Oct 152002
 
Authors: Reed Saunders

Arguably the biggest game in Mountain West Conference history will take place Saturday night when No. 7 Notre Dame rolls into Colorado Springs to face the No. 18 Air Force Academy Falcons. And people are starting to notice.

The game (Saturday, 8 p.m. MT) features two unbeaten squads. The Fighting Irish are 6-0 and facing what many experts consider their toughest challenge yet. The Falcons are also 6-0 and enjoying their highest national ranking since 1998.

ESPN will broadcast its popular College Gameday program, hosted by Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, from the Academy Saturday morning.

In what has become an intriguing rivalry, the game is generating more hype and national attention than any in the series’ recent history.

Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham’s squad has thrived on a slashing defense, which has scored four touchdowns.

The Fighting Irish collected eight sacks and forced three more turnovers in last week’s 14-6 win over Pittsburgh. Notre Dame is plus-11 in turnovers this season.

“We expect that of our players,” Willingham said. “We expect them to find a way to step up and make a play.”

The Falcons have been on fire on both sides of the ball. In their last two games, Air Force has scored an even 100 points and given up only 16.

Quarterback Chance Harridge scored four touchdowns and racked up 181 yards of total offense in a 52-9 rout of Mountain West rival BYU, but head coach Fisher DeBerry was more impressed with his defense’s effort.

“When you can shut down a team that is used to scoring the way BYU does and hold them to really three points, I think that was just an outstanding job by our defense,” DeBerry said.

The Irish will look to slow the Falcon attack by forcing the Falcons to pass. While Air Force is leading the nation in rushing (339.1 yards per game), they are 116th in passing.

The Rest of the West

BYU: The Cougars are licking their wounds following their 52-9 shellacking at the hands of Air Force. So much so, in fact, that head coach Gary Crowton has decided to bench incumbent starter Bret Engemann in favor of freshman Matt Berry. The Cougars had won nine consecutive conference games before losing to Air Force.

New Mexico: Senior quarterback Justin Millea made his first career college start count. Against UNLV, Millea ran 20 times for 143 yards, including a 73-yard scoring run, and passed for 20 yards. The performance was good enough to earn Millea MWC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The Lobos’ defense also contributed, scoring 11 points to aid in New Mexico’s 25-16 win.

San Diego State: The Aztecs are coming off their first win of the season, an impressive 36-17 home win over Utah. San Diego State scored 33 unanswered points, thanks in part to J.R. Tolver, who caught 16 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. Defensive back Ricky Sharpe also played outstanding for the Aztecs, intercepting two passes to go along with a game-high 10 tackles and three pass deflections.

UNLV: The 2-4 Rebels lost their conference opener to New Mexico, but have enjoyed success on the defensive side of the ball. The Rebels lead the MWC with 17 sacks for negative 124 yards and tied their single-game high with six sacks in their win over Kansas. Adam Seward leads the conference with 10.2 tackles per game.

Utah: The Utes have opened conference play in disappointing fashion (0-2) but will look to rebound at home against CSU on Saturday. Utah needs to win four of its five remaining games to become bowl eligible. After starting 2-0, the Utes have dropped four straight games, the longest losing streak under 13th-year head coach Ron McBride.

Wyoming: The Cowboys surprised many with their performance in Fort Collins against CSU last week, hanging with the heavily-favored Rams until the game’s final minutes. Junior wide receiver Ryan McGuffey has been a source of offensive consistency – having caught a pass in every game of his three-year career.

-Edited by Jon Ackerman and Ben Koerselman

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