We're back with another edition of the Mountain West football round-up, a notebook written by the beat writers who cover each team. Get to know the biggest storylines for each team every week.
This week, the Mountain Division is coming off a pretty hearty effort, with its teams going 4-2 (and Air Force lost to Boise State). But huge challenges loom: Colorado State heads to Alabama, and in conference, Boise State plays Fresno State in a contest that potentially has BCS consequences, and Wyoming and Air Force tee off after a tense meeting last time.
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
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