We continue our Mountain West football round-up this week with the Mountain Division. Follow along with the week's biggest news written by the team beat writers.
Boise State might need to win out to get the division, but Wyoming has emerged as another contender that Utah State needs to worry about. Air Force is trying to get its act together on defense after being trashed for the third straight week. Read on for more about the teams the Aggies are hoping to beat out for a shot at the Mountain West title.
For the West Division notes, click here.
Three straight weeks of beatdowns finally seem to have brought about some changes for the Air Force defense.
Work was spent in practice on jamming receivers, at least one newcomer will step into the lineup as Dexter Walker has moved to first team at strong safety and, perhaps most importantly, the scheme figures to get far less complicated.
"Honestly, I think it was an overthinking of things," freshman defensive end Ryan Watson said. "We had a lot of stuff on our minds before every play, like, 'If they do that, we've got to do this; or if they do that, we've got to do this.' For every one action there were like 10 reactions we had to make. We've dialed it back and we'll see a different Falcon defense this weekend."
The Falcon defense of the past three weeks gave up 150 points in losses to Utah State, Boise State and Wyoming, with opposing quarterbacks completing better than 80 percent of their attempts.
The specifics on the simplified approach won't be entirely clear until this week's game at Nevada, but clearly the thinking is to speed up everything defensively.
"We've just got to play," coach Troy Calhoun said. "We've got to play much cleaner, must faster. It's not that there are mistakes or assignment busts. There are some in there, don't get me wrong. We just have to play a step faster and at least two steps more aggressively."
Next: at Nevada, 6 p.m. MT Saturday (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: Fullback Broam Hart suffered a concussion against Wyoming and likely will miss at least one game. Calhoun said it is possible a tailback, likely Anthony LaCoste, would see time at fullback if Hart can't play. ... Receiver Ty MacArthur will not play for the second straight week because of a concussion. .... The Falcons are nearing a sellout for the Oct. 26 home game against Notre Dame, a contest for which tickets were priced between double and seven times higher than the amount for seats at a typical game.
- Brent Briggeman, The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
The Broncos have slipped into unusual territory this season.
They are 2-2 - the first time they have lost two games before November since 2005. That also was the last time they failed to receive a vote in the two major polls, as they did this week, and the last time they lost to Fresno State, which they did last week.
They still can take the division title but likely will need to win their remaining six conference games.
"I have no doubt (coach Chris Petersen) will get us back to work - he already touched on it," senior quarterback Joe Southwick said. "This team will bounce back. I know they will. It's far from over. It sucks to be 2-2 right now, but this is far from over."
The Broncos' offense has hit its stride with 40-plus points in three straight games but has committed four turnovers in opponents' territory in the past six quarters. The defense ranks 98th in yards allowed (440.8 per game) and 78th in points allowed (28.3 per game) - a steep fall for a team usually ranked in the top 20 in those categories.
Fresno State's four passing touchdowns last week matched the number Boise State allowed all of last season. The defense has used 11 newcomers in the rotation and starts just two seniors.
"It's not any one thing - it's just a lot of little things - and it kind of starts with personnel and experience," Petersen said. "They're good guys who fight hard. We'll improve. But there's no substitute for experience."
Next game: vs. Southern Miss, 8:15 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPNU)
Notable: Southwick injured his throwing arm in the first half last week. He finished the game and is "fine," Petersen said. ... WR Aaron Burks, the Broncos' top deep threat, missed the Fresno State game and is week to week with an injury. ... Boise State has run the most plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision - 341 in four games - with its new up-tempo offense.
- Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman
Colorado State's football team might be just 1-3 this season, but the Rams got a huge boost of confidence by holding their own for more than three quarters Saturday night at No. 1 Alabama.
The Rams trailed just 17-6 entering the fourth quarter and had yet to give up a third-down conversion. They held Alabama's powerful offense to just 66 rushing yards, its lowest output in three years.
In short, they showed the improvement that coaches and players claim the program has made even if the record hasn't yet reflected it. And they did it in front of a sellout crowd of 101,821 fans - the largest crowd ever to see a Colorado State team play - and national ESPN2 television audience.
"A loss is a loss, and that's not something we're happy about," senior center Weston Richburg said. "But the positive thing you can take away from this is the confidence we've gained playing against the top team in the nation, being able to say we held our own, and that's exciting going into the rest of the season."
And it's safe to say the Rams won't face another team of Alabama's caliber again this year. CSU wraps up nonconference play with a home game Saturday against UTEP (1-2), then has a weekend off before starting Mountain West Conference play at home Oct. 12 against San Jose State. The Rams don't have to face the MW's top team this season, Fresno State, in the league's new two-division format, and they get Mountain Division favorite Boise State at home.
"They had some really good players, and we were able to hang with them up front, and I think that's huge for our confidence and huge for the remainder of the season," Richburg said. "That's a positive thing we can take away from the loss."
It was, of course, a loss. And the Rams had some flaws exposed that they'll need to work on, including a breakdown in punt protection that allowed Alabama to score a touchdown on a punt block.
Ultimately, though, the Rams got a lot more than a $1.5 million payday out of this one. As McElwain had hoped, they got a good gauge of how their program stacks up against the game's best. And they learned they're a lot closer than most people thought.
It was a valuable dose of confidence at a critical time.
"I think we grew up a lot today," senior linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. "... I feel as though this will help our season out a lot and people will know that we are capable of playing good, playing good defensively and moving the ball offensively.
"We've just got to manage penalties and small mistakes out there, and we'll be a great team."
Next game: vs. UTEP, 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: Kicker Jared Roberts extended his string of field goals without a miss to 14 with a 45-yarder and 31-yarder. Roberts, a junior, has just one miss in 18 career attempts - on a 51-yard try early last season against North Dakota State. ... WR Jordon Vaden will sit out again Saturday to allow thigh and back injuries to heal during the team's bye next week, McElwain said Monday. ... WR Charles Lovett, last year's leading receiver, is expected to play for the first time this season against UTEP. He's been out with a knee injury suffered in fall camp. ... CSU will wear orange jerseys for its annual Ag Day game to honor the school's past. The school colors of Colorado A&M, as CSU was previously known, were pumpkin (orange) and alfalfa (green).
- Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan
No magic elixir was found during UNM's bye week, head coach and coordinators say, to cure what ailed the Lobos (1-2) during their first three games: poor tackling, inconsistent running game, an underdeveloped passing game.
The only possible solution? More hard work.
"It all comes back to the same thing," coach Bob Davie said. "We just have to get better. I think our players realize that. It's just playing sudden, it's playing faster, it's making those tackles that we've missed, it's being more consistent on offense with our execution."
Through three games, opponents have rushed for an average of 6.4 yards per carry. The solution is not in schematics, defensive coordinator Jeff Mills said, but in fundamentals.
"Wrapping up and staying square," Mills said. "That was an obvious thing that stood out (while watching film)."
Offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse said he's not sure what to think about his offense ineffective in the season-opening, 21-13 loss to UTSA, virtually unstoppable on the ground in a 42-35 overtime victory over UTEP and too little, too late in a 49-27 loss at Pittsburgh.
One unpleasant consistency: the passing game, which looked promising in fall camp with both sophomore quarterback Cole Gautsche and junior-college transfer QB Clayton Mitchem at the controls. Through three games, the Lobos have averaged just 76 yards in the air and 5.6 yards per attempt.
"Obviously I haven't been happy with the passing game overall," DeBesse said. "... There's a lot of factors that go into that."
Next game: vs. UNLV, 6 p.m. MT Saturday, ROOT Sports
Notable: Starting center Dillon Farrell, who missed the Lobos' loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 14 because of a knee injury sustained at UTEP, is expected to return for the UNLV game. The same goes for kickoff returner/backup wide receiver Chase Clayton, who has missed the past two games after injuring a knee against UTSA. ... As they do every Monday, the Lobos practiced without a handful of fifth-year seniors who have late afternoon/early evening graduate-level classes: running back Kasey Carrier, inside linebacker Dallas Bollema, tight end Andrew Aho and others. "Everywhere I've ever been, it's been that way," Davie said. "It's just something you work around." ... Because New Mexico does not play Pittsburgh again in the foreseeable future, the UNM coaching staff exchanged information with the Pitt staff about strengths and weaknesses identified in the Lobos-Panthers game. "We certainly did visit with Pittsburgh," Davie said, "just on some schematic things back and forth, sharing information."
- Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal
The Cowboys (3-1) play their final nonconference game of the regular season Saturday at Texas State (2-1). Bobcats coach Dennis Franchione remembers Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith, who was a true freshman starter in 2011 the last time the two teams played. Wyoming won 45-10.
"He wasn't like a freshman then. He's probably like a 10-year guy in the NFL by now, maybe not 10 but maybe six," Franchione said.
Smith had a big game in last week's 56-23 win at Air Force, the Mountain West opener for Wyoming. Smith set a school record with 511 yards of total offense. He was 35 of 41 for 373 yards and four touchdowns. It also was the first game this season Smith didn't throw an interception.
That was the most points Wyoming has ever scored in 52 games against Air Force, and also its most lopsided win in the series.
He recorded game highs with 16 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown. Smith had a 74-yard run on Wyoming's first offensive play of the game the longest offensive play of the season for the Cowboys. It was Smith's second career 100-yard rushing game, and he was two yards shy of matching his career high in rushing. He had 140 yards at halftime, but lost two yards on five carries in the second half.
"I thought Brett did a fantastic job of going out and executing the offense as far as going through his progressions and reads," coach Dave Christensen said. "He was spot-on, but I think Brett would be the first to tell you the other 10 guys around him also got their jobs done."
Smith is ranked in the top 10 nationally in six statistical categories.
He is second in total offense (403.5 yards per game) and passing yards (1,315), tied for fourth in touchdown passes (13), tied for fifth in points responsible for (84), sixth in completions per game (29) and ninth in passing yards per game (328.8).
Smith earned his sixth career Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week Award, and was only the second quarterback in league history to throw for 300 yards and run for 100 in a game. Omar Clayton of UNLV did it in 2007.
The Cowboys are eighth in total offense (556.3 ypg) and have scored 30 or more points in four consecutive games in a single season for the first time since 1996.
Texas State, a member of the Sun Belt Conference, lost at No. 24 Texas Tech 33-7 last Saturday. The Red Raiders run a spread offense like Wyoming.
Christensen said that Texas State is second to Nebraska in terms of athleticism among the teams Wyoming has played thus far.
Up next: at Texas State, 5 p.m. MT Saturday (Longhorn Network)
Notable: Junior backup linebacker Nehemie Kankolongo was suspended one game by the Mountain West on Monday for targeting after a hit he made on a kickoff return against Air Force. Kankolongo was not penalized on the play, which resulted in a fumble that Wyoming recovered. The Cowboys eventually scored a touchdown. ... Christensen said he sent the league film on two hits by Air Force players to see if it would hand down any punishments against the Falcons. ... Junior reserve wide receiver Trey Norman will miss his second straight game due to injury. ... Wyoming is second nationally in first downs (119). Only Texas A&M has more. ... The Cowboys have 11 players from Texas on their roster, including three defensive starters in senior free safety Marqueston Huff, junior cornerback Blair Burns and redshirt freshman linebacker Lucas Wacha. There is one on offense in junior receiver Jalen Claiborne.
- Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle