I am working with 11 other beat writers around the Mountain West to produce a weekly notebook that will appear here on Tuesdays and in the newspaper on Wednesdays.
The season opener against Colgate will, if nothing else, give Air Force a dress rehearsal against the type of quarterback it will see plenty of this year.
Gavin McCarney threw for 2,372 yards and 15 touchdowns and ran for 1,406 and 23 scores as he led Colgate to a Patriot League championship last season and a berth in the FCS playoffs.
“He’s their team,” Air Force linebacker Joey Nichol said. “We’re very much ganged up on him. When we have to decide to take the running back or take him, we take him.”
McCarney figures to provide a preview of things to come, as Air Force will face a pair of quarterbacks this year in Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton and Nevada’s Cody Fajardo who threw for at least 2,700 yards and ran for 600 yards. There’s also looming dual threats at Boise State, Navy and Wyoming, if not Army, Notre Dame and New Mexico as well.
“For at least five games we’re going to play guys who move well, throw well and have some experience,” Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said.
Next game: vs. Colgate, 1 p.m. MT Saturday (Root Sports)
Notable: DL Robert Green (torn meniscus) will miss at least two months but was the only player expected to miss any game action as the result of a preseason injury. … QB Kale Pearson, a junior, has earned the starting position over sophomore Jaleel Awini.
— Brent Briggeman, The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
Boise State’s season opener has a familiar feel.
The Broncos are ranked No. 19 as they head to Seattle to face an unranked but dangerous Washington team.
They also were No. 19 in the BCS Standings going into the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas in December, when the Broncos beat the Huskies 28-26.
The differences this time: the site — noisy, remodeled Husky Stadium — and the starting lineups. Boise State returns 10 starters; Washington returns 20.
“I think it’s tougher (this year),” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “It starts with most of their guys being back, playing not in a neutral environment. Those two things right then and there make it tough. And the fact that whether we won or lost, most of our guys are gone. We’d be talking to air if we were trying to motivate one way or another. All their guys are back.”
The Broncos should be electric on offense after last year’s sluggish showing but have many question marks on defense, where both cornerbacks and all three linebackers are gone.
Senior quarterback Joe Southwick has seven experienced receivers at his disposal, including two tight ends, and is backed by talented sophomore tailback Jay Ajayi (6.7 yards per carry last year).
“We feel comfortable with what we have,” Southwick said. “It’s nice having a nice spring, a good summer and a good camp, but now it’s kind of change-your-mentality mode. In a couple of days, we’re doing this for real. I’m excited to see everyone go out there and cut it loose. We just have to focus and execute.”
Next game: at Washington, 8:05 p.m. MT Saturday (Fox Sports 1)
Notable: Junior Dan Goodale, who missed the potential game-winning field goal against TCU two years ago and lost the field-goal job, regained the starting spot in fall camp. He also was awarded a scholarship. … Junior college transfer Tutulupeatau Mataele, who was projected to start at defensive tackle going into fall camp, is not enrolled in school and won’t be with the Broncos this season because of an academic issue tied to his previous school.
— Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman
Colorado State coach Jim McElwain wouldn’t name his starting quarterback earlier this week, leaving open the possibility that true freshman Nick Stevens could get the nod over two players who started games last season — junior Garrett Grayson and sophomore Conner Smith.
McElwain said he won’t choose the starter until after Thursday’s practice and that he might not tell the players themselves until they’re on the field Sunday warming up for the game.
“Every time we put Nick in, the freshman kid, it’s like you go to film and say, ‘Whoa, that’s how you play the position,’ ” McElwain said Monday.
McElwain said the young quarterback, who went 27-1 as a starter at Vista Murrieta High School in Murietta, Calif., has shown he has the physical ability, mental understanding and leadership ability to run Colorado State’s offense. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder threw for 2,316 yards and 24 touchdowns as a high school senior while running for another 661 yards and 11 touchdowns on 126 carries.
Smith, a 6-5, 220-pounder from Richmond, Texas, had a strong final week of fall camp, McElwain said, to put himself back in the race after seemingly falling out of it in the first two weeks.
The Rams went 3-1 with Smith as the starting quarterback late last season after Grayson and then-senior M.J. McPeek went down with injuries. He completed 80 of 126 passes for 1,022 yards and six touchdowns, with six interceptions.
Grayson, a 6-2, 220-pounder from Vancouver, Wash., started the first five games last fall before breaking his left collarbone while scrambling for a short gain in a loss at Air Force. He completed 78 of 138 passes for 946 yards and seven touchdowns, with three interceptions in the six games he played.
Next game: vs. Colorado (Denver), 4 p.m. MT Sunday (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: Stevens was one of three true freshmen listed on the Rams’ first depth chart of the season. Rashard Higgins (6-2, 180) was listed as the starter at one of the wide receiver spots and Tyree Simmons (5-11, 170) was listed as the No. 1 kick returner.
— Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan
New Mexico has been competing in football since 1892, the University Texas-San Antonio just since 2011.
Yet, when New Mexico coach Bob Davie looks at the 2013 Roadrunners roster, he sees a more mature team than his own. The Lobos host the Roadrunners on Saturday.
“I think they have six players on offense that it’s their third year starting,” Davie said after Monday’s practice. “I think they have five players on defense that it’s their third year starting. That’s where we hope to be in a year or two.
“They are very well-coached. They’re not going to give you anything. They know what to expect out of all of their players. That’s the advantage they have, but it really doesn’t make any difference. We’re going to go play. We’re just trying to catch up from an experience standpoint, and the only way to catch up is to go play games.”
Because of attrition in previous recruiting classes, Davie’s second New Mexico team is relatively light on juniors and seniors and heavy on freshmen and sophomores.
“Hopefully,” Davie said, “you can look at our roster a year or two from now and you’ll see (players with) 22 games, 18 starts, or 20 games, 20 starts. That’s what we’re building for.”
Next game: vs. Texas San Antonio, 6 p.m. MT Saturday
Notable: Sophomore offensive tackle Johnny Vizcaino (concussion symptoms) is doubtful for UTSA. Redshirt freshman tight end Christian Rebhun was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered during camp. … UTSA Athletic Director Lynn Hickey was the women’s basketball coach at Texas A&M while Davie was an assistant there.
Davie said Hickey sought his advice during the process of establishing a football program. “We had a lot of discussions when that job first started,” Davie said. “… I’ve followed that program pretty closely.”
— Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal
Before last season, Utah State was used to getting shoved around by in-state rival Utah.
The Utes had won 12 straight games in the lopsided rivalry headed into last year’s showdown in Logan. The Aggies shocked them with a 27-20 victory in overtime.
With a new head coach and starting in a new, tougher conference, now Utah State must prove it can repeat the feat.
“This game is going to be kind of a tone-setter for the rest of our season,” quarterback Chuckie Keeton said. “I know it’s only the first game, but every single game has its own weight, so this one is a huge one.”
First-year coach Matt Wells will have to do what no Aggie coach has done since John L. Smith in 1997: Beat Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes are burning from last year’s loss, which coach Kyle Whittingham said had a “hangover effect” on him early in the season, and fans are expected to participate in a “Stripe the Stadium” promotion for the season opener Thursday night.
But beyond the hostile environment, Wells is looking closely at Utah’s retooled offense under coordinator Dennis Erickson. The Utes are shifting to an up-tempo offense and boast a number of solid receiving weapons. They’ll be looking to contain Kenneth Scott, who tore up Utah State’s defense for 82 yards and a pair of scores.
“I see Dres [Anderson] and Kenneth, and that may be the best two-man combo of wideouts we’ll see all year,” Wells said. “One’s got length and can go. The other one’s quick and fast and elusive.”
Notable: Out of camp, the only player with an extended injury is Bryce Walker, a reserve offensive lineman. … Kicker Nick Diaz is listed on the Aggies’ depth chart as even with Jake Thompson and Josh Thompson, but Wells confirmed Diaz is the starting field goal and extra point guy this season. … A true freshman who might play a role on special teams is Kennedy Williams, the younger brother of 2012 All-WAC running back and current NFL player Kerwynn Williams. He could see time as a kick returner.
Next game: at Utah, 6 p.m. MT Thursday (Fox Sports 1)
— Kyle Goon, The Salt Lake Tribune
The Cowboys face a big test defensively in their opener Saturday at No. 18 Nebraska.
Wyoming allowed 33.4 points, 232.3 rushing yards and 470.3 total yards per game and opponents converted 51 percent of their third-down conversions in 2012. The Cowboys finished 4-8.
Nebraska returns most of its offensive starters from a team that averaged nearly 35 points a game. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez threw for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, and ran for 1,097 yards.
“It has a chance to be the best offense in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the top offenses in the country,” fifth-year Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. “They are explosive.
They have a lot of variety in what they can do. They give you different looks and disguise things. They are really difficult to defend because they have great players.”
Wyoming switched from a 4-3 base defense last season to a 3-4, but it will continue to show multiple formations.
“I think we made some improvements but the big test, as it always is, is when you play a game and see what they do on Saturdays,” Christensen said. “We are more athletic defensively, and we play with great
energy. But the key will be how we do in a game, and how we leverage the football and tackle.”
Christensen is calling the offensive plays this season and returns seven offensive starters including junior quarterback Brett Smith. As a true freshman in 2011, Smith was 17 of 33 for 166 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 38-14 loss to Nebraska in Laramie.
“It was one of the funnest games I have played in,” Smith said of that game.
Smith has not thrown an interception in 174 consecutive passes dating to Oct. 1 of last season.
That is tied for the longest streak in the nation with Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.
Next game: at No. 18 Nebraska, 6 p.m. MT Saturday (Big Ten Network)
Notable: Wyoming is 0-6 against Nebraska, and has lost all 12 games in the Christensen era against ranked teams. … This is the second consecutive season the Cowboys have opened the season on the road against a ranked opponent. Last year they lost at then-No. 15 Texas 37-17. … Wyoming is 1-15 against teams from the Big Ten. The lone win was at Wisconsin, 21-12, on Sept. 27, 1986. … True freshman Tanner Gentry will start at one of the four wide receiver spots.
— Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Fresno State won a share of the Mountain West last year without really beating anybody of note, continuing a poor run in non-conference and bowl games against FBS opponents.
Over the past four seasons, the Bulldogs are 4-13 in those games and the wins are over Colorado last season (a 1-11 team), Cincinnati (a 4-8 team) and Illinois (a 7-6 team) in 2010 and Illinois (a 3-9 team) again in 2009. They came close last season, making a run at Oregon in the second half and losing to Tulsa 27-26 and to Boise State 20-10. But presented opportunity, they didn’t finish.
The teams Fresno State beat last season went a combined 40-71. Only two of those opponents were better than .500 when beaten by the Bulldogs and they had gotten there by beating up on the same conference opponents that Fresno State had along the way.
San Diego State went on to go 9-4 and share the Mountain West title, but when blitzed by the Bulldogs were 2-2 with wins over an Army team that would finish the season 2-10 and North Dakota, a Championship Subdivision team that finished its season 5-6.
Nevada was 6-3 when Fresno State went to Reno, but also was on a two-game losing streak and en route to dropping five of its last six games including a bowl loss to Arizona. Air Force was 6-5 when it went into Bulldog Stadium and about to end the season on a 1-4 slide.
That obviously will have to change if Fresno State is to fulfill what it believes could be a special season, starting Thursday against Rutgers.
But the Bulldogs said there is a different feel around the program now.
“Some of the teams that we were on that didn’t do so well early in my career, I can see a big difference,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “I can see a huge difference. It’s night and day. Not only how we get along as a team, just the respect we have for all the staff, the respect we have for the coaches, the respect we have for the trainers. That’s the stuff that matters to me and to success.
“Last year, it was new to us so we were kind of nervous, like, ‘Does this stuff even work? Are these guys just crazy? What’s going on?’ We didn’t know. But we bought in. We had faith in them. We had hope that it would work. We went in full-go. Now that we’ve done it for a year, it’s nice to go into a system two years in a row – this will be my first time being able to play in a system two years in a row as a starter. You get a sense of comfort, not in a bad way, but you just know things more and you can add more stuff. That goes for the whole team. The team is so excited.
“You know, we bought in last year and we saw where it got us and we’re hungry. We don’t see it as people are targeting us. Every team we play, we’re trying to go get them. That’s our mentality and we have more of a confidence, I’d say. Not in an arrogant kind of way, just more confident that we can go out and really do this thing.’’
Said DeRuyter: “I think we have a pretty hard edge on our team right now. There’s a lot of investment and any time you have guys that have made that large of an investment it hurts a little bit more when you lose. You fight a little stronger. When you don’t invest much, it’s easy to lose, and our guys are fully invested so I like where we’re at.”
Next game: vs. Rutgers, 8:30 p.m. MT Thursday (ESPNU)
Notable: Fresno State is coming off a MW conference title-winning season and is having a ‘’White Out’’ promotion against Rutgers, but the game is not close to a sellout. They are expecting in the mid-30,000s. The building holds 41,031. … The Bulldogs had two JC cornerbacks fail to gain admission to school this fall. But they have been pretty much saved by Curtis Riley, who they recruited late out of Fullerton College. He signed his grant in aid the day before fall camp started and even though he had no idea what Fresno State was running when camp opened was running with the No. 1 defense a week into camp. Riley will start against Rutgers. He didn’t play last season at Fullerton. He started his career at Mars Hill College in North Carolina, took a year off and ended up at Fullerton. Fresno State receivers coach Ron Antoine saw him in practice there and they basically scouted him off practice tape.
— Robert Kuwada, The Fresno Bee
A retro theme is expected when Hawaii opens against USC on Thursday at Aloha Stadium. After 13 years as the “Warriors,” UH resurrected the “Rainbow Warriors” nickname. Also returning (after a one-year break) are 7 a.m. practices and an emphasis on the passing game.
Last year, Norm Chow’s first as head coach, Hawaii relied on a ball-control attack to milk the clock and ease the burden on the defense. The pro-set offense involved a tight end and fullback, positions that were absent during the 13 seasons of the run-and-shoot offense.
Chow vowed to pass more this season, a decision based on injuries and personnel. Will Gregory, last season’s top rusher, was expelled because of a dormitory violation. Joey Iosefa, projected as the No. 1 tailback, will need another two weeks to recover from a fractured foot. Three freshmen — Faga Wily, Steven Lakalaka and Diocemy Saint Juste – are expected to rotate at tailback. Although Billy Ray Stutzmann missed training camp because of a concussion suffered in a single-car accident, the Rainbow Warriors are deep at receiver. UH added five receivers who are 6-2 and taller, led by junior college transfer Vasquez Haynes and freshmen Marcus Kemp and Keith Kirkwood.
Quarterback Taylor Graham, who redshirted last year after transferring from Ohio State, will make his first start since his senior season at Wheaton (Ill.) North High in 2009.
Next game: vs. No. 24 USC, 9 p.m. MT Thursday (CBS Sports Network)
Notable: Twenty-nine players are expected to make their UH debut against USC. Of the 110 players on the active roster, only 37 remain from Greg McMackin’s last UH season in 2011.
— Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Nevada has long been known for its staunch offensive line — the Union, as the Wolf Pack like to call it. But it remains to be seen if this season’s front can live up to the high standards of its predecessors, which in the last eight years or so regularly paved the way for rushing numbers that were among the nation’s best.
First-year coach Brian Polian was still trying to find a right tackle late last week. He and offensive line coach Ron Hudson settled on junior Kyle Roberts, who edged out junior college transfer Braxton Isaac. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Roberts, from Reed High in nearby Sparks, Nev., played in nine games last season but will be making his first start when Nevada visits UCLA on Saturday night.
Next to Roberts at right guard will be Fred Lavulo (6-2, 305), a senior who transferred from Cerritos College in 2012. Lavulo, who turns 28 next month, was a defensive tackle until about two weeks ago. The Wolf Pack are fairly deep on the defensive front, but endured a great deal of attrition on the offensive line. Nevada lost six linemen since the start of spring ball, including three who were expected to compete for playing time.
The left side of the line, anchored by 2012 All-MW honorable mention Joel Bitonio at tackle, should be solid. Sophomore Connor Talbott, who earned his first start in the New Mexico Bowl last season, starts at left guard. And Matt Galas returns as the starting center.
Next game: at No. 21 UCLA, 8 p.m. MT (Pac-12 Networks)
Notable: Polian said WR Nigel Westbrooks, likely a third-team receiver, has been reinstated to the team after having been suspended indefinitely following a “summer incident.” Polian said Westbrooks is suspended for the UCLA game for a violation of team rules. TEs Stephen Jeffers (foot) and Randy Horton (knee) have been ruled out for the UCLA game. The status of starting DE Lenny Jones (knee) likely will be determined as the week progresses.
— Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal
SAN DIEGO STATE
Even though the Aztecs’ Aug. 31 opener comes again a non-FBS team, it will be a good test for San Diego State’s inexperienced new cornerbacks.
The Aztecs will not announce the starting cornerback rotation till later this week, but they’ve confirmed that they will be using four cornerbacks this season instead of sticking with two starters on every play like they did last year.
Junior J.J. Whittaker and sophomore walk-on Pierre Romain are the likely starters. Whittaker has had the misfortune of being injured three years in a row and Romain has seen cleanup duty at cornerback in one game during his college career.
So the Aztecs will be fielding green cornerbacks against a spread offense that finished 2012 ranked No. 7 in the FCS in total offense.
“It’s always a concern every time you’ve got green corners and you’re facing teams that want to throw the ball,” Aztecs cornerbacks coach Tony White said. “Spread teams want to throw it all over the place, and as with every team, they want to exploit your weaknesses.
“So it don’t matter if we’re playing a spread, a pro style, a triple option (offense). If they believe your corners are weak, they’re going to attack. So we just have to be ready.”
Next game: vs. Eastern Illinois, 6 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)
Notable: The Aztecs came out of camp very healthy, with all the starters ready to go. The only player lost for the season is third-string LB Scott Graves, who ruptured a bicep tendon and had to have surgery.
— Stefanie Loh, U-T San Diego
SAN JOSE STATE
The Ron Caragher era begins Thursday for San Jose State against a Sacramento State team that the players have no choice but to take seriously.
The Hornets, a Football Championship Subdivision team, have beaten Pac-12 teams in each of the last two years. They beat Colorado last season and Oregon State in 2011.
“We know they’re a good team,” Caragher said. “Having seen them beat some Pac-12 teams, that’s instant credibility. You show (the players) the scoreboard and really don’t have to say much more.”
The Spartans haven’t won their season opener since 2008, a 17-13 win over another FCS foe in UC Davis. Their past three season openers have come on the road against Top 25 teams. This is the first all-time meeting between Sacramento State and the Spartans, despite being separated by about a 2-hour drive.
SJSU brings a seven-game winning streak into the season and is looking to win its eighth straight for the first time since 1987.
Quarterback David Fales, who broke every significant single-season school passing record last year, begins his second year with the Spartans 3,355 yards and 26 touchdowns away from breaking the school’s career records in those categories.
Next game: vs. Sacramento State, 8 p.m. MT Thursday (MW Digital Network)
Notable: Senior LB Vince Buhagiar, a first-team All-WAC choice last year, is likely out for the season with a shoulder injury. He has a redshirt year available so he should return in 2014.
— Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News
UNLV takes a 22-game road losing streak into Thursday’s season-opening game at Minnesota.
It is the second-longest skid in school history. The Rebels lost 26 in a row from 1994 to 1998.
They have not won on the road under fourth-year coach Bobby Hauck, who is 0-20 away from Las Vegas.
“We need to flip that switch at some point in time,” Hauck said. “Whether it’s this Thursday night or not, we get to go see. I like the preparation we’ve put in. I think Minnesota’s a good football team. It’ll be a major accomplishment if we’re able to go in there and beat them.”
The Rebels nearly did last season when they took Minnesota to three overtimes before losing 30-27.
“I think we’re better,” Hauck said. “I think they’re better, too. They went to a bowl game last year, and we didn’t. They’re moving forward, progressing like their staff would like them, too.”
Next game: at Minnesota, 5 p.m. MT Thursday (Big Ten Network)
Notable: Freshman wide receiver Kendal Keys, who signed with Boise State in February before obtaining his release, still has not been cleared by the NCAA and is not expected to play.
— Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal