College football:

Mountain Best: Rebels climb up the rankings after big victory against Air Force

The Wolf Pack stay on top thanks largely to running back Stefphon Jefferson, the nation’s leading rusher

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Stephen Sylvanie

UNLV runningback Tim Cornett (35) celebrates with teammates after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the Air Force Falcons at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 | 4:50 p.m.

Wherever the Mountain West goes on the national scene this year, it will get there on the ground.

Boise State is clinging to No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, and UNR would be there if not for giving up a hail mary to South Florida three weeks ago, but where the Mountain West doesn’t lack for high rankings is in national rushing leaders. Starting with the Wolf Pack’s Stefphon Jefferson, the top rusher in the country, the Mountain West has five players in the top 10 for total rushing yards.

After Jefferson (699 yds, 5.7 ypc, 11 TDs), there’s Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse at No. 4 (517 yds, 6.1 ypc, 6 TDs), UNLV’s Tim Cornett at No. 7 (471 yds, 5.4 ypc, 4 TDs), No. 8 Cody Getz of Air Force (461 yds, 7.9 ypc, 4 TDs) and Adam Muema of San Diego State at No. 9 (456 yds, 7.1 ypc, 4 TDs).

With the way most of these offenses focus on running the ball, a few of these guys are going to stay near the top all year. Just which one that is may turn out to be a more interesting competition than the conference race, which could turn into everyone chasing second place behind the early leader.

    • 1. UNR (3-1)

      Previously ranked first

      Last week: Won, 69-24, at Hawaii

      This week: at Texas State, Saturday at 11 a.m., Longhorn Network

      Line: -20 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: Any doubt about the cream of the current Mountain West crop is long gone after last week’s slate of games. And it’s looking more likely that the Wolf Pack are going to walk into this conference and walk out their first year as champs.

      Certainly, the competition’s going to get more difficult, but with the nation’s leading rusher (Stefphon Jefferson) in the backfield and an emerging sophomore at quarterback (Cody Fajardo), this pistol attack has rarely looked better. Jefferson tied an NCAA record with seven total touchdowns — six on the ground, one receiving — and helped UNR blow open a close game into a blowout that snapped a seven-game losing streak at Hawaii that dated back to 1948.

      UNLV’s neighbors to the north are clearly the best team right now. The incumbents have a lot of work to do to keep the new kids from running the block.

      Chris Ault on Jefferson: “The thing that I’m really pleased with Stefphon is that his work ethic in practice, it’s always been good, but (lately) it’s been outstanding. … He’s leading the parade.”

    • 2. Boise State (2-1)

      Previously ranked second

      Last week: Won, 7-6, vs. BYU

      This week: at New Mexico (2-2), Saturday at 3 p.m.

      Line: -26.5 (2-1 ATS)

      Breakdown: For several years, Boise State, especially its offense, seemed immune to rebuilding. No matter whom the Broncos lost, they could come back the next year and put up points just as well, if not better. Not so this season.

      Boise State survived on Friday night with a defensive touchdown and a stop when the Cougars tried to go for a two-point conversion and the win. It’s the second time this season Boise State’s offense hasn’t scored a touchdown.

      On Tuesday’s Mountain West conference call, Broncos coach Chris Peterson sounded like a man beaten down a little bit by the struggles. The answers are probably on the roster somewhere, at least in this league this year. Even though they’re underperforming, the Broncos are still one of the most talented teams in the conference.

      However, talent is barely enough right now. Boise State expects more.

      Petersen on the team’s struggle: “I think certain people around here just take things for granted that it’s just going to happen because you put on a blue uniform. And it’s just not that simple.”

    • 3. Fresno State (2-2)

      Previously ranked fourth

      Last week: Lost, 27-26, at Tulsa

      This week: vs. San Diego State (2-2), Saturday at 7 p.m.

      Line: -7.5 (4-0 ATS)

      Breakdown: Rarely do missed extra points come back to hurt so badly.

      The Bulldogs’ Quentin Breshears pushed his second extra-point attempt of the day, and his attempt in the fourth quarter, wide right (both touchdowns, coincidentally, were on interception returns). Those plus a missed 33-yard field goal attempt are hard to swallow in a one-point loss.

      Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter wasn’t pinning the loss on his freshman, though.

      “We’re not going to single him out as the only guy who needs to be replaced,” DeRuyter said.

      In fact, he clarified that he doesn’t plan on making a change at kicker. The coaches and a team that committed six more penalties than its opponent both deserve blame, DeRuyter said.

      The good news for the Bulldogs is that this wasn’t a conference game, and they still have a good chance to join fellow newcomer UNR atop the Mountain West standings.

      DeRuyter on Aztecs running back Adam Muema, the nation’s ninth-leading rusher: “Once he breaks through the hole, he’s not going to get caught. Any time you get a guy like that who’s strong through the hole, compact and can break away, that’s tough.”

    • Rebel defensive end James Boyd leaps to block a pass thrown by Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz during the first quarter of the Mountain West season opener at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

      4. Air Force (1-2, 0-1)

      Previously ranked third

      Last week: Lost, 38-35, at UNLV

      This week: vs. Colorado State (1-3), Saturday at 11 a.m., Altitude

      Line: -15 (1-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: In Air Force’s triple-option offense, the pass is almost always a last resort. It’s there to keep defenses honest and maybe pick up some chunks of yards now and then.

      Against UNLV, it couldn’t even live up to that relatively low standard. Senior Connor Dietz came into the game looking like a decent passer with a 60 percent completion rate, but he was awful at Sam Boyd Stadium. Dietz completed 3-of-9 passing for 90 yards, more than half of which he picked up on a catch-and-run to Ty MacArthur that set up the Falcons’ score in the final seconds of the first half.

      After that, he was a complete non-factor throwing the ball, which became a problem when UNLV came out of halftime with much better speed and contained Air Force’s cut blocks and all but shut down the rushing attack. Dietz doesn’t have to be great, but they sure could use the option.

      Troy Calhoun on UNLV freshman Nick Sherry: “I think you can see that the quarterback is really, really going to be an excellent player.”

    • 5. San Diego State (2-2)

      Previously ranked fifth

      Last week: Lost, 38-34, vs. San Jose State

      This week: at Fresno State (2-2), Saturday at 7 p.m.

      Line: +7.5 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: There were 31 points scored in a back-and-forth fourth quarter in San Diego on Saturday, and the Aztecs were the odd team out.

      San Diego State and San Jose State traded scores, including a combined three touchdowns in the final three and a half minutes, and despite winning time of possession by nearly 16 minutes, the Aztecs ran out of time. Running back Adam Moema’s 202-yard performance was wasted in a "what could have been" loss.

      San Diego State opens conference play this week at Fresno State and then hosts two very winnable games against Colorado State and Hawaii, so things are still looking up.

      Rocky Long on the Aztecs’ poor passing defense: “We put enough guys in the box to give us a chance against the run, and obviously people are spreading us out and throwing it around the park. We’ve got to re-evaluate what we’re asking our kids to do.”

    • 6. New Mexico (2-2)

      Previously ranked eighth

      Last week: Won, 27-14, at New Mexico State

      This week: vs. Boise State (2-1), Saturday at 3 p.m.

      Line: +26.5 (2-2 ATS)

      Breakdown: UNLV and New Mexico are often tossed into the same pile when outsiders refer to the Mountain West. The programs have traditionally struggled and could often be found next to each other at the bottom of the standings, largely because both teams have been dreadful away from home.

      In his first year, coach Bob Davie helped the Lobos take a step away from that distinction. Playing at in-state rival New Mexico State, a game Davie called the biggest of the season, New Mexico broke its 24-game road losing streak. Lobos rushers Kasey Carrier and Jhurell combined for 200 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries.

      Davie talked about how he would like to emulate Boise State, this week’s opponent for the Lobos. That would still take a lot of significant changes and plenty of look, but at least Saturday was a step toward shedding the losing feeling that has long permeated the program. UNLV has a chance to do the same at Utah State as it tries to snap a 16-game losing streak outside of Las Vegas.

      Davie on last week’s rivalry victory: “That’s a big game for us, depending on what we do with it. If we don’t use that to gain a little confidence, gain a little energy, then it wasn’t a big win.”

    • Rebels receiver Marcus Sullivan breaks free for a large first half gain against Air Force at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

      7. UNLV (1-3, 1-0)

      Previously ranked 10th

      Last week: Won, 38-35, vs. Air Force

      This week: at Utah State (3-1), Saturday at 5 p.m., ESPN3

      Line: +17.5 (3-1 ATS)

      Breakdown: One victory isn’t going to suddenly solve everything for the Rebels, but it’s sure a lot better than hitting the road winless.

      Anyone who expects this to jettison UNLV forward either hasn’t looked at the schedule or isn’t familiar with the caliber of play at Utah State or Louisiana Tech, but these next three weeks (including UNR at home) are as tough as it gets for the Rebels this year. If they would somehow win even just one of them, it would be huge, but a more realistic sign of progress would be that they continue to play close games despite the step up in competition.

      Utah State is so close to being 4-0, largely because Valley grad Kerwynn Williams is averaging nearly six yards per rush for a balanced offense that may actually take a backseat to the Aggies’ 11th-ranked defense. Throw those units on their home field in front of a packed house and you’ve got your hands full.

      Every Rebel is going to be tested because the road gets harder before it gets easier. Opening conference play 1-0 was nice, but now UNLV has to determine what that victory will mean for the rest of its season.

      Bobby Hauck on being proud of his team’s resiliency: “They don’t have a lot of reason to believe we can win other than the fact they know we’ve worked awfully hard.”

    • 8. Colorado State (1-3)

      Previously ranked sixth

      Last week: Lost, 31-19, vs. Utah State

      This week: at Air Force (1-2, 0-1), Saturday at 11 a.m.

      Line: +15 (1-3 ATS)

      Breakdown: As UNLV will find out this weekend, Utah State is a really good team and, honestly, there’s no shame in the Rams dropping this one.

      It wasn’t as close as the score indicates — that’s thanks to a garbage Colorado State touchdown with less than two minutes left — but the Rams did what they could against a superior team.

      Colorado State’s anemic offense, which ranks 115th overall in both rushing yardage and points scored, may stay in hibernation until it welcomes Hawaii on Oct. 27. Before that, the Rams travel to Air Force, host Fresno State and then go to San Diego State. First-year coach Jim McElwain knew this turnaround would take some time, and nothing he’s seen has changed that mentality. Just have to keep grinding.

      McElwain, quoting English economist John Maynard Keynes, on the challenge of rebuilding a program: “The difficulties lie not in the new ideas but in escaping the old ones.”

    • 9. Wyoming (1-3)

      Previously ranked ninth

      Last week: Won, 40-37, in OT at Idaho

      This week: Idle; next game is Oct. 6 at Nevada

      Breakdown: Give up more than 500 yards? Check. Allow better than 50 percent third-down conversions? Check. Surrender a game-tying touchdown on the final play of regulation? Check.

      Bounce back to win the game? Mark that one off, too. Wyoming scored a go-ahead touchdown with just 3:37 left and then watched as Idaho marched right down the field and tied the game with no time on the clock. That could have killed the Cowboys, but the defense came right back out for the first possession of overtime and knocked the Vandals back. After holding Idaho to a field goal, Wyoming scored on its first offensive play of overtime.

      This definitely doesn’t turn anything around in Laramie, and even with two weeks to prepare for the pistol offense, UNR will likely do whatever it wants, but at least the Cowboys got this one. That’s something.

      Dave Christensen on the importance of getting the Cowboys’ first victory: “It was huge. Losing wears on everybody. … The best part of the whole thing was being able to see their faces in the locker room after the game.”

    • 10. Hawaii (1-2, 0-1)

      Previously ranked seventh

      Last week: Lost, 69-24, vs. UNR

      This week: at BYU (2-2), Friday at 5 p.m., ESPN

      Line: +27.5 (2-1 ATS)

      Breakdown: If you’re the type of person who likes to quote movies, particularly the oft-referenced 2004 comedy “Anchorman,” you already know the perfect line to sum up Hawaii’s 69-24 loss last week. Say it with me now: “I love lamp.”

      Wait, sorry, wrong one. Here you go: “That escalated quickly.”

      The Warriors trailed 20-17 midway through the second quarter. At halftime, they were doubled up, and by the end of the third quarter, it was triple.

      “The wheels fell apart,” said first-year coach Norm Chow in a mixed metaphor.

      Local books had Hawaii as just a 7-point underdog, probably because traveling to the island is traditionally difficult for road teams. Whether this result was more because UNR is just that good or Hawaii that bad remains to be seen, but rest assured the lines won’t give Chow’s team much respect for awhile, especially on the mainland.

      Chow, who spent 1973-99 at BYU, on catching up with old friends Friday morning: “We’ll solve every problem in the world there is to solve on our jog.”

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

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    1. UNR played Hawaii last week... they are @ Texas State this week.

    2. Uh oh Mike, you better watch out. Here comes the homers with the "it's Nevada, not UNR" garbage...

    3. BJ,

      Thanks for pointing out that Nevada-Southern is the one who is hyper-sensitive to the north label. Well done.

    4. AGAIN!?!?! I was just trying to help Taylor out and this starts up again! Its not going to change. No point arguing about it anymore.

    5. It's mostly irrelevant what anyone calls Nevada-Reno; without the tax base of Clark County, the rest of the state government wouldn't function.

    6. Where's Reno....? Never heard of it.

    7. I've heard it said that in TX there's only steers and q---rs. You know what they have in Reno? NOTHIN'!

    8. Mickey A

      Visit beautiful Reno sometime your remark was childish to say the least

    9. Beautiful Reno? That's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one.

      Hey Open, no sensitivity down here. It's the UNR folk that get bent out of shape...

      You do know what they say about Reno, so close to hell you can see Sparks.

    10. @ Big_John: First off, Reno is a nice place; second, it is the UNR folks that seem to get bent by their own name ( Hey UNR fans, we Nevada Southern fans never used UNR as a denigration, but ever since you've voiced your displeasure, props to us ); and it is true, Reno is close to Sparks, hence... . Although I am a Rebel supporter, I do root for UNR when they aren't playing us (even though they do take our money :). Oh, to get back on topic, I have to agree that UNR is better than Boise this year. It is too bad the UNR Boise rivalry will end this year. The BCS is destroying regional college football! peace, out