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BYU, Utah facing crucial contests

This is the week BYU and Utah must deliver.

The Cougars can't afford to give up a MWC game at home in its conference opener against TCU on Saturday. Utah must rise above a league loss to remain on target to get a piece of the championship.

Can they do it?

Of course. But either team could lose, and there are plenty of reasons why. BYU must prove its consistency, and the Utes have to be better on defense this week with AFA's option.

The old adage just may be true this season, the MWC has reached parity. Outside of UNLV, SDSU and perhaps CSU, the rest of the league could probably defeat any other team on a given day.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall put it this way: "The team that works the hardest, plays the best and practices with the most focus each day will be the winner in every one of those games — it's that close and it comes down to just that."

That's why he and Whittingham are taking game preparation to the very minute every day.

Consider. The difference between Wyoming-AFA and TCU-Utah last week was four points, a handful of plays.

"Every game usually comes down to about five plays," Mendenhall said. "You can usually point to those plays as to why you won or lost."

For the Utes, we'll see tonight if the problem of stopping run forays inside and around the end by opposing offenses is scheme or a matter of personnel. There are huge questions about linebacker pursuit and coverage. Outside of Eric Weddle, there are questions of coverage capability. If Weddle comes up to help cover the AFA option near the line — which he must by gap assignment against the Falcons — this AFA team could strike big through the air.

AFA's first order of attack is the fullback dive up the middle. If Utah does not stop this play, it will be disaster for coordinator Gary Anderson. Are his men ready for those cut blocks?

For the Cougars, TCU's run attack will give the front seven a huge challenge. But in BYU's favor, its untested and questionable secondary will face a 49 percent passer in Tye Gunn, a guy who struggled hitting open receivers against the Utes.

In this game, BYU's John Beck, Todd Watkins and Curtis Brown have to make a difference in producing touchdowns or this could be a long fall for Bronco Mendenhall.

If BYU's offense attacks like it did in Monday's very physical lay-it-out practice (seven touchdowns), the race will be on for the Frogs, and they'd better have on their best legs.

The very confident Curtis Brown believes in Robert Anae's offense: "We are the only ones who can stop it. We stop ourselves. If we run it and execute it, there is nobody we face who will slow it down."

OK, let's see the goods. And no more two-yard passes on third and 12.

Now for the picks:

The percentage took a big hit with TCU knocking off Utah and UNLV's inability to control it's own state. Here are the picks for this week:

UTAH 27, AFA 24: This one has the markings of an upset unless the Utes gain control of the middle and perimeter on defense. The scary part is this edition of the Falcons can pass the football and regularly make big plays. Utah's best chance is to shift into a higher gear on offense and have Brian Johnson go off on the Cadets. The short week will hurt the Falcons tonight.

NEW MEXICO 31, UTEP 28: Two very good coaches, two solid offenses that have shown big play capabilities. This game will come down to defense — the Lobos have one and the Miners do not. Look for UTEP to have trouble containing DonTrell Moore while receiver Hank Baskett will torch UTEP's defense.

NEVADA 17, COLORADO STATE 14: Last week the Wolfpack took care of UNLV in somewhat of a surprise instate flop by the Rebels against this WAC team. The Rams are reeling, looking for answers, and at 0-2, may not find them in Hughes Stadium.

WYOMING 24, MISSISSIPPI 21: If the Cowboys are for real, they'll prove it in this venture into the lower echelon of the SEC. Unless Ole Miss has something we haven't seen since Eli Manning, the Cowboys will come home with a key intersectional victory for the league.

UTAH STATE 24, UNLV 21: We'll give the Aggies respect, but making it a win is tough. Then the heart kicks in. And this is a game of heart — the Rebels have a question about what's beating in their chests. For USU faithful, UNLV's weaknesses have been exploited by Nevada and Idaho, and the latter should have won, and there are plenty of reasons the trend will continue in the valley.

SAN DIEGO STATE 34, SAN JOSE STATE 17: A much-needed victory for the Aztecs should come at home this week. SDSU should take something from the Ohio State game — the Spartans are so removed from the Buckeyes, Tom Craft will think he's in a cartoon show.

BYU 34, TCU 31: Can the Frogs hop in a straight line two weeks in a row? That's the big question the MWC ponders. Look for a shake-up in BYU's offensive firepower for this game. A quick-pace Cougar attack will neutralize some of TCU's speed that bothered Utah's offense in Fort Worth.

LAST WEEK: 2-3; Overall:14-7, .666.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com