MWC Week #1 Wrap

The first week of the 2008 season was an eventful one for the Mountain West Conference. It included one team kicking off a nationally ranked season, another getting a big road win to enter the rankings, and a showdown between two conference foes.

#16 BYU 41, Northern Iowa 17

An opening tune-up against an FCS opponent produced the expected – a win, and lots of room for improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Players being out of position led to some long gains for the Panthers, while four turnovers by the offense kept it closer than it had to be.

The first noticeable change was a positive one, a kickoff into the end zone – deep into the end zone. Of 79 BYU kickoffs last year, only two resulted in a touchback. True freshman Justin Sorensen exceeded that total in his first game. The lack of a kicking game cost the Cougars the Tulsa game in 2007, but all of Sorensen's kicks found the end zone, and only one was returned. Mitch Payne continues to handle the place kicking duties and is healthy, unlike last year.

Max Hall was fast out of the box, completing 34-of-41 passes for 485 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, worth a rating of 198 on the NCAA scale. Harvey Unga picked up where he left off last year. Fui Vakapuna did not play.

The problems were not unusual ones for opening games: four fumbles – Hall twice, Wayne Latu and J.J. DiLuigi all put it on the ground. With a new secondary and two new linebackers, defensive positioning was erratic. The Cougars were penalized eight times, and had a PAT blocked. These need to get fixed, and fast. BYU has the horses to dominate an FCS opponent, even a good one, despite lots of errors, but even a middlin' Pac-10 team is in a different world.

A sputtering third quarter let the visitors draw within 10 as the Cougars repeatedly gave the Panthers the ball deep in BYU territory, causing some heartburn in the stands, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Defensive positioning in particular will be crucial next Saturday in Seattle. Husky quarterback Jake Locker set a Pac-10 record last year for rushing yards by a quarterback with 986, but he also passed for more than 2,000 yards. The defense must play assignment football.

The offense can't turn the ball over and will need to produce long, consistent drives in order to keep Locker off the field. Washington's secondary will be faster than Northern Iowa's, so the running game will have to step it up.

Next up: at Washington.

Utah 25, #23 Michigan 23

Utah came up big in the Big House. With Michigan installing a new offense under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez and lacking experience at quarterback, the Utes saw their opening and took advantage of it, rolling up 313 yards to lead 22-10 at halftime. The Wolverine defense stiffened, allowing only 28 yards in the second half, but on the other side of the ball they were hopeless. So inept was the Michigan offense that they managed only 11 first downs, 203 total yards and 24:06 of possession, allowing Utah to run 85 plays to their own 66.

Without some Utah mistakes it would have been much worse, however. On third-and-two at the Michigan 25, with 2:42 left in the third quarter, Ute quarterback Brian Johnson was not only sacked but grounded the ball, taking Utah out of a likely field goal. Early in the fourth Louis Sakoda had a punt blocked, and Michigan threw for a touchdown to make it 25-17. Utah's next possession was ended by an unsportsmanlike conduct call that put them in a hole, and on third-and-long, Johnson was forced from the pocket and fumbled, giving Michigan the ball on the Utah 16. Pass interference gave Michigan first-and-goal at the three, and two plays later it was 25-23 with 6:26 to play. Fortunately, the two-point pass attempt failed when it was thrown high.

Now with the ball and less than seven minutes left, Utah was only one solid drive away from their biggest win in Coach Kyle Whittingham's tenure, but they went nowhere. In retrospect, they were in little danger given Michigan's woeful offense, and everyone in Morgantown learned the meaning of schadenfreude.

Michigan has now lost its opener in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1951-52. Even at #23, it's clear the Wolverines were overrated. Fortunately they're in a soft conference, so a winning season and bowl appearance are still quite likely. Utah, on the other hand, deserved more respect coming into the season. They'll get it now.

Next up: former co-assistants square off as Mike Sanford and UNLV visit Salt Lake City. Don't look for a repeat of last year's Utah debacle in Las Vegas.

TCU 26, New Mexico 3

TCU traveled to Albuquerque and felt right at home, rolling up 20 first downs while holding the hosts to only nine. New Mexico's two quarterbacks were a combined 7-for-23 for only 130 yards and two interceptions.

Next up: For New Mexico, Texas A&M comes to town after a surprise loss to Arkansas State. TCU hosts Stephen F. Austin.

Wyoming 21, Ohio 20

For the second straight year Wyoming came from behind to down the Bobcats, this time in Laramie. The Cowboys struggled in the air, completing only 14-of-22 passes for 111 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, but five rushers combined for 160 yards. It wasn't much, but it was enough. After Ohio found the end zone midway through the second quarter to tie the score at 14, Wyoming traded two Bobcat field goals for their own touchdown, coming after a 13-play drive with 7:28 left to play. It looked as though Ohio was ready to answer on the following possession, but the Cowboys defense came up with an interception at their own 9-yard line after the Cats had penetrated to the Wyoming 35. From there Wyoming moved the ball to the Ohio 45 before punting with 45 seconds remaining.

Next up: versus Air Force.

Air Force 41, Southern Utah 7

In a virtual replay of their 2007 season, the Falcons rolled up more than 400 rushing yards against an FCS opponent, but must face a conference rival on the road in week two. This year it's Wyoming instead of Utah.

It was 34-0 Falcons before the T-birds tallied their only score. New quarterback Shea Smith managed to complete 8-of-12 passes for 75 yards and one touchdown.

Next up: at Wyoming.

Colorado 38, Colorado State 17

Last year the Rams outplayed the Buffaloes for 59 minutes and 59 seconds, only to give up a tying field goal as time expired, then throw the game away in overtime. This year the Rams decided not to waste so much time, handing the Buffs a 14-0 lead before waking up and cutting the lead to 21-14 at the half. All the Rams could muster in the second half was a field goal, while Colorado matched that and posted two touchdowns to boot.

Next up: versus FCS Sacramento State.

UNLV 27, Utah State 17

Very much like last year in Logan, these two teams battled in a fairly close game. Then, the Rebels won 23-16. This year Omar Clayton had the best night of his career, completing 17-of-29 for 192 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. Two Aggie turnovers, one in UNLV territory and the other near midfield, were turned into 10 Rebel points and the margin of victory.

Next up: at Utah.

Cal Poly 29, San Diego State 27

The Aztecs took up where they left off last year, which bodes ill for third-year coach Chuck Long. The Mustangs were aide by five Aztec turnovers, but did plenty on their own, outgaining San Diego State 483 yards to 379. Even more telling was the fact that FCS Cal Poly has a running game against a Division I squad, and the Aztecs don't against an FCS opponent. The visitor picked up 263 rushing yards against only 27 for the hosts, leading to a time of possession advantage of 38:00 to 22:00. A 21-yard field goal as time expired lifted the Mustangs to the victory.

Next up: at Notre Dame.

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