Mountain West Football: Every Team’s Biggest Midseason Question
The college football season is at its midway point, so we look at what each Mountain West team will need to resolve in the second half.
A wide open conference race with plenty of intrigue.
The big question: Have the Falcons finally solved their pass defense problem?
Depending on the metrics you choose to examine, the answer might be… well, maybe? The splits they’ve put up to this point in wins compared to losses — 14 pass breakups, three interceptions, and a 126.83 opponents’ passer rating in the former; three, zero and a 189.01 rating in the latter — hasn’t been this drastic since the Falcons won the division in 2015, which is to say when they’ve been on it’s been a huge part of their early successes.
With games against Hawaii and Utah State in the next two weeks, there’s a good chance we’ll have a firmer answer for this question very soon.
The big question: Can the offensive line right the ship?
Starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier was knocked out of last Saturday’s win over Hawaii with an injury, an event that anyone who’s watched even a little bit of Broncos football this fall would’ve known was only a matter of time. The line has been under fire despite suffering a fair bit of its own injury luck, namely with John Ojukwu, so while the 6.2% sack rate allowed is actually the same as last year, the hits clearly added up and may have obscured that other shifts might be the subtle keys between a close win and a close loss as the season progresses.
To start, the Broncos went from being one of the nation’s best power running teams to one of its worst, falling from a 81.8% Power Success Rate (ninth in the FBS) to 57.1% (110th). Their Opportunity Rate has held steady but, at 46.5%, remains below the national average, though Boise State’s Stuff Rate has seen modest improvement and ranks 33rd nationally at 16%. Long story short, they’ve merely been okay in more areas than you’d expect, so tough defenses like Wyoming and Utah State might make the climb back to the top of the Mountain tougher than expected if things don’t improve.
The big question: Is the defense finally coming around?
It was going to get better from last year, so improving from dead last to ninth on a per-play basis in the Mountain West probably counts as a win to most Rams fans. Since the start of conference play, however, John Jancek’s much maligned unit has actually been… quietly good?
Against Utah State, San Diego State, and New Mexico, the Rams have allowed just 4.71 yards per play, the third-best figure in Mountain West action. They’ve also picked up six tackles for loss per game compared to four in non-conference play, collected a conference-best seven sacks, and allowed opponents a 31.8% third-down conversion rate.
There’s still work to be done as the Rams still rank 104th and 110th in Defensive Stuff Rate and Opportunity Rate, respectively, but there’s potential that they may continue to surprise.
The big question: Where is Jared Rice?
Lost in the emergence of the Bulldogs’ young wide receivers is that their senior tight end has been MIA all season long. To date, he has just ten catches for 48 yards after he averaged 47.4 receiving yards per game in 2018.
While it’s hard to pin down Fresno State’s inconsistencies coming down to one particular thing, finding ways to get the 6-foot-5 Rice more involved in the offense would probably cure a lot of ills. Jorge Reyna has shown he can work well in the short and intermediate passing game, so the potential is there to rediscover that element of the offense.
The big question: Can the high-flying offense take better care of the football?
Since joining the Mountain West in 2012, avoid turnovers has rarely been a strong suit for the Warriors. Twice, they have racked up 34 giveaways, but this season has taken that to a new extreme because Hawaii is on track for 41 turnovers, a number that would be surpassed by only the 2017 San Jose State Spartans among Mountain West teams in the last decade.
One thing that looks like it might swing back into their favor is horrendous fumble luck. Hawaii has fumbled 11 times and lost nine of them, an 81% rate that might be surpassed nationally by just the Florida Gators (they’ve lost eight of nine).
The big question: Can the defense develop a pass rush?
It isn’t easy unearthing a talent like Malik Reed, but while the Wolf Pack can boast a surprisingly stout run defense that ranks in the top 30 nationally by Opportunity Rate, Stuff Rate and Line Yards Allowed Per Carry (the line gets credit for rushing yardage between 0-3 yards and 50% credit for yards 4-8, while lost yardage counts for 125%), they’ve been inconsistent about defending the pass and the lack of a pass rush could be the biggest reason why.
Nevada currently owns a team sack rate of just 3.4% and on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer) that plummets to just 1%, a figure surpassed nationally by only conference foe San Jose State. There’s still talent in the front six, but Dom Peterson, Gabe Sewell, and company will have a lot of sway in the team’s chances to hang in the West division race.