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November 18, 2010

Week 12 preview in the Mountain West

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Air Force at UNLV, 10 p.m.
Colorado State at Wyoming, 2 p.m.
New Mexico at BYU, 6 p.m.
Utah at San Diego State, 10 p.m.

In two weeks, Utah has gone from the top five to the bottom rung of the top 25.

The dreams of a national title are over. So are the hopes of a BCS bid. The Utes won't win the Mountain West Conference title in their final year as a league member. If they aren't careful, they might not even finish second.

"We can't feel sorry for ourselves," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "No one feels sorry for us. We've got to man up and fight our way through adversity. Adversity is all around us. There is one way out: Put our nose to the ground and start working."

Utah (8-2, 5-1 MWC) will try to end its two-game losing streak and place a stranglehold on second place in the conference standings Saturday when it visits San Diego State (7-3, 4-2).

Recent history suggests San Diego State has a legitimate shot at winning this game. The Aztecs are coming off a 40-35 loss at TCU, which had won 47-7 at Utah a week earlier. Utah followed up its blowout loss to TCU by getting stunned 28-3 at Notre Dame.

Utah has fallen apart in just about every respect.

After giving up a total of 90 points in its first seven games, Utah has yielded 98 points in its past three contests.

Utah's traditionally strong special teams misfired last week, as Notre Dame scored one touchdown off a blocked punt and reached the end zone again after recovering a fumbled kickoff deep in Utes territory.

And the offense has mustered a total of 10 points in its past two games. Quarterback Jordan Wynn has thrown a combined three interceptions with only one touchdown pass in his past two games, and he hasn't thrown for as much as 200 yards in any of his past three starts.

He must improve soon or risk losing his job to Terrance Cain, who opened the 2009 season as the starter before Wynn beat him out.

"As of now, Jordan is our starter," Whittingham said. "It's a competitive situation.

"Nothing is set in stone. Everything is subject to performance and production, and that's across the board. But as of this moment in time, Jordan is our starter."

San Diego State now must avoid the same post-TCU hangover that haunted Utah last week. The Aztecs' third close loss of the season ended their hopes of winning the MWC title, but a second-place finish in the league would represent a giant step forward for a team that already has clinched its first winning season since 1998.

"It means a lot, no question," Aztecs coach Brady Hoke said of a potential second-place finish. "We'd like to win 10 games. We're disappointed that we won't be able to achieve our goal of the Mountain West championship, but winning 10 games would put us in a position that we haven't been in since 1977.

"To win 10, you have to win eight. Our focus is on Utah and what we have to do this week."

The Aztecs have more momentum, but Utah has more talent. Utah also should have quite a bit of incentive from the criticism it has received after the meltdown at Notre Dame.

"They're a good team that's still in the top 25," San Diego State defensive back Andrew Preston said. "They've been in the top 25 all year. So we're definitely not going to take them lightly."

Preston's comment shows just how much the perception of Utah has changed. Two weeks ago, who would have even broached the subject of San Diego State possibly taking the Utes too lightly?

Best matchup: San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman vs. Utah's run defense. Hillman leads the MWC with 1,088 rushing yards, while Utah ranks 14th nationally in run defense. The Utes are allowing just 108.8 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry. Utah's stout run defense has helped the Utes force 4.7 three-and-out possessions per game, a figure that ranks sixth in the nation. This marks the second consecutive tough assignment for Hillman, who gained 54 yards on 13 carries last week in a 40-35 loss to TCU. Hillman figures to get more carries against Utah, and he needs to approach 80 yards for the Aztecs to have a reasonable chance of winning.

Player on the spot: BYU QB Jake Heaps. The easy answer is to go with struggling Utah QB Jordan Wynn, but we already addressed his slump earlier. So we'll use this space to focus on the other MWC starting quarterback from the state of Utah, though he's headed in the opposite direction. Heaps has thrown six touchdown passes without an interception in his past two games. It's no coincidence that BYU's offense finally has recovered from a season-long slump to resemble a typical BYU attack. BYU has averaged 52 points in its past two games after failing to exceed 25 points in any of its first eight games. BYU can become bowl eligible with a win over New Mexico this week, and the Cougars' recent surge has created speculation that they just might be able to salvage the season with an upset of Utah. But it's hard to imagine BYU beating Utah or winning a bowl game unless Heaps keeps playing as well as he has the past two weeks.

Numbers game: Colorado State true freshman QB Pete Thomas hasn't led his team to many wins, but he is delivering in just about every other respect. Thomas ranks 18th in the nation with a .662 completion percentage. Among quarterbacks with at least 358 pass attempts, Thomas' completion percentage ranks behind only Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Baylor's Robert Griffin. Thomas is the only true freshman in the FBS ranks to start each of his teams' games. Thomas' completion percentages compares favorably to other notable true freshman quarterbacks of the past two decades, such as Tennessee's Peyton Manning (.618), Houston's Kevin Kolb (.611), Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor (.606), Michigan's Chad Henne (.602), USC's Matt Barkley (.599), Baylor's Griffin (.599), Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen (.563), N.C. State's Philip Rivers (.537) and Georgia's Matthew Stafford (.527).

What they're saying

"I was telling people all week [how good San Diego State was]. They're probably going to end up 9-3 and go to the Poinsettia Bowl and probably win it. But there's no doubt it's our fault that we allowed it to happen. But no one said anything about Auburn allowing however many points they allowed." -- TCU coach Gary Patterson, discussing his team's 40-35 victory over San Diego State to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram

"When a season goes like this, I think the wins feel a little better." -- UNLV QB Omar Clayton, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the Rebels beat Wyoming 42-16 for just their second win of the season

"They told me my nose was deformed a little bit, and when I got to the locker room, I saw it. They reset it, and it was fine. I don't remember how it happened. I just remember opening my eyes and seeing blood going everywhere." -- Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, to The Denver Post about leaving last week's victory over New Mexico with a broken nose. Jefferson expects to play Thursday at UNLV

"We had a team meeting [Sunday], and everybody got everything off their chest. This week, we don't care about Texas, Boise. All we care about is Colorado State." -- Wyoming CB Tashaun Gipson, to the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune about heading into the Cowboys' rivalry game against Colorado State on a six-game losing streak. Over the past two weeks, the Cowboys have lost to New Mexico and UNLV. New Mexico headed into the Wyoming game winless, while UNLV had just one win before beating the Cowboys

"I don't want to take credit, but just tracing back to where I became more involved, in just rolling up my sleeves and trying to do something to help our team, other than just trying to be the head coach. I think that signified that there would be change. That's where it started." -- BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, discussing the origins of the Cougars' turnaround to the Salt Lake Tribune. BYU has gone 4-1 since Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and started running the defense himself

Etc.: Air Force set an MWC record by attempting 80 rushes last week against New Mexico. The Falcons broke their own record of 79, set in a 21-14 loss to Notre Dame in 2002. This marks the fourth consecutive season Air Force has won at least seven games. Air Force last put together four consecutive seasons of at least seven victories from 1982-85. BYU WR Luke Ashworth became the first BYU player in school history to score four touchdowns in the first half of a game Saturday in a 49-10 blowout of Colorado State. His four touchdown catches also matched an MWC single-game record. The four touchdowns represented Ashworth's only catches of the game. Colorado State LB Mychal Sisson leads the nation with six forced fumbles. Five of the forced fumbles have come in the past three games. UNLV RB Tim Cornett rushed for three touchdowns and also caught a touchdown pass Saturday in a 42-16 victory over Wyoming. He became the first UNLV player to score four touchdowns in a game since Henry Bailey did it in a 52-24 victory over Central Michigan in the 1994 Las Vegas Bowl. New Mexico LB Carmen Messina needs only seven more stops to reach the 100-tackle mark, which would make him the first Lobo to deliver back-to-back 100-tackle seasons since Brian Urlacher in 1998 and '99. San Diego State has recorded at least one interception in eight consecutive games. The only FBS program with a longer streak is Iowa, which has picked off a pass in nine games in a row. TCU's victory over San Diego State last week gave the Horned Frogs an MWC record 14 consecutive conference home wins. The previous record of 13 was shared by BYU (2006-09) and Utah (2007-10). Utah is on its first two-game losing streak since it dropped the first two games of the 2007 season. Wyoming FS Chris Prosinski had nine tackles against UNLV last week to bring his season total to 101. This marks the second consecutive 100-tackle season for Prosinski, who ranks fourth on the school's career list with 366 stops.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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