College football:

Mountain Best: Most of the league is chasing this year’s newcomers

The conference schedule is just starting to get into full swing, but UNR and Fresno State already look like the class of the conference

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Associated Press

UNR quarterback Cody Fajardo (left) cuts away from Hawaii linebacker Brenden Daley during the Wolf Pack’s blowout victory on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. The difference in talent in the Mountain West right doesn’t get any larger than between these two teams.

LasVegasSun.com Sports Talk

Accepting UNLV on the road and swinging through golf

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Las Vegas Sun reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern dive into UNLV football's most recent loss and break down their own gambling weekend as well as the upcoming PGA event in town.

As we prepare to enter the bulk of the conference schedule, it appears more and more likely that a newcomer is going to walk away with the trophy.

There’s a lot of time left, of course. Wyoming still hasn’t played a league game while a few other programs, including UNLV, are wrapping up the non-conference portion of their schedule this week. But when you take a look at the teams capable of winning the league, you can’t realistically make it past four teams.

Half of those — UNR and Fresno State — are in their first season of Mountain West play. And as of this week they also happen to lead the Mountain Best rankings, with the Wolf Pack holding steady at No. 1 and the Bulldogs moving up to No. 2.

Every team in the league has got flaws they’re constantly working to fix. These two just have fewer of them right now, and they also look more capable of overcoming those weaknesses with their strengths in other areas.

Like I said, it’s still early. Things could change. But for now everyone else is looking up at the new guys.

    • 1. UNR (4-1, 1-0)

      Previously ranked first

      Last week: Won, 34-21, at Texas State

      This week: at Wyoming (1-3), Saturday at 4 p.m. on NevadaWolfPack.com

      Line: -16 (2-3 ATS)

      Breakdown: The Wolf Pack don’t always win pretty, but in the end Saturday’s was rather decisive.

      UNR trailed 21-20 at halftime and then put the game away with two touchdowns, a rush and a pass by Cody Fajardo, in the third quarter. Fajardo had a solid passing day and averaged nearly 10 yards per carry on the ground, backing up the always solid Stefphon Jefferson, who had 178 yards on 40 carries.

      In the end UNR doubled up Texas State in total yardage (559-254) and amassed 31 first downs to the Bobcats’ 18.

      Against a team like Texas State, which is playing its first year in Division I-A, the Wolf Pack can get away with one good half. They could probably do the same this week against Wyoming, a team coming off a bye week that likely needs more than rest to have a chance.

      After Wyoming, UNR comes to Sam Boyd Stadium for the Battle for the Fremont Cannon. For that one UNLV fans are hoping the Wolf Pack don’t show up in either half.

      Chris Ault on his team’s lackluster first 30 minutes on Saturday: “The first half we were just out there. I don’t think we played with the type of energy you have to have.”

    • Fresno State's Robbie Rouse rushes in for a touchdown against Colorado's Paul Vigo and Chidera Uzo-Diribe in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012.

      2. Fresno State (3-2, 1-0)

      Previously ranked third

      Last week: Won, 52-40, vs. San Diego State

      This week: at Colorado State (1-4, 0-1), Saturday at 4 p.m. on Time Warner Cable SportsNet

      Line: -16 (5-0 ATS)

      Breakdown: While sitting in the Utah State press box for the second half of UNLV’s 35-13 loss Saturday I tried to keep up with the Fresno State-San Diego State game, and seemingly every time I refreshed the page someone had scored. It was dizzying to keep track of.

      The Aztecs led 21-7 after the first quarter, then the Bulldogs stormed ahead in the second quarter with four touchdowns in about a nine-minute span. The half came to a close with Fresno State returning a blocked extra point all the way for two points.

      Exciting though it was this was by no means a high quality game. The teams combined to commit nine turnovers and 16 penalties. Derek Carr’s gaudy 536 passing yards say just as much about the state of the Aztecs’ passing defense as it does the Bulldogs’ offense.

      Either way, if you’re Fresno State it’s nice to know that when you face a mediocre defense the points are easy to come by.

      Tim DeRuyter on his team's recovery from a 21-7 deficit: “I really liked the resolve our team showed last week. We dug ourselves a big hole … just happy how we finished.”

    • 3. Boise State (3-1, 1-0)

      Previously ranked second

      Last week: Won, 32-29, at New Mexico

      This week: at Southern Miss (0-4), Saturday at 9 a.m. on Fox Sports Network

      Line: -11 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: The Broncos are probably the most difficult team to figure out in the conference.

      For starters, it’s impossible to look at them without taking their success over the past decade into account. There’s an inherent bias that exists and is exemplified by the fact this team is still ranked in one of the polls.

      But that’s not completely unfounded, either. I mean, just look at the first half of Saturday’s game. A Boise State offense that has often looked lost scored three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. All was right with the world. Well, at least until the second half.

      New Mexico stormed back and nearly pulled off what may have been regarded as the biggest possible upset when you looked at the schedules in the preseason. Instead, Boise State survived to confound another day.

      The dominant Broncos are in that roster somewhere, they just may not be consistent enough to come out on top of the league again this year.

      Chris Petersen on surviving by three points at New Mexico: “That’s how it goes sometimes. Proud of our guys for fighting hard and finding a way to win. Hopefully there are some good, hard lessons learned in that one.”

    • Rebels Tajh Hasson (29) and Tim Hasson (43) take down Air Force wide receiver Ty MacArthur during the second quarter of play at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

      4. Air Force (2-2, 1-1)

      Previously ranked fourth

      Last week: Won, 42-21, vs. Colorado State

      This week: vs. Navy (1-3), Saturday at 8:30 a.m. on CBS

      Line: -7.5 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: I wish every game came with its own tagline, like “UNLV vs. UNR: Because you never know, right?” Obviously by the middle of the season they would get more and more incoherent, but that would be part of the fun.

      I dub this game, “Air Force vs. Navy: More options than you can shake a stick at.” This tagline is obvious to me, because 1. With these two academies you’re always in for a prolific number of pitches and 2. I love to imagine a guy standing on the sidelines physically unable to shake his stick anymore. There are simply too many options for him to keep up with. I have no idea why he’s at the game or holding a stick, but there he is.

      The Falcons had little trouble getting past Colorado State last week and this shouldn’t be too much harder. Air Force is the class of the academies this year while Navy ranks fourth to last in the country in scoring offense. Both teams are in the bottom six, along with New Mexico, in passing offense.

      If that guy with the stick thinks Saturday is hard, just wait until Air Force plays Army in a matchup of the nation’s top two rushing teams. By the end of that the Falcons should be walking out with the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy and that guy will need an arm transplant.

      Troy Calhoun on how Navy’s offense differs from years past: “As you get into the game I think you get a chance to experience that. They’ve been doing a little shotgun this year.”

    • 5. San Diego State (2-3, 0-1)

      Previously ranked fifth

      Last week: Lost, 52-40, at Fresno State

      This week: vs. Hawaii (1-3, 0-1), Saturday at 5 p.m. on CBS Sports Network

      Line: -22.5 (2-3 ATS)

      Breakdown: San Diego State coach Rocky Long is unhappy with his pass defense and he’ll say that to anyone willing to listen.

      In the past three weeks the Aztecs have allowed 655, 290 and 434 yards through the air. They rank in the bottom 12 in the country in pass defense.

      The good news is the secondary isn’t in complete shambles as likely NFL draft pick Leon McFadden has three interceptions, with two of them going back for touchdowns. San Diego State also has a decent offense build around a really good running game that should look stellar against lowly Hawaii this week.

      The performance on either side of the ball against the Warriors probably won’t solve anything long term but it should be good for their self-esteem.

      Long on the influences of his 3-3-5 defense: “Right now I’m thinking about going and being influenced by someone else because we’re so bad on defense.”

    • 6. New Mexico (2-3, 0-1)

      Previously ranked sixth

      Last week: Lost, 32-29, vs. Boise State

      This week: vs. Texas State (2-2), Saturday at 3 p.m. on GoLobos.com

      Line: -3.5 (3-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: Before he really got started at New Mexico, former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie called up one of the few guys who had success leading the Lobos.

      Dennis Franchione went 33-36 in six seasons, including a 9-4 record in 1997 that got the Lobos into their first bowl game since 1961. It helped having Chicago Bears All-Pro Brian Urlacher on that team, but part of the challenge Davie wanted to understand was how to get guys like that into Albuquerque.

      Now Franchione returns to town with another rebuilding project and it’s unclear exactly who’s further along in the process.

      Franchione is in his second year at Texas State, which is in its first season of Division I-A play, competing in the WAC. Davie, the first-year coach at New Mexico, has had surprising early success, including a road win at New Mexico State and nearly picking off ranked Boise State last week.

      And the teams are actually somewhat easy to compare because they both run remarkably similar offensive systems. Neither team passes unless they must, opting instead for a modified option attack. The defense are similar, too, in that they both give up a lot of points.

      The line opened with New Mexico favored by just one and has already moved nearly a field goal in the Lobos’ direction. That tells me all I need to know.

      Davie on his team’s option offense out of the Pistol formation: “We know why we’re in our offense. The reason I decided to be in this style is because I know the difficulties it presents. This week we’re on the flip side and have to defend it.”

    • Utah State linebacker Jake Doughty, left, and other Utah State players tackle UNLV running back Tim Cornett (35) for a safety in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Logan, Utah. Utah State  defeated UNLV  35-13.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

      7. UNLV (1-4, 1-0)

      Previously ranked seventh

      Last week: Lost, 35-13, at Utah State

      This week: at Louisiana Tech (4-0), Saturday at 4 p.m. on Cox (Chs. 96 and 1096) and ESPN3.com

      Line: +24.5 (3-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: This week Rebels fans may want to just avoid checking the scoreboard altogether. It’s unlikely you’re going to find anything that makes you feel good.

      Louisiana Tech scores, through the air and on the ground, early and often. If you get up and go to the fridge they may score before you get back. Make it a bathroom break and it could be 14 points.

      All that offense comes with a price on defense — the Bulldogs allow 37 points a game — but they’re also so good at creating turnovers that it nearly eliminates the opponents’ advantage on that side of the ball. Make no mistake, UNLV is going to score. There’s an outside chance it could be the Rebels’ highest-scoring game of the season, surpassing the 38-35 victory against Air Force.

      But if UNLV somehow piles up points like that it’s hard to believe the Bulldogs won’t be coming back with an answer at nearly every turn. Louisiana Tech’s passing attack is simply too good to be slowed down by a secondary like UNLV’s that makes so many mistakes.

      The Rebels’ best plan in most games is a shootout, which is exactly what Louisiana Tech wants. Get ready for some points.

      Bobby Hauck on the team’s 17-game road losing streak: “I don’t think it’s a mental block. I think it’s the fact that we’re not good enough.”

    • 8. Wyoming (1-3)

      Previously ranked ninth

      Last week: Idle

      This week: at UNR (4-1, 1-0), Saturday at 4 p.m. on NevadaWolfPack.com

      Line: +16 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: A week to get healthy and get in some extra prep is always useful. Of course, none of those benefits may show up in Reno this Saturday.

      The Wolf Pack are likely going to be motivated to put together a solid game after struggling against Texas State and the Cowboys don’t have the personnel to get in their way. There will rarely be a bigger difference in the running games of two teams on the same field than this when, which features the nation’s leading rusher (UNR’s Stefphon Jefferson) and the fifth-ranked attack opposite Wyoming’s 108th-ranked rushing offense (117.5 ypg).

      Wyoming can score a little bit and their best plan is going to be completely centered on getting lucky in a shootout. The Cowboys will likely need a few turnovers and, if possible, they need to be able to score a lot while taking significant time off the clock.

      When you look at the list of the challenges facing Wyoming in this game you may start to wonder, as I do, why the line is only +16. Time to get to the book.

      Dave Christensen on the bye week: “We got our kids a chance to get away from football a little bit to get them recharged for the final eight weeks.”

    • 9. Colorado State (1-4, 0-1)

      Previously ranked eighth

      Last week: Lost, 42-21, at Air Force

      This week: vs. Fresno State (3-2, 1-0), Saturday at 4 p.m. on Time Warner Cable SportsNet

      Line: +16 (1-4 ATS)

      Breakdown: An injury to sophomore Garrett Grayson gives this week’s start at quarterback to fifth-year senior M.J. McPeek. The experience sounds good until you realize there must be a reason he was beat out by a guy three years younger.

      Even with a healthy Grayson there was little chance Saturday was going to go well for the Rams. They just gave up 42 points to an Air Force offense that doesn’t have nearly the weapons Fresno State does. Well, at least on the field they don’t (insert your eye roll/boo here).

      Of the three first-year coaches in the league, only Bob Davie at New Mexico has found a surprising measure of success. Both Colorado State’s Jim McElwain and Hawaii’s Norm Chow are still talking about culture changes. Davie has been able to move a little bit past that into more on-field issues.

      McElwain on defending against both Fresno State’s passing and running offense: “You sit back and bleed a slow death and let them pick you apart, or you try to control the run. … There’s no easy answer.”

    • A Brigham Young player dives onto a fumble as Hawaii offensive linesman Frank Loyd Jr. (70) and tight end Ryan Hall (87) watch during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, in Provo, Utah.

      10. Hawaii (1-3, 0-1)

      Previously ranked 10th

      Last week: Lost, 47-0, at BYU

      This week: at San Diego State (2-3, 0-1), Saturday at 5 p.m. on CBS Sports Network

      Line: +22.5 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: The travel component seems like it would be impossible to overlook when you take the job at Hawaii. Still, being confronted with it for the first time has been pretty jarring for coach Norm Chow.

      With back-to-back games on the mainland, some coaches have kept the Warriors away from the island all week. Chow said he won’t do that because of the amount of class it would force his players to miss. Instead they have to fly back and forth, on commercial flights, twice in just more than a week.

      It’s a routine the players are somewhat used to but it’s throwing Chow off. And while his guys may be used to the travel that doesn’t mean they’ve figured out a way to conquer it. Making things even harder this week is that Hawaii is down four defensive lineman.

      At this point there’s really no good news for Chow. He’s just got to make the best of it.

      Norm Chow on last week’s loss: “We are awfully disappointed with the way we played last Friday. I think our guys are embarrassed.”

    Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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