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Utes, Lobos Cling to Title Hopes

Utes, Lobos Cling to Title Hopes



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By DOUG ALDEN
AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- While New Mexico and Utah are still hoping for at least a share of the Mountain West Conference title, whoever loses Saturday when the Lobos visit the Utes can forget it.

Utah and New Mexico are 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the conference and need to win to stay alive in the MWC race. If BYU, 5-0, stumbles at Wyoming, there will be an opening for somebody else to dethrone the Cougars as conference champion.

"It's a long shot, but at least we're not mathematically eliminated at this point," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

BYU needs two wins in its final three games to clinch a second consecutive outright league championship. One of those games is Nov. 24 at home against the rival Utes, who have rallied with six straight wins after a 1-3 start.

But in order to make next week's game more than just the state's biggest rivalry, Utah needs to beat New Mexico, which has just as much at stake. The Lobos are even with the Utes and have only struggling UNLV remaining on the schedule.

And New Mexico has won the last two in the series and four of the last five.

"They've had our number," Whittingham said.

The Lobos' recent success against the Utes has come against three different coaches.

New Mexico beat the Utes 42-35 in two overtimes in 2002, Ron McBride's final season coaching the Utes, then made it two straight by winning again in Salt Lake City in 2003. That was Utah's only conference loss of the season.

The Utes got one back when they went unbeaten in 2004, but have lost the last two by a total of seven points.

"I think every year is different. I mean, there was a time around here not too long ago when there were teams we could never beat," New Mexico coach Rocky Long said.

Utah's winning streak started after an embarrassing 27-0 loss to UNLV dropped the Utes to 0-2 in the conference. That defeat appeared to end any hopes of Utah winning its third MWC title in the last five years.

But the Utes have healed from some early injuries, including quarterback Brian Johnson's separated shoulder, and have won their last two games by a combined score of 77-3.

Utah crushed Wyoming 50-0 at home last weekend, extending the winning streak with emphasis and even an onside kick with a 43-0 lead. Cowboys coach Joe Glenn responded to the kick by sending a one-finger salute to the other bench.

The gesture and the kick were well publicized, and Whittingham conceded he shouldn't have called the play with such a big lead.

The Lobos, meanwhile, had a much closer call. New Mexico needed John Sullivan's 43-yard field goal as time expired to beat Colorado State.

As close as it was, it kept the Lobos in contention for a possible title and one of the Mountain West's four bowl spots. The Las Vegas Bowl gets first choice and is likely to take the champion. The Poinsettia Bowl is second, followed by the Armed Forces and New Mexico bowls.

Although the Utes and Lobos have won seven games, both teams could use one or two more to ensure a spot in the postseason.

"We know that they're riding high right now and we hope to be the ones to bring them back down," New Mexico safety Blake Ligon said. "Right now, nine wins is what we're looking at and the first one starts right now with Utah."

Both the Utes and the Lobos know that they are barely hanging on in the conference race. Air Force (8-3, 5-2), which hosts San Diego State on Saturday, is also still barely alive.

If BYU falters and ends up tied with one of the three two-loss teams, the Cougars will be co-champions -- something the MWC hasn't had since its first season in 1999.

The only way anybody can pass the Cougars is if they lose three straight, unlikely considering they're on a 13-game conference winning streak.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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