Kragthorpe: BYU, Utah, USU should get road wins
After the convergence of Stanford, Georgia Tech and Boise State in Utah produced a memorable day of football last weekend, Saturday's coincidence is that all three of the state's FBS teams are playing southeast of their homes.
A closer look at the schedule, in chronological order, or from east to west:
BYU at Houston, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Houston's Cougars may be 5-0, but this is a game that BYU's Cougars should win. The visit to Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans, marks BYU's first trip out of the state since the Aug. 31 season opener at Virginia, and it should serve as a gauge of how much quarterback Taysom Hill and the offense have grown since that day.
For BYU, this game is all about sustaining the momentum of the last three weeks going into next Friday's game with Boise State. The Cougars of 2013 ultimately will be judged on how they perform against their three remaining high-profile opponents: Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. But a strong performance in Houston wouldn't hurt.
BYU's defense has gone 12 games and 12 months without allowing more than 21 points in a game, so that's another measurement for this game. The pick: BYU 35, Houston 21.
Utah State at New Mexico, 7 p.m. MDT
The Aggies are at a crossroads. With a 3-4 record and a freshman quarterback now starting after coming out of redshirt status at halftime of last week's loss to Boise State, USU is in danger of having its season crumble.
Then again, a solid showing in Albuquerque could launch the Aggies toward a strong finish. Going into the season, even without the variable of quarterback Chuckie Keeton's knee injury, there was a decent chance USU would have a losing record at this point with losses to Utah, USC, BYU and Boise State.
With Keeton, though, the Aggies were likely to win their last five games.
Such a closing run remains possible, but it will take some poised play from quarterback Darell Garretson and improvement from a defense that allowed 31 points to BYU and 34 to Boise State. The other factor is New Mexico and other remaining opponents such as UNLV and Wyoming have exceeded expectations, so merely becoming bowl-eligible is now an issue for USU.
Amid all the injuries to the offense, USU needs its defense to re-establish itself, and that should happen against the run-oriented Lobos. The pick: Utah State 31, New Mexico 24.
Utah at Arizona, 8 p.m. MDT
Viewing the rest of October as a two-game package, the Utes (4-2) are in a position where they can become bowl-eligible with wins at Arizona and USC and raise their sights from that point, or they can regress and turn this season back into a quest just to get six victories.
Focusing on Saturday's game, they need their offense to score in the 30s. For all of the offense's success against Stanford last week, particularly through three quarters, the Utes should have scored more than 27 points. They turned three great scoring chances into only two field goals in the second half, which proved sufficient, but also made the victory more agonizing than it needed to be.
Last November, even with quarterback Travis Wilson passing for 311 yards (which remains his career high) against Arizona, the Utes scored only 24 points against a bad defense. The Wildcats have improved since then, but they're still vulnerable. So this is an opportunity for the Utes to do a better job of turning yardage into points, and they will need to do so to overcome a capable Arizona offense. The pick: Utah 35, Arizona 28.