The Mountain West’s Reputation On The Line

The best of the Mountain West take the field these next two nights, beginning with TCU-Louisiana Tech tonight and Boise State-Arizona State tomorrow, both games at 8 PM EST on ESPN. TCU & Boise both need to carry the conference banner, because a tough regular season for the Mountain West has been followed by a rocky opening to the bowl calendar.

Wyoming was a pleasant surprise in the MWC this year, going 8-4, but it all came crashing down Saturday against Temple in a 37-15 loss. This could be attributed to a matchup problem. While Wyoming played decent overall defense, they were soft against the run and that was what the Owls, with Bernard Pierce in the backfield and Chris Coyer running, were ideally positioned to exploit. That night San Diego State lost to UL-Lafayette in a back-and-forth thriller that came down to the Cajuns nailing a 50-yard field goal at the gun. We could attribute that loss to the raw emotion brought into the game by Lafayette and the excitement of a hometown crowd. But the excuses are piling up while the wins aren’t. With TCU and Boise both big favorites, it’s time to get some W’s.

Gary Patterson at TCU has done an outstanding job replacing a lot of the talent that delivered back-to-back perfect regular seasons in 2009-10 and a Rose Bowl win last season. The Horned Frogs’ defensive dominance isn’t back yet, but they are improving and the passing game has come along very quickly. Patterson tapped sophomore Casey Pachall as the replacement for Cincinnati Bengals’ rookie Andy Dalton and Pachall came out gunning right from the outset, when he threw for 251 yards in a season-opening loss to Baylor. The young quarterback went on to play well in a win over Air Force and loss to SMU. As TCU went unbeaten through Mountain West play, Pachall was steady throughout and he rose to the level of spectacular in Boise when his 473 yards gunned down the unbeaten Broncos. He’s developed a rapport with sophomore receiver Josh Boyce and the duo should be ready for more productive years together.

TCU has made strides defensively. Heisman winner Robert Griffin III wasn’t the only quarterback to have his way with the Frogs in September. SMU put up 33 points in regulation (plus 7 more in overtime), as Patterson’s team lost twice early. But the defense has come along, doing a good job in containing San Diego State, Wyoming and surviving at Boise. The question is this—is that real defensive improvement, or is it a sign that maybe the Mountain West isn’t all it was cracked up to be with Boise’s arrival?

The record is troublesome for MWC backers. San Diego State lost at Michigan, but more alarming was a narrow escape at Army. Wyoming’s loss to Nebraska wasn’t as troublesome as being absolutely buried by Utah State. Air Force barely survived Navy’s worst team in several years and was destroyed by Notre Dame. Conference play was a respite for the Falcons, who play next Wednesday against Toledo. Only Boise really stood out in its September schedule.

Chris Petersen’s team  opened the season with a  road-neutral win over Georgia in Atlanta, a game that looks much more impressive in retrospect, as the Bulldogs changed from a struggling program with an embattled head coach to the champs of the SEC East. Boise decisively beat three midmajor bowl teams in Toledo, Tulsa and Nevada. The one concern was the lack of a running game, with Doug Martin unable to really get untracked. Whether it was midseason improvement or the onset of Mountain West opponents, things got better on the ground. Martin had 125-plus yards in wins over Air Force, San Diego State and Wyoming and backup D.J. Harper ran for 125 against TCU. All the while, the lefty quarterback Kellen Moore kept producing. Boise’s defense has shown some softness against the run—nothing major, but Wyoming, San Diego State and Tulsa had 100-plus yards on the ground (Air Force had over 200, but as a triple-option team that runs almost every play that doesn’t tell us a lot). When Boise took the running game away against TCU, Pachall lit up the secondary.

What it boils down to is that we’re not quite sure what to make of the two Mountain West powers and by extension, their conference. Does improvement come from the evolution of the season or the change to conference opponents. We’ll find out the next two nights. With that in mind, let’s look at the specifics of these bowl matchups…

TCU-Louisiana Tech: This is one of the more underappreciated games on the card. Louisiana Tech is an improving team themselves and got a big win on the road in Nevada to sneak off with the WAC title. Tech also tested themselves in non-conference play. A 1-4 start was marked by narrow losses to Southern Miss (C-USA champ), Houston (C-USA runner-up) and Mississippi State (bowl team out of the SEC). In regulation play the difference between Louisiana Tech and those three teams was a net (-2) points, and Mississippi State added a touchdown in overtime. Tech was then beaten decisively by Hawaii when the Rainbows still had quarterback Bryant Moniz and were bowl-caliber.

Once Louisiana Tech got its hands on WAC teams, close losses began turning into wins. They played the best defense in the conference, edging Utah State prior to the win over Nevada. Tech made a quarterback change midway through, benching freshman Nick Isham, whose interceptions who were a big part of the early losses and replaced him with junior Colby Cameron. In the backfield, Tech began taking away carries from Lennon Creer and handed them to freshman Hunter Lee. It sparked an increase in rush yardage and means that Creer’s likely suspension for tonight doesn’t matter all that much.

For tonight’s game, the problems Tech had with Moniz suggest to me that Pachall can have a good night, and TCU should win. But this game should be close, and betting action in Las Vegas seems to indicate that others agree. TCU opened at (-11) and that line is now down to (-9) so the money is hitting the Bulldogs. It think this one’s close enough to make the smart money right.

Boise State-Arizona State: Not only does Kellen Moore say goodbye to college ball tonight, but Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson, who won national championships at Miami in 1989 and 1991, coaches his final game for the Sun Devils and possibly has last game ever. It’s been a terribly disappointing ending to a once-promising season for Arizona State. They had control of the Pac-12 South race for much of the season and not just because USC was on probation. The Sun Devils beat the Trojans decisively back in September and quarterback Brock Osweiler has been as consistent as any passer in the country. He’s gotten steady support in the running game from Cameron Marshall.

But in the final four games, Arizona State not only lost all four, they did it every way possible. UCLA rushed for 220 yards and won on the final play. Washington State’s Connor Halliday then had a career against the Sun Devil secondary, throwing for nearly 500 yards. Osweiler lost a shootout to Arizona’s Nick Foles, when even ASU’s 482 passing yards weren’t enough to overcome the two interceptions. Four more turnovers doomed the finale against Cal. Have we been given any reason to believe that Arizona State’s defense can stop Kellen Moore?

Last season’s bowl season was a triumphant ride for the current teams of the Mountain West. Boise State’s win over Utah was a WAC over MWC game at the time, but is now a win for a current Mountain West team over a current Pac-12 team. Got all that? TCU won the Rose Bowl. Air Force beat Georgia Tech and San Diego State dismantled a good Navy squad. This year’s is off to an 0-2 start and the results from back in September suggest that it’s not a fluke. It’s up to TCU and Boise State to disprove that the next two nights.