With the weeks getting on, the Mountain West is starting to get some contenders emerging at the top. Chief in the Mountain Division race is Boise State, Wyoming, and the Aggies — that is, if Utah State can get itself together starting this week against New Mexico.
We'll kick it off with the Lobos, who seem to find themselves in a similar position to Utah State's last week. The quarterback situation there is "fluid." Read up on Utah State's next opponent, their last one, and the rest of the Mountain Division in our round-up.
Note that Air Foce is excluded this week for a bye.
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
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
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
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