The road to a Mountain West championship begins this weekend for the Utah State and San Diego State football programs.
The teams picked to finish second in their respective division of the conference will square off Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego. The game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network and is slated to begin at 8:30 p.m.
“Starting league play is what really matters,” USU running back Gerold Bright said. “It’s a great experience (to play) a conference team at a higher level, so to say, playing Wake Forest to see where we’re at. And then playing Stony Brook to just play for us, so we could execute to our ability. Now, it’s time (for what) really matters. It’s game time for real.”
Simply put, this is one of the premier matchups in Mountain West play this week, and the Aggies (1-1) will attempt to put an end to a pair of lengthy Aztec streaks. For starters, SDSU owns a 10-game winning streak against USU, dating back to the 1967 campaign. Additionally, the Aztecs have reigned supreme in 13 straight games in the mouth of September, which is the third-longest streak at the FBS level.
Indeed, the Aztecs (3-0) have enjoyed a wealth of success under the tutelage of head coach Rocky Long, who has guided them to eight consecutive bowl appearances and a record of 74-35 in his eight-plus seasons at the helm. Long shepherded SDSU to MW titles in 2012, 2015 and 2016, and his team easily dispatched of the Aggies en route to its last two championships.
“I have a ton of respect for Rocky, and his staff as a whole do a great job,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “They’ve got great players, so that will be a challenge against a good offense and against a good defense it looks like. ... This will be a huge test for us going on the road, first conference game, I’m sure they’re looking at it as a great opportunity, as are we. It should be a great conference opener for both teams and for the Mountain West, quite frankly.”
Long, who also enjoyed a successful stint in charge of New Mexico’s program, echoed similar sentiments. The Aztecs, one of four remaining undefeated teams in the Mountain West — the only one from the West Division — are excited to be back at home after competing on the road in back-to-back weeks.
“We’re back at home, ready to play a home game,” said Long, who is the winningest football coach in the history of the conference. “Hopefully we can get a lot of people out to watch because it ought to be a really good game. Utah State’s obviously one of the better teams in our league. They have some outstanding players coming back from last year and they had a great year last year. ... They’re an awful good football team coming in here. We have our work cut out for us.”
The Aztecs would love nothing more than to go into their first bye week of the season with another victory over a team from the West Division of the Mountain West. Teams from the West Division have traditionally struggled against their counterparts since the Mountain West split into two divisions, but SDSU is 16-4 all-time against opponents from the Mountain Division.
The Aggies have enjoyed a lot of success against the West Division as they are 15-4, but two of those setbacks have been to the Aztecs.
In order for Utah State to terminate its long drought against San Diego State, it must be smart with the football. The Aztecs are typically adept at forcing turnovers, and this season has been no exception. Case in point: SDSU currently ranks seventh nationally with a plus-five turnover margin.
SDSU’s defense had four takeaways in last Saturday’s 31-10 road victory over San Diego State. On the flip side, the Aztecs rarely make any big mistakes offensively as they have only turned the ball over twice in three games — a fumble against Weber State and an interception against NMSU. The Aztecs are 27-1 in the last 28 games they have won the turnover margin.
“We work on ball security every day, and our defense works on takeaways,” Bright said. “We understand the turnover margin is very important in a game like this, especially a game in conference. We’re going to do our best to take care of the ball and our defense is going to do their best to get the ball.”
Not only will the Aggies need to value the football, they must finish off drives against a stingy and talented Aztec defense that ranks in the top 11 in seven different categories. SDSU currently holds down the No. 3 spot in rushing defense (42.3 yards per game) and yards per carry (1.7), is fourth in scoring defense (8.0 points an outing) and 11th in total D (248.0 ypg).
The Aztecs have been especially stout in the second and fourth quarters as they have yet to concede a point. Additionally, SDSU has only allowed opponents to enter the red zone three times in three games.
Nevertheless, the Aztecs will surely be tested by a balanced Utah State offense that ranks second in the NCAA in total yards per game at 656.5. USU is also first in the league in scoring offense (48.5 ppg).
“If you watch them on film and look at the statistics, you’re very concerned,” Long said. “We have to give ourselves a chance to stay in the game. As fast as they score points, you could be out of the game before it even started. Obviously, we have to play good enough defense to keep the score at a point that our offense has a chance to outscore them.”
Indeed, Saturday’s showdown between the Aggies and Aztecs is intriguing in many ways.
“Everyone saw how good Utah State was last year and they brought back a lot of guys this year who have all played well up until this point,” SDSU quarterback Ryan Agnew said. “Their offense is averaging over 640 yards a game and their defense has some All-American type of players like (David) Woodward and Tipa Galeai. We understand the importance of this game and we understand how good this (USU) football team is.”
Notes: The Aggies have won six of their last seven conference openers and six of their last eight Mountain West road contests. ... San Diego State is one of just 14 programs to go bowling during each of the past nine seasons.