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September 30, 2010

Week 5 preview in the Mountain West

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

BYU at Utah State, 8 p.m.
TCU at Colorado State, 2 p.m.
Navy at Air Force, 2:30 p.m.
UTEP at New Mexico, 6 p.m.
Wyoming at Toledo, 7 p.m.
Nevada at UNLV, 10 p.m.

The vast majority of teams across the country would love to have TCU's problems on defense.

In its opener, TCU faced one of the nation's most explosive skill-position tandems in Oregon State's Rodgers brothers. Two weeks later, the Horned Frogs played one of the nation's fastest quarterbacks in Baylor's Robert Griffin. Last week, TCU matched up with one of the game's top offensive minds in SMU coach June Jones.

Yet the Frogs remain unbeaten and are ranked 12th in the nation in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense. That's good. Of course, TCU's defense is used to being great.

TCU has ranked first or second in the nation in total defense in three of the past four seasons. It has ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense for four consecutive seasons. This team could struggle to reach those standards as it tries to replace star end Jerry Hughes, linebacker Daryl Washington and starting cornerbacks Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest from last season's team.

"We haven't hunted very well together," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We've played hard, we've played physical, but we didn't tackle very well last week. And we always seem to give up one big play.

"Our defenses before have consistently been ones that we hunted together, so if somebody made a mistake, somebody covered for them. We've had a couple [of plays] in the four games we've had where that hasn't happened."

Last week's game featured a rarity. SMU's Zach Line rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown on only 17 carries in the Mustangs' 41-24 loss to TCU.

The Frogs traditionally have been able to shut down opposing running backs.

"For me, to [not] allow somebody to run over 100 yards is like the 11th commandment in football," Patterson said. "We don't try to let that happen and that happened. A lot of that had to do with tackling."

TCU's defense has a chance to get well this week. The Frogs open their conference schedule by traveling to Colorado State, which averages just 59 rushing yards per game, last nationally.

Colorado State quarterback Pete Thomas had the best game of his young career last week in a 36-34 victory over Idaho, but the true freshman hasn't faced a TCU-caliber defense yet.

And even if this defense doesn't ever meet TCU's usual standards, it may not matter. TCU doesn't have to rely on its defense as much as before. The Frogs rank sixth in the nation in scoring at 44.5 points per game. They have a fifth-year senior starting at quarterback in Andy Dalton and one of the nation's most dangerous return men in Jeremy Kerley.

TCU's offense is so good that it has affected the Frogs' defensive game plan. And that may be one reason TCU won't rank quite as high in total defense this season.

"When I was younger, I used to blitz and leave nobody at the post because we knew they were going to try to have to shut people out to win early in my career," Patterson said. "With the offense we've had [this year], it's been more about when we've gone up in ballgames, how do you shorten the ballgame, how do you keep them from getting big plays. You don't care about the yardage. What do you do to win?"

With this roster, that strategy should help TCU remain in contention for a BCS bid.

"I'm not sure this is our best defense in the last two or three years," Patterson said, "but I'm not sure that with our special teams and because of the fifth-year quarterback, that this doesn't have a chance to be one of our best football teams."

Best matchup: Navy rush offense vs. Air Force rush defense. This game almost certainly will come down to which team runs the ball better. Air Force averages 394.0 yards per game on the ground, which leads the nation. But what if the Falcons' offense spends most of the game on the sideline? Air Force must find a way to contain Ricky Dobbs and a Navy rushing attack that ranks ninth in the nation at 272.7 yards per game. Air Force limited Oklahoma to 3.3 yards per carry two weeks ago but allowed more than 5.0 yards per rush last week against a Wyoming team that ranks 118th in the nation in rushing offense. Navy runs the ball significantly better than Wyoming, so the Falcons' run defense must fare better this week.

Player on the spot: UNLV QB Omar Clayton. After completing just 44.3 percent of his passes in his first three games, Clayton bounced back last week by going 14-of-20 and throwing three touchdown passes to Michael Johnson in a 45-10 rout of New Mexico. Now Clayton's job gets much tougher. UNLV will be facing one of the nation's hottest quarterbacks Saturday when Nevada's Colin Kaepernick comes to town. Nevada should run the ball effectively and score plenty of points against UNLV. If Clayton's completing less than half his passes, UNLV's going to get blown out. But if Clayton plays as well as he did last week, the Rebels at least have a fighting chance of pulling the upset.

Numbers game: Air Force has reason to feel confident if Saturday's game with Navy is still in doubt in the fourth quarter. The Falcons haven't allowed a point in the fourth quarter all season and have outscored opponents 47-0 in the period. The only other FBS teams that haven't allowed a fourth-quarter point are Oregon and Texas A&M. If Air Force is leading this one in the fourth quarter, it would represent a major achievement. Navy has beaten Air Force seven consecutive times, though five of the past six games have been decided by seven or fewer points. Air Force has led for just 12 minutes, 57 seconds in its past four games with the Midshipmen.

What they're saying

"If I was voting, after what I saw last night, I'd vote Oregon ahead of us because they were freaking awesome." -- TCU coach Gary Patterson, to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after Oregon jumped ahead of TCU in The Associated Press poll. Oregon is ranked fourth and TCU fifth

"It is hard. I have never been in this situation. I am learning like everybody else. The hard part is playing as hard as you can and not being able to get it done defensively. So I think we just got to stick together." -- BYU SS Andrew Rich, discussing the Cougars' three-game losing streak with The Salt Lake Tribune

"The last few years we've outgained them in yardage. Just the mental mistakes were killing us. My freshman year, we gave up two blocked punts for touchdowns. Last year, we missed a field goal in overtime, couldn't get anything established on offense. Yeah, I really believe this is finally our year to come away with a victory." -- Air Force WR Jonathan Warzeka, on Saturday's game against Navy, to The (Colorado Springs) Gazette.

"I think he has potential to be the best college quarterback in the country. He runs the ball as good as most running backs in the country. I don't know if I have recall of somebody who can do both [run and pass] as well as he does." -- UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, on Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick to the Las Vegas Review-Journal

"I was home sitting around bored. I was like, 'Man, I've got to get this hair off my head.' Now, it's gone, and it's never coming back." -- UNLV's Omar Clayton, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, about his decision to have his shoulder-length dreadlocks cut last week. The Review-Journal reported that it was first haircut for Clayton since he was in the eighth grade

Etc.: BYU NT Romney Fuga is out for the season with a knee injury that he sustained Saturday in a 27-13 loss to Nevada. Sophomore Jordan Richardson likely will replace Fuga in the starting lineup. TCU's trip to Colorado State this week marks the only time the Frogs will board a plane in the first eight weeks of the season. TCU's only other games away from home during this stretch were the Sept. 4 season opener with Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium and last week's game at SMU. Colorado State true freshman QB Pete Thomas is learning fast. In his first three games, he threw six interceptions with only one touchdown pass. In his most recent game, he threw for 386 yards with three touchdowns and only one interception as Colorado State beat Idaho 36-34 for its first win of the season. Four games into the season, Wyoming still hasn't attempted a field goal. Utah and San Diego State are two of the nine teams that have allowed only one sack all season. Utah has received productive play from some unlikely sources at linebacker. The Utes' starting linebackers are former walk-ons Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez plus converted quarterback Chad Manis. When New Mexico QB Tarean Austin earned the start last week at UNLV, he became the Lobos' first true freshman starting quarterback since Jeremy Leach in 1988. Austin, from Tampa, Fla., went 17-of-40 for 177 yards with one touchdown pass and two interceptions. He also ran for 16 yards on 16 carries. Austin's promotion means that one-third of the MWC's nine teams are starting true freshman quarterbacks. The others are Pete Thomas at Colorado State and Jake Heaps at BYU. Wyoming's trip to Toledo this week represents a homecoming of sorts for Cowboys coach Dave Christensen, who worked as the Rockets' offensive line coach and offensive coordinator from 1992-2000. He's not the only member of Wyoming's staff with Toledo roots. Wyoming offensive line coach Jim Harding played offensive tackle for Toledo from 1997-2000 and served as a team captain as a senior. San Diego State's 3-1 record matches its best start since 1981. The Aztecs also have rushed for two touchdowns in four consecutive games for the first time since 1995.

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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