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September 22, 2011

Week 4 preview in the Mountain West

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Michigan coach Brady Hoke needed just two years to build San Diego State into a winner before leaving for his dream job. His former players are eager to show they've made just as much progress since his departure.

San Diego State heads to the Big House this week to match up against its former coach. Even without the Hoke angle, this intersectional contest between two undefeated teams would rank as one of the more interesting games on this week's schedule. The personal aspect only adds to the intrigue, no matter how much everyone tries to downplay that angle.

San Diego State at Michigan, noon
Portland State at TCU, 2 p.m.
Tennessee State at Air Force, 3 p.m.
Sam Houston State at New Mexico, 6 p.m.
Nebraska at Wyoming, 7:30 p.m.
Tulsa at Boise State, 8 p.m.
Colorado State at Utah State, 8 p.m.
Southern Utah at UNLV, 9 p.m.
"This is San Diego State playing the University of Michigan," Hoke said. "I'm not going to play one down. Nobody on this staff is going to play one down out there on the field. I think we make more of it than it is. It's two football teams that have a lot of pride and two football teams that right now are undefeated and two teams that are going to compete like heck for 60 minutes."

Hoke led the Aztecs to a 9-4 record and its first bowl victory since 1969 last season, but the circumstances of his departure were awkward. San Diego State students were off campus at the time Michigan hired him away, so Hoke couldn't personally deliver the news to his players. He instead informed them via text message.

If the Aztecs harbor any bitterness about the situation, they aren't letting it show.

"Everybody knew [Michigan] was his dream job, and there's no hard feelings," San Diego State defensive tackle Jerome Long told AztecSportsReport.com. "Any of us would have done the same thing if we had the chance to take our dream job."

The Aztecs are more concerned about the possibility that Hoke's familiarity with his old team could give Michigan an advantage. Not only did Hoke leave for Michigan, he also brought along offensive coordinator Al Borges from SDSU.

"Al Borges knows our defense better than anybody in the country," said Aztecs coach Rocky Long, a former defensive coordinator on Hoke's San Diego State staff. "... That gives them an advantage. They know our team much better then we know their team, which gives them a decided advantage going into the game."

While Hoke has garnered much of the pregame headlines, this matchup also features two of the nation's top three rushers in San Diego State tailback Ronnie Hillman and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Hillman ranks second nationally - behind only South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore - at 165.7 yards per game. Robinson is third at 153.0 yards per game.

Hillman and Robinson will gain plenty more yards Saturday and will generate plenty more headlines the rest of the season. But in the days leading up to this game, nearly all the attention will surround Hoke, even if everyone else wants to shift the focus elsewhere.

"When it comes down to it, it's another game," San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley said. "We want to go 1-0 this week, and that's our plan. If we're going to be a championship team, we've got to take care of business on the field. We've got to eliminate distractions and just make it about playing football and playing our best football."

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Best matchup: Boise State OT Nate Potter and Charles Leno Jr. vs. Tulsa DE Tyrunn Walker. Tulsa's chances of pulling an upset depend on whether it can put pressure on Boise State QB Kellen Moore, who hasn't been sacked in Boise's two games. Moore has been sacked just once in his past 160 pass attempts, a stretch that began late last season. Walker has recorded sacks in back-to-back weeks against Tulane and Oklahoma State. He has four sacks in his past five games, a stretch that began late last season. Tulsa gave up 47 points against Oklahoma and 59 against Oklahoma State this season, so Moore probably will pick this defense apart if he has time to throw. Walker needs to make sure that doesn't happen. This matchup will be particularly interesting if Walker lines up against Potter, an All-America candidate who earned first-team All-WAC honors each of the past two seasons.

Player on the spot: San Diego State TB Ronnie Hillman. Hillman, the nation's second-leading rusher, has rushed for 189 yards, 117 yards and 191 yards in San Diego State's first three games. He likely needs to exceed 150 yards again for the Aztecs to remain unbeaten. San Diego State's best chance of slowing down Michigan QB Denard Robinson is to keep him on the sideline. That means Hillman has to control the clock by consistently gaining big chunks of yardage. It's hard to imagine San Diego State winning this game if Hillman doesn't rush for more yards than Robinson.

Keep an eye on: Colorado State's pass protection. Injuries have ravaged Colorado State's defense this season, and they made their way to the other side of the ball last week when OT Joe Caprioglio suffered a knee injury. Caprioglio's injury means that Colorado State will rely on a redshirt freshman - Ty Sambrailo or Mason Hathaway - to fill Caprioglio's spot in the starting lineup. Whichever redshirt freshman wins the job faces a major challenge this week against a Utah State team that has averaged three sacks per game.

Numbers game: San Diego State's game with Michigan gives the Aztecs a chance to beat a major-conference school in consecutive weeks. San Diego State's 42-24 victory over Washington State last week ended a string of 23 consecutive losses against major-conference schools or Notre Dame. The Aztecs hadn't beaten a major-conference school since whipping Kansas 41-13 on Sept. 25, 1999. San Diego State's victory over Washington State also snapped the Aztecs' 19-game losing streak against Pac-10/Pac-12 schools. The Aztecs hadn't beaten a team from that conference since knocking off California 33-9 on Sept. 2, 1995.

Quotes of the week

"We're very average as a secondary. We improved, but we're not up to that standard, and I don't think we'll reach that standard this year. Can we be good enough to win a lot of ballgames? Maybe, if we keep improving." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram

"My goal is actually to get two [sacks] in every game." - Colorado State DT Nordly Capi, to the (Fort Collins) Coloradoan. Capi, who didn't open the season in the starting lineup, leads the nation with six sacks

"It will be the biggest game that's ever been played in Laramie. It's a game where we have absolutely nothing to lose. It's a full stadium. It's at our place. It's against a great football team, and we can turn it loose." - Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, to the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune on the Cowboys' home game Saturday with Nebraska. Wyoming got the home game with Nebraska by agreeing to play the Huskers in Lincoln in 2013 and 2016

"I can't imagine us taking anybody lightly. We've got a one-game winning streak. We know what we've got to do, which is get better every week." - UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, on the possibility of overlooking FCS program Southern Utah after a 40-20 victory over Hawaii

[Related: Week 4 expert picks]

Poll watch: Boise State remains fourth in each of the two major polls. TCU is 20th in each poll, up three spots from last week. No other MWC teams are ranked. San Diego State is listed in the "also receiving votes" section for each poll.

Etc.: It will be interesting to see how Air Force responds Saturday after a rare week off. Air Force played 12 consecutive regular-season games in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Last week marked the Falcons' first open week since 2008. Air Force lost 33-27 to Navy in its first game back from the open week that season. ... Colorado State has the nation's No. 19 punt returner in Momo Thomas (11.7) and the No. 18 kickoff returner in Derek Good (29.0). Thomas has a major challenge this week, as Utah State leads all FBS teams in net punting. ... New Mexico has allowed opponents to complete 80.9 percent of their passes this season. The Lobos' game with FCS program Sam Houston State this week gives them a chance to end their 12-game losing streak against schools from the state of Texas. ... When Nolan Kohorst kicked a 40-yard field goal Saturday to give UNLV a 3-0 lead in its victory over Hawaii, it represented the first time the Rebels had opened the scoring in a game since Bobby Hauck took over as coach. UNLV's opponents scored first in each of the Rebels' games last season and in their first two games this season. ... San Diego State is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since the 1981 season, while Wyoming is 3-0 for the first time since 1996. That 1981 San Diego State team won its first four games and went on to finish 6-5. Wyoming's 1996 squad started 9-0 and finished 10-2. ... How much does WR Josh Boyce mean to TCU's passing attack? Boyce has caught 21 passes for 306 yards to lead the MWC in both categories. Nobody else on his team has more than six catches or 53 receiving yards. ... Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium usually has a capacity of 29,181, but the school is providing additional bleacher seats in each end zone for Saturday's game with Nebraska. Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman told the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune he is expecting a crowd of more than 32,600. ... Wyoming coach Dave Christensen has indicated FS Kenny Browder might return for Saturday's game. Browder has been on indefinite suspension following his Aug. 28 DUI arrest.

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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