There’s no question Utah State’s football program has made some significant strides since the disastrous end to the 2016 campaign.

For starters, the Aggies have played in back-to-back bowl games since losing eight of their last nine contests in ’16. USU has also, without question, enjoyed more success on the recruiting front the past two seasons.

What the Aggies haven’t done is defeat one of the premier programs in the Mountain West on the road — even during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, where they finished with a combined record of 19-9. Since joining the conference prior to the 2013-14 academic year, USU has only outpointed two conferences foes away from the friendly confines of Merlin Olsen Field that finished with a winning record — what turned out to be a 8-6 Hawaii squad last year, and a 7-6 UNLV team in ’13.

If the Aggies plan on accomplishing their primary goal in 2019, and that is capturing their first-ever Mountain West title, that trend must be reversed. In order for USU to take that next step forward as a program, it needs to beat an upper-echelon MW program on the road, and it starts this Saturday night at San Diego State.

I have a difficult time believing USU is a legitimate Mountain West championship contender if it doesn’t dispatch of SDSU this weekend. However, I do feel the Aggies will be a factor in the league race and that they will finally get that breakthrough victory against the Aztecs — just like the men’s basketball team did last winter.

I totally understand why Aggie fans are skeptical their team will finally prevail against the Aztecs. After all, USU hasn’t defeated SDSU since 1967 and has lost 10 straight games in the series, plus the Aztecs absolutely manhandled the Aggies the last two times the teams squared off — 48-14 at home in 2015, and 40-13 in Logan the following season.

The biggest reason SDSU rolled is it completely dominated the line of scrimmage in both contests. The Aztecs rushed for 400 yards against the Aggies in ’15 and 336 yards in ’16.

Fortunately for the Aggies, I strongly believe they are much better equipped to match up against the Aztecs in the trenches this time around. USU’s rush defense improved substantially a year ago and has been solid so far in ’19. Even with the season-ending injury to standout defensive tackle Fua Leilua, this is Utah State’s best defensive line in the Mountain West era.

“For me personally, I was a freshman when I first played (SDSU), so I was very young and didn’t know much about the game at the time,” said USU senior D-tackle Christopher Unga, who made six tackles against SDSU in ’16. “Now, being as experienced as I am, we have the physicality at the D-line to go and throw blows with them. ... Physicality wise, we’ll be able to hold our ground and be able to help out our defense big time.”

SDSU’s offensive line was very experienced and talented the last two times the Aztecs faced the Aggies. However, SDSU, why still talented, has three first-years starters in the offensive trenches this year.

Additionally, I highly doubt USU will have to contend with a running back as dynamic as Donnel Pumphrey this time around. The future fourth round NFL draft pick ran wild against the Aggies in ’15 and ’16 as he amassed 404 yards on the ground in those two games.

The Aztecs do have a proven commodity at tailback this year in Juwan Washington, but the senior has been battling an ankle injury and didn’t play against New Mexico State last Saturday.

As long as the Aggies play pretty well in the defensive trenches, I like their chances of emerging victorious.

A couple of other keys to Saturday’s game for USU are valuing the football and keeping quarterback Jordan Love clean in the pocket.

In both lopsided setbacks to the Aztecs, the Aggies not only lost the turnover battle, but didn’t have a single takeaway. SDSU has been stingy with the pigskin so far this season as it has only lost one fumble and thrown one interception in three games.

Nevertheless, even if the Aggies doesn’t force any turnovers — USU only has two takeaways in two games — I still think they will leave the Golden State with a victory if they don’t cough the ball up. That will be much easier said than done against a stingy and opportunistic Aztec defense that already has seven takeaways for an impressive plus-five turnover margin.

USU turned the ball over a combined six times in its two previous loses to SDSU.

“They are a strong, strong team,” USU senior tailback Gerold Bright said of SDSU. “Those guys play really hard. As I watch film from the last time I played them my redshirt freshman year, it was a cold day. It was rough. ... We turned the ball over like four times. Then, they had that guy in the backfield just doing amazing things. It was a cold night. We’ve changed. We’ve gotten better. Our goals are still the same. We’re looking forward to getting this win.”

Giving Love enough time to pass will also be a challenge against a SDSU defense that has already racked up 10 sacks and 25 tackles for loss. The good news for the Aggies is their youthful offensive line has only conceded a pair of sacks in 95 passing attempts.

I think USU’s O-line will at least do an adequate job of protecting its standout signal caller, which should spell trouble for an Aztec secondary that gave up 299 yards through the air to NMSU.

The bottom line is USU will need to be disciplined and sharp to get off to a 1-0 start in Mountain West play. But I do believe this is the year a motivated group of Aggies will find a way to terminate their losing streak to the Aztecs.

“I’m super hungry,” Bright said. “As a team, we’re super hungry because we all understand in the Mountain West, all it takes is one game. You lose one game, you might be done for in the running for the Mountain West Championship. We understand that we have to go out there and get this dub. It won’t be easy, but we’re depending on our preparation and the way we practice (will prepare) us for them so we can go out and get this win.”

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.