pass efficiency defense (139.64) and 78th in scoring defense (28.3 points per game) through four games.
Since then, they have allowed 307 yards per game, 12 points per game (not counting a pick six) and a passer rating of 104.39. They also have registered four sacks in each of those games, wins against Southern Miss and Utah State. The national rankings have improved to 61st in total defense, 66th in pass efficiency defense and tied for 47th in scoring defense.
Southern Miss and Chuckie Keeton-less Utah State did not provide the same level of test as some of the earlier opponents, but the improvement was clear.
“Our confidence is up and everything we emphasize in practice, we executed on the field,” junior cornerback Bryan Douglas said after he grabbed his fourth interception of the season and broke up back-to-back passes in the end zone against Utah State.
The Broncos have seven new starters on defense this season and only two starters are seniors. The top three tacklers were members of the 2012 recruiting class — redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Weaver (49), true sophomore defensive tackle Armand Nance (33) and junior defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (31), who was a junior college transfer.
“They’re starting to figure out some things, there’s no question about it,” coach Chris Petersen said of the defense. “I think they’re definitely improving, starting to just get comfortable playing college football and with the speed of this game and our calls. They’re getting into a better groove.”
Next game: vs. Nevada, 6 p.m. MT Saturday (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: WR Kirby Moore, RT Rees Odhiambo and TE Gabe Linehan missed the Utah State game and are week to week. … Redshirt freshman OT Steven Baggett made his first start in place of Odhiambo because backup Jake Broyles tore an anterior cruciate ligament in practice. … WR Shane Williams-Rhodes made a career-high 13 catches against Utah State and has 22 catches in the past two games, the most by a Bronco in 10 years. … QB Joe Southwick ranks fourth in the nation in completion percentage (72.3). He is fourth in the Mountain West in efficiency (149.9).
— Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman
It’s not just disgruntled fans who believe Colorado State’s pass defense is absolutely awful this season.
The NCAA statistics prove it.
The Rams (2-4, 0-1 Mountain West Conference) rank next-to-last among the 123 major-college football programs in pass-efficiency defense with a 164.28 rating. Only UTEP, the team the Rams’ own passing attack looked so sharp against in a 59-42 win over the Miners, has a worse rating at 173.59.
It’s a statistic that ought to embarrass the Rams and their coaches. If it does, they’re not admitting it.
“You don’t hit the panic button,” coach Jim McElwain said Monday. “You point it out, and you teach; that’s what we do. And stepping back into it, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Senior Shaq Bell, who plays cornerback and safety, and McElwain insist the Rams are better at defending the pass than the numbers suggest. They dismiss it as little mistakes that are easily corrected, an occasional blown assignment and the explosive capabilities of the teams they’ve been playing.
That works for the likes of San Jose State and quarterback David Fales, who completed 28 of 35 passes for 531 yards and three touchdowns Saturday in the Spartans’ 34-27 win over the Rams at Hughes Stadium. One touchdown came on an 83-yard catch and run, another on a 77-yard pass and the last on a bubble screen that went for 62 yards.
“My nightmares came to fruition,” said McElwain, who last week had called the Rams’ propensity for giving up big plays in the passing game “a fatal flaw.”
But it would be quite a stretch to call the offenses of Colorado (2-3) and UTEP (1-5) explosive. Yet Conner Wood, who has since lost his starting job at CU, threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns against CSU in the season opener. And UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers, who averages 209.8 passing yards a game, threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns against the Rams.
CSU is giving up an average of 307.3 passing yards a game, leaving it No. 117 in the nation and 11th in the 12-team MW in that category. And only Idaho, with 23, has allowed more touchdown passes this season than the 17 given up by the Rams.
“We don’t pay attention to the statistics,” Bell said. “We still believe we’re better than whatever we’re ranked. We just have to come up and play with confidence overall and just compete.”
Next game: at Wyoming, noon MT Saturday (Root Sports)
Notable: LB Shaquil Barrett, second in the nation in tackles for loss with 12 1/2 and the Rams’ team leader in sacks with 6 1/2, didn’t practice Monday because of an ankle sprain suffered in the loss to San Jose State. His availability for this week’s game has not been determined, McElwain said. … LB Deonte Clyburn (knee), LB Nolan Peralta (concussion) and WR Jordon Vaden are practicing again without restrictions after sitting out with injuries. … None of the players on CSU’s roster have ever held the Bronze Boot trophy that goes to the winner of the Border War series with Wyoming. The Cowboys have won four straight in a 105-game series that began in 1899. “This is my fifth game now, and when I came here we lost the boot, so that’s been my goal and mission since then is to get the boot back,” senior guard Brandon Haynes said.
— Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan
If No. 3 quarterback David Vega winds up taking the snaps on Saturday against Utah State, New Mexico head coach Bob Davie and wide receiver Jeric Magnant believe, all is far from lost.
“He’s a little unorthodox,” Davie said on Monday of Vega, a junior walk-on from Roswell (N.M.) Goddard High School by way of New Mexico Military Institute. “But he’s athletic, he’s quick and he makes plays.”
New Mexico’s quarterback situation is fluid this week.
Starting QB Cole Gautsche suffered a knee sprain late in last week’s 38-31 loss at Wyoming. Backup Clayton Mitchem didn’t make the trip to Laramie after exhibiting concussion-like symptoms stemming from blows he absorbed the week prior against New Mexico State.
Davie has not ruled out Gautsche or Mitchem for Utah State, but Vega took most of the first-team repetitions during Monday’s practice. Davie has said he will not discuss the quarterback situation the rest of the week.
After Gautsche’s exit against Wyoming, Vega finished a late touchdown drive with a 23-yard pass to Marquis Bundy.
Magnant believes that, if Vega’s the guy on Saturday, there’s more where that came from.
“He’s never been gun-shy,” Magnant said. “He likes to come out and throw. He’s got confidence, and he’s got a good arm.”
As for Vega himself, his confidence is palpable.
“Nothing’s set in stone yet,” he said. “But if my number gets called, I’m going to go in there and do what I do.”
Next game: vs. Utah State, 7 p.m. MT Saturday (Root Sports)
Notable: After gaining 257 net yards on the ground against Wyoming, the Lobos slipped from No. 1 to No. 2 nationally in rushing yards per game. Army is averaging 352.3 yards, UNM 349.3. … When a Gautsche pass was intercepted in the fourth quarter at Wyoming, it was UNM’s first of the season. New Mexico entered the game as the only FBS team not having thrown an interception.
— Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal
In another week, Utah State will have a bye to sort through some of its recent issues.
This week, the Aggies have to get a freshman quarterback ready to take on New Mexico. And given the offense’s struggles since starter Chuckie Keeton was injured, it will be a challenge.
Saturday’s 34-23 loss to Boise State reinforced that Utah State needs to figure out how to get its offense running again.
“I go out there and tell my guys that we can cry all we want, but great teams find a way to win,” receiver Travis Reynolds said. “This game is not about one person — it’s about the team. If we want to continue to reach our goals we have to play as a team and execute as a team.”
Coach Matt Wells named true freshman Darell Garretson this week’s starter, but in his debut, the newcomer had a rocky start. He threw two picks in his first few series before settling down on a 91-yard touchdown drive, when the game was well in hand for the Broncos.
Wells acknowledged the rookie mistakes, but said he was encouraged by how Garretson processed the game and his mistakes.
“I thought he kept his composure well, he acted good on the sidelines,” Wells said. “When you ask a young quarterback ‘What did you see?’ after you just saw it, whether from a pressure or secondary situation and he tells you exactly how you saw it, he’s dialed in. It gives you good confirmation that he is.”
Quarterback is hardly the only area Utah State needs to improve, however. Aside from Reynolds’ 142-yard game, the rest of the receiving corps was pretty quiet. There are some questions at running back after Joey DeMartino played sparingly in the second half. And the offensive line gave up four sacks to Boise State.
Next game: at New Mexico, 7 p.m. MT Saturday (Root Sports)
Notable: Wells announced tight end D.J. Tialavea will be out for the season with a foot fracture, the fourth offensive starter to be lost for the year. … Cornerback Nevin Lawson was named Mountain West defensive player of the week for two interceptions, including a pick six, in the loss. He is Utah State’s first weekly honoree in the Mountain West.
— Kyle Goon, The Salt Lake Tribune
Coach Dave Christensen knows how good and how important to his team junior quarterback Brett Smith is.
But Christensen also knows that Smith can be better — better than the guy who is third in the nation in total offense (379 yards per game) and has helped the Cowboys to a 4-2 record and first-place mark in the Mountain Division at 2-0.
“Brett will be the first to tell you there were a number of things he could have done better last week. There’s no question he’s a big-time playmaker for us and is playing very well. I’m more interested in correcting the things he’s not doing well for us.
“No player in an offense I’ve ever coached has ever played the perfect game. We’re going to strive for perfection in everything that we do, and he’s no different than anybody else.”
Smith was good in Wyoming’s 38-31 win over New Mexico last week. He threw for 247 yards and a touchdown, and ran for a game-best 138 yards and two touchdowns. His 48-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winning score.
Smith ranks in the top 12 nationally in seven statistical categories.
It’s Border War week for Wyoming as it hosts Colorado State (2-4, 0-1) on Saturday. Rams coach Jim McElwain told the Rams media contingent that Smith is a “bowling ball of butcher knives” based on his dual-threat ability.
No one on the Cowboys roster has ever lost to the Rams. Wyoming has won four straight in the series, which will be played for the 105th time Saturday. The game also will be the second straight in Laramie. San Jose State and Utah State joined the league this year and forced the conference to redo its scheduling. When TCU joined the Mountain West in 2005, Wyoming was forced to play at Colorado State in 2004 and 2005.
Wyoming has had 500 or more yards of total offense in four of its six games, and scored 34 or more points five times. Colorado State allowed a season-high 608 yards in its 34-27 loss at home to San Jose State last week.
However, that means nothing to Christensen.
“I don’t worry one bit about anybody on our team being overconfident. We haven’t played well enough to do that,” he said.
Up next: vs. Colorado State, noon MT (Root Sports)
Notable: Junior starting strong safety Darrenn White (shoulder) is questionable after being hurt against New Mexico. … Junior defensive end Riley Lange (foot) could see his first playing time of the season since he was injured in fall camp. … Junior starting center Albert Perez didn’t play last week due to illness. Wyoming played two centers last week in sophomore Rafe Kiely and redshirt freshman Chase Roullier. Christensen said all three will compete for the starting job this week, and that he may not name a starter until game day.
— Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Next game: vs. UNLV, 8 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)
The Rainbow Warriors enter their second bye week with the No. 1 quarterback job still unsettled. Sean Schroeder was at the controls for two dramatic, albeit unsuccessful, finishes the past three games. He directed UH to five unanswered touchdown drives against Fresno State on Sept. 28. This past Saturday, Schroeder’s 44-yard touchdown pass to Chris Gant put UH ahead, 37-36. UNLV then drove for the winning field goal, dooming the winless Warriors to their sixth loss this season.
Taylor Graham, who was the starter the first three games, was declared physically fit for the UNLV game. Although he split reps in warm-ups, he did not play. Ikaika Woolsey, who has the strongest arm among the UH quarterbacks, has been used mostly as a read-option scrambler. He had a 36-yard rush on a quarterback draw against UNLV.
Head coach Norm Chow said Graham, Woolsey and Jeremy Higgins will play in Friday morning’s situational scrimmage. Chow said it should not be interpreted that Schroeder is the No. 1 quarterback for UH’s next game, against Colorado State on Oct. 26. Chow said Schroeder has played extensively the past three weeks and he wants to give the other quarterbacks more reps. As always, the quarterback is not allowed to be hit during the scrimmage.
Running back Joey Iosefa, who underwent foot surgery last month, and tight end Jordan Pu’u-Robinson, who is recovering from an MCL injury, are expected to be ready for the CSU game. Freshman wide receivers Keith Kirkwood and Marcus Kemp also should be available. Kirkwood missed the UNLV trip because of concussion-like symptoms. Kemp suffered a foot injury from a mo-ped accident.
Next: Oct. 26 vs. Colorado State
Notable: The Rainbow Warriors rejected an offer a few weeks ago to play Colorado this Saturday in Boulder, Colo. The Buffaloes were seeking a game to replace the one that was canceled Sept. 14 because of the Colorado floods. Missed school time was cited as one of the reasons for turning down the offer. Meanwhile, UH announced last week that it agreed to play Ohio State in the Horseshoe on Sept. 12, 2015. Two weeks after that, the Warriors will play Wisconsin in Madison.
— Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Junior quarterback Cody Fajardo is a three-year starter, and the Wolf Pack and Boise State have met every year since 2001, alternating sites each year. So, it stands to reason that Fajardo has experience with the Broncos’ famed blue turf.
But he doesn’t.
Fajardo had an injured left (non-throwing) shoulder in 2011 and did not play, although he was suited up and watched as senior quarterback Tyler Lantrip and the Wolf Pack offense struggle mightily in a 30-10 loss – the Wolf Pack avoiding the shutout by putting up 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Then-coach Chris Ault questioned whether Fajardo had worked hard enough to get back on the field the week ahead of the Boise State game, and last season offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich said on a radio show that Fajardo needed to get tougher.
Nobody is questioning his toughness now. He played with a torn thumbnail and a knee sprain in the New Mexico Bowl last season, and this season he played after spraining his knee in the first half against UC Davis on Sept. 7.
Fajardo ended up missing 2½ games because of the sprain, and he said last week ahead of the bye that he was 100 percent healthy again and looking forward to getting onto the blue turf with a football in his hands.
“I think it was a great time for this bye so we can prepare for one of the biggest conference games of this season, obviously, playing Boise at Boise,” Fajardo said on Oct. 8, four days after Nevada lost at San Diego State 51-44 in overtime. “And this is going to be the first time I’ve played on the blue turf, so I’m real excited about that. … As an offense, as a defense, the whole team, we just need to get better this week and then focus on Boise.”
The Wolf Pack will be looking to get its ground game going. Nevada is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, which has led in part to Fajardo throwing 54 and 51 passes, respectively, in the last two games. He had never thrown more than 40 passes in a game prior.
The return of guard Connor Talbott, who missed nearly four full games with an ankle sprain and played against San Diego State, should help the team’s run production.
Next game: at Boise State, 6 p.m. MT Saturday (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: The Wolf Pack have lost starting tight end Kolby Arendse (foot) and backup quarterback Devin Combs (knee) for the season, but aside from those two should have every other two-deep player available for the Boise State game. … Boise State has won 12 of the last 13 meetings between the schools, dating back to 1999. … The Wolf Pack did not practice Friday through Sunday as the coaches spent time recruiting.
— Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal
SAN DIEGO STATE
Next game: Oct. 26 vs. Fresno State
SAN JOSE STATE
The Spartans hit the midway point of the season feeling much better than they did two weeks ago.
After dropping three straight in blowout fashion, SJSU earned back-to-back Mountain West road wins to climb back to .500 overall at 3-3 and move to 2-1 in conference play.
“Momentum’s a nice thing to have,” coach Ron Caragher said. “We’re still a football team that’s growing and developing. You can deal with lessons the hard way where you have a tough loss … or you can come off a win and still learn the lesson. I think it helps this football team gain some confidence having that happen, being down two weeks in a row and roaring back. You get that feeling, that belief that you can come back.”
After three straight games with two interceptions, quarterback David Fales had his best outing of the year in the 34-27 win over Colorado State. He completed a season-best 80 percent of his passes (28 of 35) for 431 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Fales was named the Mountain West’s Offensive Player of the Week and now leads the conference with 1,943 passing yards. Fresno State’s Derek Carr has more yards per game, but has played one fewer contest.
The team’s improvements haven’t surprised Fales, who guided the Spartans to an 11-2 season and No. 21 national ranking last year.
“This is how we play,” Fales said. “It’s not new to the seniors. This is how it’s done. That’s what we’re trying to express to the freshmen. This is how we play. This isn’t a shocker. This is how we do it. It’s about sticking together no matter what happens.”
Next game: Oct. 26 vs. Wyoming
Notable: Freshman running back Thomas Tucker, who was carted off the field against Colorado State, was diagnosed with a concussion. He was released from a Loveland, Colo., hospital in time to accompany the team home on Saturday night. It’s unknown how long he’ll be out. … Fales was honored as an honorable mention quarterback performer of the week by College Football Performance Awards. Freshman running back Jarrod Lawson, who had 98 yards rushing, 104 yards receiving and two touchdowns, was an all-purpose honorable mention performer of the week.
— Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News
UNLV is having its best offensive season in more than 30 years, averaging 33.3 points and 447.2 yards per game with its new hurry-up spread offense, significant jumps from last season’s 22.0 and 367.9 averages and a major reason for its four-game winning streak.
The Rebels (4-2, 2-0 MW) haven’t averaged that many points since finishing with a school-record 34.9 in 1980. UNLV’s yardage average is its highest since the school record 491.3 in 1981.
In Saturday’s 39-37 victory over Hawaii, the Rebels picked up a school-record 38 first downs and ran a Mountain West best-ever 113 plays.
But UNLV’s offense will be severely tested to keep pace with a Fresno State team (5-0, 2-0) that is even stronger on that side of the ball.
Rebels coach Bobby Hauck hopes for a few defensive stops, but acknowledged the task in front of his team.
“We’ve got to be honest with ourselves,” Hauck said. “Fresno’s going to score some points. They do on everybody, and to a degree, if we want to have any chance of winning the game, then we’re going to have to keep up.
“We’re going to have to play darn near perfect to go in there and beat them.”
Fresno State averages 47.4 points and 538 yards per game. Quarterback Derek Carr, the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, averages 372.8 yards passing and he has thrown 19 touchdown passes to just four interceptions.
Carr “is as good a player as we’ll see at that position this year,” Hauck said. “We’ve got our hands full with these guys.”
Next game: at Fresno State, 8 p.m. MT (MW Digital Network)
Notable: Quarterback Caleb Herring’s streak of 183 passes without an interception was a UNLV record and tied the Mountain West mark by Wyoming’s Brett Smith in 2012 and 2013. Herring’s run of perfection ended on the final play of the first half against Hawaii. … UNLV has won four consecutive games for the first time since 2000, and it’s the longest regular-season streak since the Rebels won seven in a row in 1984. … Nolan Kohorst was named the Mountain West special teams player of the week, and he was one of three kickers nationally to receive the Lou Groza Award Star of the Week.
— Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal