Week 9 finds the West Division preparing for the stretch run in a myriad of ways. From turnover battles and kicking games to beefing up the running back position, the concerns, beat writers across the conference have noted, are all over the map.
Fresno State remains the top team in the West, but the Bulldogs are looking for more turnovers on the defensive end. San Diego State isn't happy with its kicking game. UNLV might need a new running back for rival Nevada, which is looking to pack its stadium. San Jose State looks to build off its recent run, while Hawaii is looking for anything at all to build on.
Check out the Mountain Division notes here.
It was a topic of conversation before fall camp had even started, mainly because the Fresno State Bulldogs had such success prying the football away from their opponents a year ago, and because teams that do that one year historically have not been able to do it the next.
Whether a statistical anomaly or there is a difference in emphasis or the way it was coached one year to the next, it is something of a mystery. But only 19 of the 116 teams ranked in the Top 10 or tied for 10th in the bowl subdivision in turnovers gained over the past 10 years had been able to repeat the following season and more than half, 59, had had their number of turnovers fall by 10 or more.
And here are the Bulldogs, a perfect 6-0 and ranked No. 17 in the first BCS standings, but stewing about a number of things including a turnover margin that is only ninth-best in the Mountain West Conference at minus-1 - they have lost 13 turnovers while gaining 12.
In the last game, a victory over UNLV, they did not create a turnover for the first time in 19 games.
"Sometimes it can be cyclical,'' said coach Tim DeRuyter, who had the Bulldogs jump to fifth in the nation in turnovers gained from a tie for 119th and last with a turnover margin of plus-15 last year.
"Sure, you can have dips, but it shouldn't be 50 percent of what you had the year before. We have to continue to emphasize it. We had opportunities the other night. L.J. (Jones) will tell you, that one ball that was overthrown hit him in the arm and he has to make that play. We had a chance when Ejiro (Ederaine) knocked the ball loose, it was on the ground, and he should have got on it and made the official make a call. But because he didn't, he blew the whistle and it was over.
"It's going to be a continual emphasis for us. If we'll take care of it on offense and create more on defense, we'll get that back to where we want it to be.''
But with the Bulldogs' defense finally playing faster and more consistently the past few weeks in victories at Idaho and against UNLV, turnovers could come in greater numbers.
"When you're playing fast and not thinking, you have a chance to make plays,'' DeRuyter said. ''(Phillip Thomas) just played natural football last year and created a ton of plays. We have some guys that didn't have that experience level this year and they're starting to come into their own and I think it's going to come. Two weeks ago it did. Last week we had opportunities and didn't quite make it.
"But we're getting closer to the point where we have some guys playing harder, playing more confidently and hopefully more takeaways will result from that."
Next game: at San Diego State, 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN2)
Notable: Weird stat: In its six games this season, Fresno State has defended 480 plays. Of those, opponents have gained 1,312 yards on 445 plays and 1,206 yards on the other 35. That's 2.9 yards per play, 34.5 yards per play, and one very large discrepancy. ... Davante Adams has caught seven TD passes over the past two games including four last week against UNLV. He tied the school record for career touchdown receptions with 25 in only 19 games.
Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee
This week - and for the rest of the season - each Rainbow Warrior will be sporting a green "Play Hard" wristband. The players wore similar bands last year, Norm Chow's first season as head coach. The bands were re-issued this week as a symbolic re-commitment to the team. The Rainbow Warriors, who had a bye this past weekend, were winless in their first six games. For the second half, they will play six games in six weeks, including road games against Utah State, Navy and Wyoming.
For the first time in a month, quarterbacks Taylor Graham, Sean Schroeder, Ikaika Woolsey and Jeremy Higgins are each healthy. Graham started the first three games but missed the next three because of a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder. Graham played well in last week's scrimmage, teaming with Bubba Poueu-Luna on a 60-yard scoring pass. Schroeder, Woolsey and Graham are expected to have roles in Saturday's homecoming game against Colorado State.
The Warriors expect to expand the defensive rotation this week. In the past game, UNLV amassed 113 plays. Cornerback Ne'Quan Phillips and safety John Hardy-Tuliau played every defensive snap, as well as six plays each on special teams. Defensive end Beau Yap logged 111 plays. Daniel Masifilo, an Arizona State transfer who was a wide receiver through the first six games, moved to cornerback to boost the depth in the secondary. Freshman Trayvon Henderson is now the No. 1 nickelback.
Next game: vs. Colorado State, 10 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)
Notable: The Rainbow Warriors, who were in 3-4 and 3-3 fronts the past three games, are expected to play more 4-3 schemes this week. ... Running back Faga Wily, who started the first two games, will not play the rest of the season after continuing to experience complications from a concussion.
Saturday's UNLV-Nevada football game is nearing a sellout, Nevada officials said Monday.
Only about 350 tickets remained at close of business Monday for the 4:05 p.m. MT kickoff at Mackay Stadium, which has a capacity of 30,000. The annual rivalry game is also the Wolf Pack's homecoming game and is being played on Nevada Day weekend.
The rivalry game hasn't been a sellout in Reno since 2003.
Nevada has won eight straight in the series, the longest winning streak by either team in the 38-game history, which began in 1969. This just the sixth game in the series that is a conference game, however. Both teams were in the Big West Conference from 1992 to 1995. They were reunited when Nevada joined the Mountain West on July 1, 2012.
Brian Polian, Nevada's first-year coach, also said at his weekly Quarterback Club luncheon that both teams will wear their usual home jerseys - Nevada in blue and UNLV in red.
"A couple years ago there was a deal when UCLA and (USC) played each other, both teams wore their home uniforms. That is what we'll do this week," Polian said. "... It's one of those games. It's one of those rivalry games, a neat little tradition, and I think it's good for both schools."
Polian, whose team is coming off a 34-17 loss at Boise State on Saturday, might be in his first year, but he knows some history about the series, and he asked fans to be on their best behavior.
"Last Saturday was my first experience at Boise State as a visitor, and those fans, their fans in particular and their staff, are some of the classiest people that I have ever been around," Polian said. "They want to beat your tail, but they treat you in a first-class manner. And that leads me into what we're about to do this weekend. I implore our fan base ... I hope our fan base will treat the UNLV fans with the utmost respect. Rivalry games are fun. It's part of what makes college, but college football is ... not about antagonizing other fans or conflicts in the stands or having so many spirits in the parking lot that you're stumbling in the stadium.
"I hope it will be loud. I hope you will help us sell those last (350) seats. ... I hope this can be a raucous atmosphere on Saturday. And I hope that when the visitors from the South leave, I hope that they leave disappointed, but I also hope that they leave saying, 'You know what? That Wolf Pack fan base is a classy group of people.' "
After Sunday's practice, Polian walked with the team into the locker room. He had had the Fremont Cannon moved from its spot in the Cashell Field House into the locker room during practice. The cannon will remain in the locker room throughout the week.
"Coach just talked about how much it means to him, kind of letting the freshmen know how big a game it is," quarterback Cody Fajardo said. "It's going to be a sold-out crowd, a live atmosphere."
Next game: vs. UNLV, 4:05 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN3)
Notable: Polian said at his weekly luncheon on Monday that he thought left tackle Joel Bitonio will be a second- or third-round pick in the NFL Draft next May. He said he thought Bitonio would likely be a guard in the NFL. ... Senior offensive guard Fred Lavulo was suspended for the Boise State game for what Polian called conduct detrimental to the team. Polian would not say definitively that Lavulo will play this week. ... Aside from starting tight end Kolby Arendse (foot) and backup quarterback Devin Combs (knee), both of whom are out for the season, the Wolf Pack should be fully healthy for the UNLV game.
Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal
San Diego State
San Diego State addressed its biggest bye-week question head-on last week, dropping its two placekicker options into a competition for the job in this week's Mountain West Conference matchup with Fresno State.
The focus: Kicking in pressure situations.
Senior West Feer had missed three straight field-goal attempts - not to mention a pair of PATs - after starting the year 8-for-8 on field goals. He was replaced in the Aztecs' last game by sophomore kickoff specialist Seamus McMorrow, who missed his second extra-point attempt in the game.
"We want to make them more accountable for every kick in practice," special teams coach Kevin McGarry said last week. " ... There are consequences if you don't make the kick. They take so many of them in practice that we are trying to isolate a certain number of them every day that are going to mean something to everybody if they don't make it."
The competition, which was expected to continue into this week, placed a special focus on kicks with consequences on the line for the entire team. Miss a kick and the entire team runs.
Both Feer and McMorrow went 4-for-4 during Tuesday's practice and they combined to go 7-for-10 Wednesday as the entire team looked on - and then ran three gassers to pay for the misses.
"That's what happens in a game, right?" McGarry said. "They miss a field goal and we don't score points and that impacts 105, 110 guys. It changes the outcome of a game, maybe not the outcome, but certainly the course of a game. We want them to understand that ... every kick matters. Extra points matter."
Next game: vs. Fresno State, 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN2)
Notable: Sophomore running back Chase Price (shoulder) practiced Tuesday and Wednesday without issue. Although he has yet to be cleared for games, Aztecs coach Rocky Long said he doesn't anticipate not having him available for this week's game. "He's catching the ball," Long said. "He's raising his shoulder. I think there's no problem. I think he'll be cleared for the game." ... After playing three games in 13 days, Long said his team started its bye-week practices last week without a lot of enthusiasm. Not that that was all that unexpected - or concerning. "They are putting in their work time - their hourly work time," Long said. "There's no extra energy, no excitement, but that's normal since there's no game on Saturday. They are going to the factory and working. ... I'll be concerned if the excitement is not there next Tuesday."
Jeff Sanders, U-T San Diego
San Jose State
After enduring a difficult early schedule, the Spartans have a chance to get on a run as the schedule appears more manageable for the time being.
San Jose State (3-3, 2-1 Mountain West) has won two in a row, beating Hawaii and Colorado State. Now Wyoming comes to town fresh off a blowout 52-22 loss to the same Colorado State team the Spartans beat on the road the week before.
Coach Ron Caragher's task is making sure his team isn't looking at that score.
"A plus B does not equal C in this game," Caragher said. "You can't look at previous scoreboards and make a carry-over."
These are exactly the type of games SJSU needs to win to prove its mettle in the Mountain West Conference. Few outside the program expect the Spartans to be an annual contender, but consistently being a middle of the pack team in position for a bowl game seems reasonable.
If the Spartans can win this week before a homecoming crowd, they'll suddenly look in good shape toward gaining bowl eligibility. SJSU is a 6-point favorite against Wyoming and also should expect to be favored in its next two games, Nov. 2 at UNLV and Nov. 9 at home against San Diego State.
Six wins may not be enough to actually secure a bowl berth for the Spartans. But if they can get to 6-3, one win over their final three games against Nevada, Navy and Fresno State should be manageable.
Next game: vs. Wyoming, 5 p.m. MT Saturday (Root Sports/MW Digital Network)
Notable: Junior wide receiver Jabari Carr, who dislocated his shoulder Sept. 27 vs. Utah State, will return this week. He's second on the team with 23 catches, but has only 150 yards. He started eight games for the Spartans last season and caught 62 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns. ... Freshman running back Thomas Tucker, carted off the field against Colorado State with a concussion, is not ready to return yet. Tyler Ervin, who began the season as the starting running back but suffered a high ankle sprain in the opener, also still does not appear ready to return. Ervin has a redshirt available, but Caragher previously said he still would like to see Ervin return this season. The Spartans have found some solid options at running back that have produced nearly 400 yards rushing the past two games, but Ervin still can be a difference-maker as a kick returner.
- Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News
UNLV's promising season could be facing a real crisis, depending on the health of star running back Tim Cornett, who injured his right knee Saturday at Fresno State.
He is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game at Nevada.
Cornett became the Rebels' all-time leading rusher in that game. His 3,158 yards broke the previous mark of 3,149 set by Mike Thomas 39 years ago.
And Cornett, a senior, is in the midst of his best season. He averages 101.3 yards per game and 5.3 per rush, and has run for nine touchdowns.
Behind Cornett is a group of talented but inexperienced backs.
No. 2 Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is capable of producing big plays, averaging 9.7 yards per carry. But take away gains of 64, 79, 33 and 73 yards, and the average drops to 3.3
Northwestern transfer Adonis Smith has received only three carries over the past three games combined, and he averages just 2.9 yards per rush.
Keith Whitely is a freshman with a lot of promise, and in his lone extended action this season, he rushed for 57 yards on nine carries against Western Illinois.
"We feel like we've got pretty good depth at running back, so it's next man up," coach Bobby Hauck said. "It will probably be a couple of guys getting carries, I suppose."
Ideally for UNLV, Cornett won't be out long and will help the Rebels make their first bowl since 2000. UNLV is 4-3, the first time since 2003 the Rebels have had a winning record this deep into a season.
Next game: at Nevada, 4 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN3)
Notable: UNLV will try to break an eight-game losing streak against the Wolf Pack. ... The Rebels haven't won in Reno since 2003. ... Both teams will wear their home jerseys.
Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal