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November 3, 2011

Week 10 preview in the Mountain West

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Wyoming entered the season with no logical reason to believe it could improve much upon last season's 3-9 performance.

Austyn Carta-Samuels, the incumbent starting quarterback, transferred after the 2010 season. Redshirt freshman quarterback Emory Miller departed over the summer. That forced Wyoming to hand the offense over to true freshman Brett Smith, a two-star recruit whose only other FBS offers had come from New Mexico State and San Jose State.

TCU at Wyoming, 2 p.m.
Army at Air Force, 3:30 p.m.
New Mexico at San Diego State, 8 p.m.
Boise State at UNLV, 10:30 p.m.
As it turns out, that was the best possible situation for Wyoming (5-2, 2-0 Mountain West), which heads into Saturday's game with TCU (6-2, 3-0) harboring legitimate postseason dreams because Smith turned the team's biggest supposed weakness into one of its greatest strengths.

Smith is second in the Mountain West Conference in passing yards per game (237.9) and total offense per game (271.4). He threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns and added two touchdown runs Saturday to lead Wyoming to a 30-27 upset at San Diego State.

"I'm happy, but the type of person I am, I'm really never satisfied," Smith said. "I've done a few good things, but I can count more things I've done wrong than right. That's the kind of guy I am. I like to critique myself and I love getting better."

He also loves proving people wrong. Even though he was named the Gatorade state player of the year as a senior at West Salem (Ore.) High, Smith didn't get much attention from recruiters. His unorthodox delivery was an issue for some schools. Smith said he heard that he didn't have a natural throwing motion.

"Now that I look back on it, it was the best thing to ever happen to me," he said. "Going through that type of adversity at such a young age - 15, 16, 17 years old - made me work that much harder to try to prove those schools wrong and be the type of player I knew I could be."

What Smith lacked in mechanics, he made up for in grit. How tough is he? Consider that Smith played the majority of a high school game during his junior season without realizing he had a broken bone in his throwing arm. Smith didn't learn the arm was broken until he got it checked out the following week, when he struggled to throw the ball in practice.

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"He hurt it in the first half," West Salem coach Shawn Stanley recalled. "He was just kind of rubbing his elbow. I asked, 'Are you all right?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm fine.' So we played, and as the legend goes, it was a tight game and he rallied us down the stretch for a winning touchdown in a two-minute drill.

"He threw the winning touchdown with a broken arm."

Once you've thrown a winning touchdown pass with a broken arm, repeating that feat while healthy must seem comparably easy, even if you're doing it at a much higher level.

Perhaps that explains how Smith remained so calm in his collegiate debut. Wyoming trailed Weber State 32-28 in the closing minutes until Smith drove Wyoming 73 yards and threw the winning 9-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds left in a 35-32 victory. This season, Smith has displayed all the characteristics that persuaded Wyoming to take a chance on him when so many other schools were looking elsewhere.

"We liked his playmaking ability and elusiveness, his ability to throw the ball and make good choices and decisions with the football," Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. "We liked his personality, his makeup, his leadership abilities. All those things played into it."

All those qualities have compensated for any quirks in his delivery.

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"People get a little too hung up on the delivery deal," Stanley said. "It looks a little bit unorthodox because he catches it and gets it out. There's not a lot of windup, maybe a little bit of a Dan Marino [type]. Dan didn't really drop the ball down or take it back very far. He just caught it and kind of got it out. There's a lot of ways to throw a football. As long as you're consistent - consistency and accuracy and getting it out fast are what you're looking for. There's more than one way to do that.

"I think people saw him as more a runner who could throw. I think there were certain programs, like Oregon State, that don't really want their quarterback to run."

Smith certainly likes to run. He's a quarterback with the mentality of a safety. He has rushed for 235 yards and six touchdowns this season. He also has thrown for 1,665 yards with 11 touchdowns to lead all FBS true freshmen in both categories.

"He's a big-time competitor," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "You can tell when he gets up, he wants to play the game. I really like watching the kid play on film. It's a lot of fun watching the things he's doing."

His performance has Wyoming's preseason goal of a bowl bid well within reach, though it's still no sure thing. Because two of Wyoming's wins are against FCS programs, the Cowboys must go 7-5 to guarantee bowl eligibility. That means Wyoming must win two of its final five games: Saturday vs. TCU, Nov. 12 at Air Force, Nov. 19 vs. New Mexico, Nov. 26 at Boise State and Dec. 3 at Colorado State.

[Viewer's guide: Top games this weekend]

Wyoming and its young quarterback still have a long way to go. That much was evident Saturday, when Wyoming scored 30 points in the first two quarters but was shut out in the second half. Smith could get another learning experience Saturday when he faces an improving TCU defense with snow in the forecast.

Smith looks forward to the challenge. After being ignored by so many other programs, Smith wants to continue rewarding the faith one school showed in him.

"It wasn't about getting 50 scholarship offers," Smith said. "I just wanted one. After the local schools didn't pick up on me, I wanted to play somewhere and live my dream. I'm having a blast here. I'm living a dream so far."

Best matchup: San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman vs. New Mexico LB Carmen Messina. This matchup pits the nation's leading rusher against one of the game's most prolific tacklers. Hillman has run for 1,057 yards this season and leads all FBS players at 151.0 rushing yards per game. He's coming off a 224-yard performance against Wyoming that included a 99-yard touchdown run. Messina has 81 tackles, the most of anyone in the MWC. He has made at least 10 stops in three consecutive games, including a season-high 15 last week against Air Force. Messina's 393 career tackles rank him fourth among all active FBS players (behind Boston College's Luke Kuechly, Houston's Marcus McGraw and Oklahoma's Travis Lewis). These two guys figure to meet quite often Saturday. The game itself should be a mismatch, but the confrontation between Hillman and Messina bears watching.

Coach on the spot: San Diego State's Rocky Long. After posting a 65-69 record as New Mexico's coach from 1998-2008, this will mark the first time Long has tried to beat his alma mater as a head coach. Long did coach against New Mexico as a defensive coordinator on former San Diego State coach Brady Hoke's staff the past two season, but now the former Lobos quarterback is even more in the spotlight while facing his former team as a head coach. Long has spent the week downplaying the situation. "I think it was different emotionally the very first year [2009], but I don't think it is anymore," Long told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

[Video: Pat Forde and Eddie George on the nation's best defenses]

Keep an eye on: The quarterback situations in the Air Force-Army game. Air Force's Tim Jefferson broke his nose last week in a 42-0 victory over New Mexico, which caused backup Connor Dietz to play most of the game. The Falcons relied almost exclusively on their ground attack last week as they ran the ball 61 times and attempted only three passes, though that may have resulted from the game's one-sided nature more than the quarterback change. Jefferson has returned to practice and is expected to play Saturday against Army, but Dietz is ready if needed. Army enters the game with its own quarterback issue. Trent Steelman sat out a 55-0 victory over Fordham last week with a high ankle sprain and is questionable for Saturday's game. Max Jenkins started in Steelman's place against Fordham.

Numbers game: Barring a monumental upset by UNLV, Boise State's Kellen Moore should set the FBS career record Saturday for wins by a starting quarterback. Moore has a 45-2 record as Boise State's quarterback, which ties him with Colt McCoy, who went 45-8 at Texas from 2006-09. Moore has 13 more career wins than any other active FBS quarterback. Houston's Case Keenum ranks second with 32. The rest of the top five: Stanford's Andrew Luck (28), Air Force's Jefferson (25), Oklahoma's Landry Jones (25) and Southern Miss' Austin Davis (25).

Quotes of the week

"When we've played our best here at TCU, it has always been when we've had our backs against the wall and we've had a chip on our shoulder. We've never played our best football when we've been front-runners." - TCU coach Gary Patterson, to the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram

"The guys in the locker room are really all that matter. We're all believing, and we're all looking to upset Boise this weekend." - UNLV QB Caleb Herring, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about being a 41-point underdog against Boise State this week

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"When I left, I didn't think it would be like that." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, to The San Diego Union-Tribune after being asked if he knew New Mexico was about to make a major fall after he stepped down as the Lobos' coach. New Mexico has a combined 2-30 record in the three seasons since his departure

"It's really tough. I'm hurting right now. The whole locker room is hurting. I've never really felt like this, honestly. It's hurting me right now. We should have won. There's no way we should be losing like this. We're better than we were last year. We see it. I think you guys see it. We're a better team. We've got to find a way to make the plays." - Colorado State CB Momo Thomas, to the Denver Post after the Rams fell 38-35 to UNLV for their fourth consecutive loss

"Connor Dietz has a bit of a fire about him. He's kind of the wild West when he comes in to quarterback. [Tim] Jefferson is laid back, calm, smart. Dietz just wants to pound the ball and go as hard as he can. I love blocking for both those guys, and I love their attitudes." - Air Force OT Jason Kons, to The (Colorado Springs) Gazette about the Falcons' two quarterbacks

Poll watch: Boise State is fifth in the BCS standings, down one spot from last week. Stanford moved up to the No. 4 spot after its 56-48 triple-overtime victory over USC. Boise State is the only MWC team in the BCS standings.

Etc.: Air Force can clinch it second consecutive Commander-in-Chief's Trophy by beating Army this weekend. The Falcons already beat Navy 35-34 in overtime Oct. 1. Air Force has won 13 of its past 14 meetings with Army, including five in a row. . Boise State is seventh nationally in scoring offense (43.3) and 10th in scoring defense (16.1). Wisconsin is the only other FBS team to rank in the top 10 in both categories. Boise State also has led at halftime in 47 consecutive games. The Broncos haven't trailed at halftime since their 2007 Hawaii Bowl loss to East Carolina. Colorado State LB Shaquil Barrett doesn't play offense, but he still is tied for sixth on the team in scoring. Barrett's 52-yard interception return against UNLV last week was his second defensive touchdown of the season. He also reached the end zone on a 15-yard fumble return Sept. 24 against Utah State. UNLV WR Phillip Payne set a school record last week with his 25th career touchdown catch. Payne broke the record formerly held by Henry Bailey, who had 24 touchdown receptions from 1991-94. UNLV's Deante Purvis set MWC career records for kick returns (88) and kick-return yards (2,110) last week. Wyoming's Jovon Bouknight had returned 87 kickoffs for 2,016 yards from 2002-05. New Mexico hasn't scored in its past eight quarters, which represents the longest scoring drought in MWC history. The Lobos have fallen 69-0 to TCU and 42-0 to Air Force the past two weeks, marking the first time the Lobos have suffered back-to-back shutout losses since 1988. New Mexico has been outscored 160-7 in its past three games. San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman went over the 1,000-yard mark last week against Wyoming. He's the first Aztec to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons since Marshall Faulk in 1992-93. Hillman's 305 all-purpose yards against Wyoming were the most ever by an MWC player against a conference opponent. A victory over TCU this week would give Wyoming its first 3-0 start in conference play since joining the MWC in 1999. ...UNLV has suspended five players for the Boise State game because of a disciplinary matter. The suspended players are starting RB Tim Cornett, starting LB Tani Maka, reserve WR Devante Davis and reserve LBs Princeton Jackson and Peni Vea.

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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