Utes have ridden win streak to conference lead and Top 25 ranking

Updated: October 23, 2003, 3:14 PM ET

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico coach Rocky Long takes great pleasure in knowing his blitz-happy defense is tough to figure out.

This week Long and his defense are on the other side of the coin -- trying to stop Utah's innovative and so far very successful offense.

New Mexico (4-3, 1-1 MWC) travels to Salt Lake City to take on the conference leading No. 24 Utes (6-1, 3-0) Saturday afternoon.

Utah, the surprise team in the Mountain West this season, broke into the Top 25 in The Associated Press rankings for the first time since 1996 with its current five-game winning streak.

"Our whole league is based on momentum because the teams are so close in caliber," Long said. "Their (Utes) program is much more stable and right now they're on a roll."

The Utes have a solid defense, but it's the offense, says Long, that has kept Utah rolling.

"They're completely different from anybody we've seen since I've been here," Long said. "It's a lot like the wishbone, where they have a lot of options on any play. You combine that with a real good defense and that's why they're 6-1 and in the top 25."

First-year coach Urban Meyer, a former assistant at Notre Dame and Ohio State, brought the offense to Utah from Bowling Green, where his teams went 17-6 over two seasons and averaged 41 points a game last year.

Quarterback Alex Smith and halfback Brandon Warfield are the leaders of the Utes' tough-to-stop offense.

Warfield leads the MWC in rushing and is eighth nationally with an average of 118.4 yards a game. Utah is 5-0 since Smith became the starting quarterback. He's completed 97 of 138 passes for 1,197 yards and is averaging just under 200 yards a game.

"Everybody will get a better handle on it when they see it for a year or two," says Long, "but right now it's like playing against the wishbone. You don't have a lot of time to get ready for it."

That's the same thing coaches have been saying for years about New Mexico's defensive schemes. The Lobos love to blitz -- they've led the conference in sacks three straight years -- and the defense has finished among the top 30 nationally each of those seasons.

"I think they're the most difficult team to prepare for to date," Meyer said this week.

New Mexico, a preseason pick to contend for the MWC title, has a three-game winning streak, thanks mostly to its defense. The Lobos have the top rushing defense in the conference and are fifth nationally, giving up just 74 yards a game. New Mexico also leads the league in scoring defense -- just over 16 points a game.

Against San Diego State last week the Lobos forced six turnovers -- five of them interceptions -- blocked a punt and held the Aztecs to 39 yards rushing.

New Mexico beat Utah 42-35 in double overtime last season in Albuquerque. The loss was the Utes' sixth straight and helped seal their eventual 5-6 finish and the firing of former coach Ron McBride. Utah players haven't forgotten that loss.

Among them is quarterback Alex Smith, who promises the Lobos will see a much different Utah team on Saturday.

"They're a good defense, but if they're ready to play last year's team, they're in for a shock," Smith said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index