September 29, 2011

Week 5 preview in the Mountain West

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One month into the season, New Mexico already is starting over.

The Lobos made the first coaching change of the season Sunday night when they fired Mike Locksley, whose final weekend on the job provided a fitting conclusion to a tenure that proved disastrous on and off the field.

THE SCHEDULE
SATURDAY
Air Force at Navy, noon
Nevada at Boise State, 2:30 p.m.
SMU at TCU, 3:30 p.m.
San Jose State at Colorado State, 4 p.m.
New Mexico State at New Mexico, 8 p.m.
Hours after New Mexico fell 48-45 in overtime to FCS program Sam Houston State - dropping the Lobos' record under Locksley to 2-26 - reports surfaced that a 19-year-old friend of Locksley's son had been arrested on a DUI charge while driving a car registered to Locksley's wife. At first, reports were that the driver told police he was a New Mexico recruit.

Locksley also had faced a sexual harassment suit and a one-game suspension for punching an assistant since taking over New Mexico's program in 2009. The New Mexico fan base's lack of faith in Locksley was evident from the announced attendance of 16,313 for the Sam Houston State game, reportedly the Lobos' smallest home crowd in nearly two decades.

While New Mexico's poor record may have made Locksley's exit seem inevitable, the timing of this move blindsided the Lobos. Senior linebacker Carmen Messina said he learned of the firing on Twitter before it was formally announced at a team meeting.

"It was definitely shocking to the team," Messina said. "We didn't see it coming, especially during one of our biggest weeks of the whole season."

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Indeed, this move came just as New Mexico prepares to play New Mexico State. Not only are state bragging rights at stake, both teams also are trying to bounce back from embarrassing losses. San Jose State ended a 13-game losing streak last week with a 34-24 victory over New Mexico State.

This rivalry game will represent the head-coaching debut of George Barlow, who had been working as New Mexico's defensive coordinator. Barlow, the Lobos' interim coach, believes this game comes at an ideal time.

Barlow said the emotions of the in-state rivalry and the desire to avenge last season's 16-14 loss to New Mexico State will prevent the Lobos from getting distracted by the off-field turmoil. New Mexico State beat New Mexico last season on a field goal in the final two minutes.

"It's been a tough week," Barlow said. "The kids are pretty upset because they were really close to Coach Locksley. He gets really close with his players in recruiting them and when they actually become part of the team. It's been a rough transition. With us playing New Mexico State and the way we lost last year, the kids are definitely going to be focused on the game."

Barlow's first task is to decide on a quarterback. B.R. Holbrook replaced starter Tarean Austin in the third quarter of last week's loss and threw for 289 yards to rally the Lobos from a two-touchdown deficit. Barlow hasn't indicated which quarterback will start Saturday.

Barlow also must find a way to rejuvenate a team that ranks near the bottom of the FBS rankings in virtually every major statistical category. The Lobos are 119th in scoring defense (43.3), 116th in total defense (518.3), 80th in total offense (372.8) and 104th in scoring (17.8).

This program isn't a lost cause. In fact, the Lobos earned five bowl bids in a six-year span from 2002-07 under former coach Rocky Long, who now is coach at San Diego State.

Messina believes the Lobos aren't that far away from turning the corner. The Lobos set a goal before the season to reach a bowl game. Even after this slow start, Messina hasn't given up hope. He believes a win in a rivalry game could change the atmosphere and spark a second-half surge.

"It would be huge," Messina said. "It would be emotional. A lot of those goals we set back in August are still within reach. What better way to turn a program around than to get a win in a state rivalry? This will be the state's Super Bowl."

Best matchup: SMU QB J.J. McDermott vs. TCU pass defense. McDermott replaced Kyle Padron as SMU's starting quarterback in a season-opening loss to Texas A&M and has performed well ever since. McDermott threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 42-0 rout of Memphis. He now faces a TCU pass defense that hasn't played up to the Horned Frogs' typical standards. TCU has improved on defense since allowing Robert Griffin to throw for 359 yards and five touchdowns in a season-opening 50-48 loss to Baylor, but the Frogs still rank 109th in pass efficiency defense. TCU has allowed nine touchdown passes and has only one interception so far. E Stansly Maponga and the TCU front six (the Horned Frogs run a 4-2-5 set) need to wreak havoc on McDermott to take some of the pressure off the Frogs' secondary.

Players on the spot: Boise State RB Doug Martin. After rushing for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, Martin isn't finding nearly as much running room this season. He has rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns through the first four games of the season. Martin has gained 3.2 yards per carry, almost a 50 percent drop from his average of 6.3 yards per attempt last season. The Broncos need to run the ball effectively and control the clock to gain revenge against Nevada, which ran for 269 yards while handing Boise State its only loss of the season last year. Nevada doesn't have 1,000-yard rushers Vai Taua and Colin Kaepernick in the backfield anymore, but the Wolf Pack still rank seventh nationally in rushing with 285.3 yards per game. If Martin runs the ball effectively, the Broncos won't have to worry as much about Nevada's rushing attack.

Keep an eye on: Colorado State. Colorado State has proved it could withstand adversity by winning three of its first four games despite encountering more injury problems than any other team in the MWC. Now the Rams must show they're equally adept at handling prosperity. One week after an emotional 35-34 double-overtime upset of Utah State, Colorado State are favored at home this week against San Jose State. This is a game Colorado State almost certainly must win to have a realistic shot at a bowl bid. Even though Colorado Stat owns a 3-1 record, the Rams will be underdogs in upcoming games with Boise State, San Diego State, TCU and Air Force. If the Rams want to become bowl eligible, they must win all the games they're supposed to win. Of course, Colorado State isn't the only team in this game that needs to watch out for a letdown. San Jose State ended a 13-game losing streak against New Mexico State. Will that victory give the Spartans momentum or produce a hangover effect?

Numbers game: Air Force owned a plus-50 turnover margin, with 114 takeaways and 64 giveaways, during the first four years of Troy Calhoun's coaching tenure. The Falcons led the nation in turnover margin in 2009. But Air Force has seven giveaways and five takeaways so far this season to rank 94th nationally in turnover margin.

What they're saying

"It's going to be a long week around here - and it should be." - UNLV coach Bobby Hauck. The Rebels threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns Saturday in a 41-16 loss to FCS program Southern Utah

"It's a big momentum-builder. We should go into the next game knowing we're capable of beating just about anybody." - Colorado State LB Mike Orakpo, to The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan after the Rams' 35-34 double-overtime victory at Utah State

"People say we were tired. I don't think we were tired. They just beat us physically in the second half last year, and the defense gave up the lead." - Boise State S George Iloka, to the Idaho Statesman about the Broncos' collapse in their loss to Nevada last season

"The way I felt the locker room was, it was better that they didn't talk to the media because I didn't want them to have any regrets about what they might say. I have a completely different view of this. Some people think they're pro athletes. I don't think they're pro athletes. I think they're college athletes who have a lot of other things on their mind. I think part of my job is to protect them. I was making sure they didn't have to go through that." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, explaining why he didn't make any of his players available to the media after the Aztecs' 28-7 loss to Michigan, which is coached by former Aztecs head man Brady Hoke

"You don't deserve to win when you do those things. Good teams don't do those things, and we're obviously not a good team yet. Mature teams don't go out and hit guys when they're not looking." - Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, to the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune after the Cowboys committed eight penalties in a 38-14 loss to Nebraska

"He's very deceptive. He's very physical when he carries the ball. You've got to gang-tackle him. He blocks well. He's one of those guys behind the scenes that you look up and all of a sudden he's gained 1,000 yards. He's a fullback type playing tailback." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, on SMU RB Zach Line

Poll watch: Boise State is ranked fourth by The Associated Press and fifth in the coaches' poll. That No. 5 ranking in the coaches' poll is down one spot from last week. Although Stanford didn't play last week, the Cardinal still leapfrogged Boise State, which beat Tulsa 41-21. TCU remains 20th in both polls for a second consecutive week.

Etc.: Air Force's 63-24 rout of Tennessee State last week gave QB Tim Jefferson his school-record 23rd win as a starting quarterback. Jefferson broke the mark held by Dee Dowis, who won 22 games as a starting quarterback from 1985-89. ... Air Force also set Mountain West single-game records for total offense (792) and rushing yards (595) against Tennessee State. The 792 yards represented the highest single-game total by any FBS team this season. ... Boise State has scored a touchdown in every quarter it has played through its first three games of the season. This marks the first time the Broncos reached the end zone in each of their first 12 quarters since Boise State became a four-year school in 1968. ... Colorado State has 16 sacks this season, more than any other FBS team. Colorado State's average of 4.0 sacks per game ranks third, behind Texas A&M (4.7) and Stanford (4.3). ... Colorado State, Pittsburgh and Stanford are the only FBS teams that haven't allowed any points in the first quarter this season. ... UNLV WR Phillip Payne caught 13 passes for 175 yards and recorded his 23rd career touchdown reception against Southern Utah last week. Payne is one touchdown catch away from the school record held by Henry Bailey, who caught 24 touchdown passes from 1991-94. ... New Mexico WR Deon Long set an MWC single-game record by gaining 378 all-purpose yards last week against Sam Houston State. That also represents the highest single-game total by any FBS player this season. Long, a West Virginia transfer, scored on a 98-yard kickoff return and also caught nine passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns. ... By throwing for 253 yards against Michigan last week, San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley became the fourth quarterback in Mountain West history with 10,000 career yards in total offense. Lindley has 10,166 yards so far. The top three quarterbacks in total offense are TCU's Andy Dalton (11,925 from 2007-10), BYU's Max Hall (11,569 from 2007-09) and BYU's John Beck (11,060 from 2003-06). Lindley, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Houston's Case Keenum are the only active FBS quarterbacks with at least 10,000 career passing yards. ... TCU K Ross Evans' 13 points against Portland State last week gave him 338 career kicking points, breaking the MWC record of 334 previously held by BYU's Mitch Payne (2007-10). The MWC career scoring record regardless of position is held by New Mexico RB DonTrell Moore, who scored 356 points from 2002-05. ... TCU RB Ed Wesley is expected to return this week after missing three games with a shoulder injury. ... Wyoming coach Dave Christensen has indicated he will use the Cowboys' week off to re-open the competitions for playing time at cornerback, kicker and punt returner. "If you don't perform, then we're going to open it up for competition," Christensen told the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune. Wyoming ranks 93rd nationally in pass efficiency defense and 113th in punt return average. Wyoming K Daniel Sullivan has gone 1-of-3 on field-goal attempts.

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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