Battle Royale: Four MWC teams competing for one bowl spot

By and

The month of November will be a decisive one for the Mountain West Conference. Four teams with four losses each are stacked in the middle of the MWC pack, fighting for probably one bowl-game berth.

But the four conference foes will have to beat each other to get to the postseason. One loss for any team could signal the end of its postseason chances.

As it stands right now, New Mexico (5-4, 3-3 MWC) arguably has the upper hand. Not only are the Lobos the only group in the bunch with a winning record, but they get their bye this week before their final two games against Utah and Air Force.

However, the race could actually come down to the so-called “Holy War” at the end of the season between Utah and BYU.

New Mexico Lobos

(5-4, 3-3 MWC)

Nov. 12 @ Utah

Nov. 19 vs. Air Force

At one point this season, the Lobos looked as though they were down for the count-having lost three games in a row. But just a few weeks later, they may be in the driver’s seat for the last bowl spot. They defeated Wyoming and San Diego State in consecutive weeks before falling to Colorado State 35-25 last weekend.

“Our backs are still against the wall,” senior wideout Hank Baskett said. “One loss can knock us way out of bowl hopes. Our hopes are still alive and we know what kind of pressure we’re dealing with being in the situation we are in right now.”

The good news: While their conference adversaries all have to win three games to get to the “magic number” seven, the Lobos already have five victories and need just two more to snag that last spot.

Not only that, but the offense features the top running back in the conference in DonTrell Moore, who has averaged nearly five yards per carry on his way to 1,085 yards and 12 touchdowns, both tops in the conference.

The bad news: A win last week over CSU could have all but sealed up a bowl game for the Lobos, but their porous pass defense got the best of them. The secondary is still a glaring Achilles’ heel, and the team still has to face Brian Johnson, one of the most productive quarterbacks in the nation.

BYU Cougars (4-4, 3-2 MWC)

Nov. 5 @ UNLV

Nov. 12 @ Wyoming

Nov. 19 vs. Utah

The Cougars’ only hiccup over the past month was a non-conference pounding at the hands of No. 8 Notre Dame. Other than the loss to the Irish, they have been flying high, winning three conference games in a row thanks to the most prolific passing offense in the league.

“I think we’ve improved in every football game except for one, and that was the San Diego State game in which I didn’t have them ready,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think (Notre Dame) was a very accurate gauge of how we stand against a top-10 opponent, where we stand in all elements of the game.”

The good news: Thanks to a resurgent John Beck, the Cougs’ passing offense is the conference’s best, and the team as a whole has had no trouble putting points on the board, including 62 in a win over Air Force last week. Even better? The team gets to host the annual season-ending rivalry game against Utah.

The bad news: In typical BYU fashion, the Cougars can pass, but they can’t stop the pass. This year’s squad has the second-worst pass defense in the league, and as a whole, the team is giving up 30 points per contest.

Not only that, but before hosting the Utes, the Cougars also go on the road for a pair of conference meetings.

Utah Utes (4-4, 2-3 MWC)

Nov. 5 vs. Wyoming

Nov. 12 vs. New Mexico

Nov. 19 @ BYU

The Utes are about as unpredictable as any team in the conference. They opened the season 3-1, lost three in a row, and then put together their arguably best overall game of the season two weeks ago against UNLV.

Now, the Utes hope the win over the Rebels is a sign of things to come the rest of the way.

“The positive is that, of those four teams, with us being one of them, we play all three of the others,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Our destiny is in our own hands.”

The good news: The Utes won’t have to leave the state the rest of the year. Out-of-state road trips have been one of the team’s biggest obstacles this year, going winless on the road until the Oct. 22 win over UNLV. Utah is 3-1 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the team will play its next two games before heading 45 minutes south to Provo to end the season.

Brian Johnson has steadily become one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the conference and will be a match-up problem for these last three opponents.

The bad news: Quinton Ganther and Travis LaTendresse are banged-up, the Utes have been outscored 72-16 in the fourth quarter this season and haven’t won more than two in a row all season.

If Ganther can’t go this weekend, he’ll be replaced by little-used Darrell Mack and Mike Liti. As for their inconsistency, the Utes will have to manage a four-game winning streak-including the UNLV win-to get to a bowl, and such a streak is unprecedented for the team this season.

Wyoming Cowboys

(4-4, 2-3 MWC)

Nov. 5 @ Utah

Nov. 12 vs. BYU

Nov. 19 @ San Diego State

The Cowboys were looking to be a contender just a few weeks ago, as they sat strong at 4-1, including 2-0 in conference play.

But despite an often-explosive passing game, inconsistency has plagued the team, and Wyoming has lost three straight games.

The good news: Wide receiver Jovon Bouknight is arguably the most dangerous player at his position in the entire conference and can change the momentum of a game all by himself. And, considering the team has two road games remaining, it’s a big plus that Wyoming has performed reasonably well outside of Laramie, putting together victories against Air Force and Ole Miss.

The bad news: The Cowboys are reeling, having lost three games in a row, and now have to face the two top-ranked offenses in the conference in consecutive weeks in Utah and BYU.

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