On Mountain High: Three ways Wyoming upsets TCU

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When I unleashed my mid-season Kings of the Mountain awards last week, I never knew they would be so influential in last weekend’s games – specifically the Wyoming-San Diego State showdown. That matchup featured my Freshman of the Year, Coach of the Year and Most Valuable Player Kings of the Mountain and boy they sure did not disappoint.

Ronnie Hillman exploded for 224 yards on 25 carries, and it wasn’t even his total yardage that was most impressive. Hillman scored two second-half touchdowns, one on a 99-yard run. It’s no wonder Hillman is first nationally in yards per game, with 151, and second in total yards, with 1,057.

Unfortunately, Hillman is only a running back and despite his heroics, the Aztecs were unable to overcome a huge first-half deficit, thanks in large part to Wyoming’s true freshman quarterback Brett Smith and head coach Dave Christenson.

Smith threw for a career-high 341 yards and accounted for four touchdowns — two passing and two rushing. Smith was named the Manning Award Player of the Week on Thursday, earning the most fan votes in the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s Facebook contest. In fact, Smith was also named Mountain West Co-Offensive Player of the Week, sharing the award with, you guessed it, Ronnie Hillman.

This week, I’m eager to discuss Wyoming’s next big matchup – a Mountain West showdown with conference title implications. At noon tomorrow, Wyoming hosts the TCU Horned Frogs in an afternoon game that is bound to be cold. According to Weather.com, the game-time forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-30’s with rain/snow showers expected and a 30 percent chance of precipitation.

If there was ever a game on the schedule, given the circumstances, that would allow a true freshman to establish himself as the future face of the conference, this is the game. Wyoming had their chance to shock the country when they hosted Nebraska earlier in the season, which was dubbed the biggest football game in Wyoming’s history. Now, though, at 5-2 overall and 2-0 in conference, beating TCU might be an even more impressive task considering the Horned Frogs have won a record 20 straight Mountain West games and many expect next week’s showdown with Boise State to decide the 2011 Mountain West champion.

Before the season, I remember looking through the Mountain West schedule, per team, and outlining some of the big games to watch, outside of the obvious. One of the games I circled was this week’s game. Not necessarily because I expected Wyoming to be as good as they’ve been – they’ve already surpassed last season’s win total of three – but a road game for TCU in Wyoming, at 7,165 feet above sea level mind you, the week before their biggest game of the season screams “trap game.”

In order for Wyoming to win this game, they have to be flawless. That doesn’t necessarily mean scoring on every possession, although scoring touchdowns on the first four possessions last week sure helped against SDSU. Flawless play means not committing stupid penalties, like against Nebraska, minimizing turnover, or at least the damage that follows, and taking advantage of the opportunities presented.

Against Nebraska, clearly the best team the Cowboys have played to date, Wyoming committed eight penalties for 59 yards. The 59-yard total doesn’t necessarily jump out at you right away, but near the end of the first half, Wyoming committed some horrible personal foul penalties that negated an opportunity to close the deficit going into the half.

Looking at the numbers, TCU has been a more penalty-prone team than Wyoming, averaging almost 54 penalty yards per game to Wyoming’s 45. Therefore, negating stupid penalties includes keeping your cool when the game starts to get physical, because everybody knows it will.

Against Nebraska, Wyoming gave up an average of 7 yards per play, but they also forced three fumbles. Unfortunately, they only recovered one of those fumbles. If they want to beat TCU for the first time since 2007, when they won 24-21 in Laramie, Wyoming needs to be win the turnover battle. If the ball is on the ground, the Cowboys need to do everything they can to corral it and secure possession.

Finally, the last thing Wyoming needs to do to win this game, since I just realized this has unintentionally become a “three ways Wyoming pulls the upset” column, is play a complete game. This sounds so simple, but last week against San Diego State, Wyoming scored on its first four possessions, an impressive feat, but then failed to do much of anything the rest of the game. They even had -1 yards total in the fourth quarter while scrambling to hold off the charging Aztecs.

A month ago, Wyoming jumped out to a 12-0 first quarter lead against Utah State only to watch that lead evaporate in the second quarter en route to a 63-19 beatdown. In Wyoming’s first three games, all wins, they scored at least a touchdown in 11 of 12 quarters. In their next two losses, Wyoming only scored in four of eight. Even last week, Wyoming failed to score in the second half. In order to pull the upset, Wyoming will have to consistently put points on the board, whether touchdowns or field goals, to keep the pressure on their opponent.


Now, on to my picks for the week. We’re smack in the middle of conference play and the only team without an opponent this week is Colorado State, who has a bye.

TCU (-19.5) at Wyoming
Pick:Wyoming is off to its best start since 1998 when they started 6-1 and has an opportunity with a win Saturday to be 3-0 in the MW for the first time ever. Not only that, but a win for Wyoming could, down the road, assure them at least a tie for first place in the Mountain West.
If Wyoming wins and TCU beats Boise St. next week, there will be at 3-way tie atop the Mountain West standings. Unfortunately, I don’t think Wyoming has enough firepower or experienced enough to pull off the monumental upset. I think Wyoming will compete, but their inability to play flawless football will be their downfall.
Wyoming loses/covers, 38-21

Army at Air Force (-17)
Pick:Just like earlier in the season, when Air Force faced off against Navy, the Falcons face an opponent in Army who runs a similar triple-option offense. Just like in the Navy game, Air Force should jump out to a big lead early but unlike the Navy game, Air Force should have no problem hanging on to that lead.

Air Force wins/covers, 35-14

New Mexico at San Diego State (-35)
Pick:Following a disappointing home loss against Wyoming last weekend, SD State needs a win this week to keep bowl hopes alive. What better opponent to help them get back on track then the New Mexico Lobos. Boasting one of the worst defenses in the country, the Lobos have little chance to stop NCAA leading rusher Ronnie Hillman and the rest of the so-far underachieving Aztec offense. Although I expect SD State to win, I don’t see them covering the 35-point spread.
SD State wins/doesn’t cover, 41-14

Boise State (-42) at UNLV
Pick:While TCU has a tough opponent in Wyoming the week prior to their showdown against Boise, the Broncos have it a lot easier hosting the UNLV Rebels. We’ve already seen Kellen Moore and the Boise St. offense put up 63 points in their first conference win against Colorado St, and I expect their second conference win to be an equally one-sided affair.
Boise State wins/covers, 56-7