The Plot Thickens

It took until the eleventh week of the season to get here, but it finally arrives this weekend. For the first time in 2004, each of the members of the MWC will be in action against one another. CSU, UNLV and SDS are out of the race for bowl bids. AFA, New Mexico and Wyoming will try to strengthen their cases for berths to postseason play. BYU and Utah play one last time before meeting next week in Salt Lake City in the game that should crown this year's MWC champion.

MOMENTUM. Excuse me while I give myself a quick pat on the back. For the third time this season I had a perfect week with my predictions as I went 4-0 with last week's selections and raised my record to 41-11 (.788) for the year. Geez, I wonder if the BCS will want me to forecast all its postseason soirees? Hmmm, I'll get back to you on that one. Here's my look at the four games on the MWC slate this weekend.  

@ . T.S. Eliot remarked in "The Hollow Men" that the world will end "not with a bang but a whimper." That may well be the case for UNLV coach John Robinson. The Rebels end the 2004 season with road games in Fort Collins and San Diego. The Rams and Aztecs will be trying to send their seniors off with one final victory before closing their college playing careers.  

            Disappointment arrived early and assumed permanent residence in northern Colorado this year. The Rams never recovered from the lethal blows of a murderously difficult non-conference schedule and the loss of QB Justin Holland mid-way through their schedule. The Rams' offense has played well while trying to find a measure of consistency throughout the year, but CSU has been woeful on defense all year. On six occasions the Rams have allowed 26 or more points to an opponent and lost every time. In CSU's last two games--losses to New Mexico and Utah--the team has yielded 84 points.

Uncharacteristically CSU will finish this season with its first losing record since 1993, the year Sonny Lubick arrived in Fort Collins to replace Earle Bruce.

     John Robinson's Rebels have been their usual undisciplined, underachieving bunch. The Rebels', 53-45, triple overtime loss at home to Wyoming last week was hastened in large part by an unconscionable 23 penalties. It also marked Wyoming's first conference road victory since November of 1999. The loss closed UNLV's home schedule for 2004 in which the team was a dreadful 1-4. How UNLV, which performs so erratically, ever found a way to beat BYU in Provo is a mystery for the ages.

            The Rebels have been torched for 116 points in their past two games, but in fairness, UNLV surrendered 22 of those points in three overtime periods to Wyoming. UNLV and CSU both need to fortify their defenses before play begins in the 2005 season.

             QB Kurt Nantkes missed last week's game for UNLV and Shane Steichen took his place. Both have been uneven in their play this fall while completing fewer than 50% of their pass attempts and throwing more interceptions than TD passes. QB Caleb Hanie has played well enough for CSU in Holland's absence and completed 57% of his throws. Expect both teams to move the ball effectively in this early morning game (a ten o'clock Mountain time start) with Lubick and the Rams being successful in giving the senior class a fond farewell in its final home game. My pick to win is CSU. 

@ . A few weeks ago this game might have been seen as a potential blowout since the Lobos' DonTrell Moore was only beginning to round into shape after a knee ligament injury in the New Mexico State game hobbled him through the midseason.  

            Since returning to the UNM lineup for the game against Air Force, Moore has gained in excess of 100 yards in three of four outings and averaged more than 118 yards over the four game span. He may not be the velvet hammer of devastation he was in 2003, but he's nearing that stage. 

            The quarterback situation for UNM is an unqualified disaster. Kole McKamey and Tali Ena have provided New Mexico with the worst level of play in division 1-A football from the position. The tandem has completed an atrociously low 44% of its pass attempts (89 of 201) while throwing 7 interceptions and 4 TD passes (the lowest figure in division 1-A along with Navy and Rice). WR Hank Baskett's marvelous pass catching abilities have been shelved by the team's inability to get him the ball on a reliable basis.  

            BYU survived their annual gauntlet run through a lethal non-conference schedule and has posted four wins in its past five games. Only an inexplicable loss at home to UNLV has marred the Cougars' recent run.  BYU's offense has hit high gear over the team's past six contests by scoring 186 points. The Cougars have scored fewer than 24 points just once in that span and have exploded for 90 points in pummeling AFA and SDS in the past two weeks.  

            RBs Curtis Brown and Fahu Tahi give the Cougars a decent ground game to go with a passing attack averaging 289 yards a game, the tenth best figure in the country.

            I think this game hinges on the Cougars' ability to stack their defense in anticipation of trying to limit Moore's production since BYU knows it's not vulnerable to an aerial blitz by New Mexico. Moore simply can't beat BYU single-handedly, although on a good day he might come close. The Cougars will use this game as a dress rehearsal for their pivotal meeting with Utah next week. UNM can look forward to trying to become bowl qualified with a victory over Wyoming in Albuquerque next week. My pick to win the game is BYU.

@ There's a delicious morsel of irony in this story of ongoing success that began with a bad break, specifically to a wrist. In the second game of the 2003 season, Utah was playing Texas A & M at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. The Aggies led, 26-18, as the game entered the final minute of play with the Utes driving toward a TD. QB Brett Elliott led the visitors to paydirt narrowing the score to ,26-24, and coach Urban Meyer's team lined up to try a two point conversion in an effort to tie the game and send it into overtime.   

            Elliott ran an option play, sprinted toward the goal line, leaped into the air, and while in full flight, extended his hands toward the end zone in an effort to secure the all-important two points. His wrist was met in midair by the helmet of an Aggies' defender, causing a broken bone and a fumble that cost Utah the chance to level the score.  

            Meyer and his team, partners for just two games at this point, were left to wonder who would fill the void in the wake of the devastating injury to the team's starting QB. Enter untested, unheralded sophomore Alex Smith.  

            Meyer, Smith and the rest of the Utes' band will enter this weekend's game in Laramie against the Wyoming Cowboys having won 17 of its past 18 games since Elliott's airborne misadventure.

            The Utes have the nation's third longest active win streak at 13 games and haven't lost in over a year since dropping a, 47-35, contest to New Mexico on October 25th of last year. In that span of a baker's dozen games the Utes have scored 520 points and are averaging exactly 40 points a contests. With Smith at the controls of Utah's high-powered offense the team has twice scored 63 points in its past three games and 177 in the last three outings. What was a bad break for Elliott has continued to be an amazingly fortunate one for Utah. 

            The story of Joe Glenn's success at Wyoming is no less captivating than the Utes' splendid run. The Cowboys have already become bowl qualified this season with two regular season contests still to play. Last weekend's triple overtime thriller in Las Vegas gave the 'Pokes their first MWC road victory in five years.  

            The one discordant note in Glenn's revival of the Cowboys' fortunes is that the good people of Wyoming are not attending games in numbers that are associated with a winning football program, and for that, shame on the citizens of Wyoming. Fans stayed away from War Memorial Stadium when the program was being shredded by Glenn's predecessor, Vic Koenning. Now that Glenn has the team stepping over the threshold of weekly respectability, there is no substantive reason for fans to withhold their presence from Cowboys' games. ABC-TV thinks enough of this week's game to broadcast it to large segments of the western half of the country this Saturday evening. I wonder how many so-called "fans" disguised as empty seats will even bother to watch the game on the tube from the comfort of their home? Worse still for Glenn and the team, is that when bowl committees are in the process of awarding berths to the postseason, Wyoming's frightful home attendance will raise a cautionary flag with those same committees. Such committees may quite understandably choose not to extend a bid to Wyoming reasoning that the team's less than ardent fans will not follow it to a bowl destination.  

            As for this weekend's game it gives every indication of being a rout for Utah. The Utes may be slightly antsy while having one eye gazing toward next week's showdown with BYU. Win or lose the Cowpokes will have a realistic chance of posting a seventh win on the season next weekend in Albuquerque against the Lobos. This Saturday, the 'Pokes will have to 'Cowboy up' and take their lumps. My pick is Utah.

@ . The wait for Falconatics may have seemed interminable, but their patience and perseverance has been rewarded. There is hard evidence providing a basis for optimism as the team enters its final two regular season games.  

            QB Adam Fitch performed admirably in his first career start last week against Army. He produced the team's only 100 yard rushing effort versus a division 1-A team thus far in 2004. He showed a strong, true arm in completing seven of eight passes, including his last seven of the game. The team scored a third quarter TD, the first points Air Force has registered in that frame in five games. The fullback game--AWOL for the past month--returned in time to gain 95 yards. Senior HBs Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler continued their joint trek up the ladder of the academy's career rushing leaders by combining for 116 yards and two scores--both by Stephens. An overworked, undermanned defense held Army scoreless in the second half. Individually these accomplishments are small steps. Collectively they comprise a quantum leap forward for the Falcons' confidence heading into late November. 

            The team's current, 4-5, record is mediocre to be sure, but two wins against San Diego State and Colorado State would secure a winning record--a feat which seemed unlikely and unreachable after the team's loss in Laramie two weeks ago. A pair of wins would give the Falcons a three game win streak and just might be enough to capture the attention of a bowl committee when postseason invitations are being issued. Two more victories in Falcon Stadium would improve an otherwise lackluster, 2-3, home record in the team's first five home games and allow Air Force to avoid its first losing record since 1993.  

            San Diego State is fully entrenched in its most recent, late season, catastrophic slide. The Aztecs have lost six straight games since opening the year at 2-1. Tom Craft's team is the only MWC team without a triumph in league play. In its past two league games, the Aztecs' "Dark Side" defense has been scorched for 100 points by Utah and BYU. SDS is frequently identified to have among the best recruiting classes in the MWC, and yet, since the start of the 2000 season the team's record is an inscrutably poor, 18-38 (.321). Craft may survive to coach another year in San Diego, but having to play at home versus UCLA and on the road versus Hawaii and Ohio State in next fall won't make winning any easier.

            Every quantifiable piece of momentum and inspiration in this game portends a rabid effort from the Falcons. Even the weather forecasts seems tailor made for Air Force as temperatures in the low thirties and snow flurries should engulf the playing surface. The Aztecs are a far cry from being noble warriors when playing outside the balmy climes of SoCal late in the season when there is little for which to compete.  

            SDS has scored more than 17 points only once in the past six games and that occasion came in a, 51-28, thrashing by Utah. SDS will dazzle AFA with a variety of 3, 4 and even 5 wide receiver formations. For all their pre-snap wizardry, pomp and circumstance there comes a time when the Aztecs have to put the ball in play and that seems to have marked the onset of their downfall. Freshman QB Kevin O'Connell's "happy feet" will cause him to bail out of the pocket any number of times during the game. The fact remains the Aztecs haven't been consistent in moving the ball since early in the season when QB Matt Dlugolecki suffered a severe ankle sprain. The winning team in three of the last four years in this series has prevailed by 21 points or more. Air Force may not extend that aspect of this rivalry, but the Falcons should win this game by a comfortable margin. My pick is Air Force.  

SQUIBKICKS. The most highly anticipated game of the weekend features a battle of leaders in the SEC as  #5 Georgia hits the road to play # 3 Auburn.  Freshman RB Thomas Brown of the Bulldogs and Cadillac Williams of the Tigers will lead their team's ground attack while QBs David Greene and Jason Campbell head the passing attacks. 

            The tenth ranked West Virginia Mountaineers meet the soaring Boston College Eagles in a game whose outcome will help determine a Big East champion.  

            Top ranked USC should have no trouble against a miserable Washington team in PAC 10 action and the same can be said for the Oklahoma Sooners when they battle Nebraska in Norman. The teams haven't met since the Cornhuskers won a, 20-10, decision in Lincoln in 2001. OU QB Jason White has thrown 16 TD passes and only one interception in the Sooners' past four games. 

            Boise State travels to San Jose to meet the Spartans as BSU looks for its twentieth consecutive win. San Jose has lost four in a row.  

Arizona State QB Andrew Walter, fresh from establishing a PAC 10 career record for TD passes with 80, breaking John Elway's mark of 77, plays the final home game of his career when the Sun Devils face Washington State in conference action.

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