Thanks be to the Mountain West schedule makers.
Because this one on the Black Friday slate — an early Friday affair between the Boise State Broncos and No. 19 San Diego State Aztecs — is as good as it gets.
Thank you very much.
Both need a win to remain in the hunt for the Mountain West title.
And if all falls right, we could well get second helpings of the much-ballyhooed matchup in next week's conference championship tilt, as well.
"Our guys are fired up for the opportunity," Broncos defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson told reporters. "You know … it's a huge game for this program, and it's a huge game for them, too. So you love those games where you both go into it as a head-to-head matchup where there's so much on the line, especially this late in the year. That's why you play these games."
This one will be played pretty much on neutral turf — at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, which has been the home away from home for the Aztecs while their new home is being built in San Diego. And it's being played at a gawdawful time for Mountain West teams — a 9 a.m. West Coast start on national TV.
But neither coach is letting the early start deter them.
"They'd better be fired up," Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke told reporters ahead. "I'd love to do that every game. Waiting until 8:30 (p.m.) to play, that's hard."
After getting to this point in the season with the success each program has enjoyed, the hard part would be taking a loss.
The Aztecs (10-1, 6-1 MW) can handle one — given they have a one-win cushion on the second-place Fresno State Bulldogs in the West Division. But the Bulldogs, who play Thursday against the host San Jose State Spartans, would also have to lose, as well, since they own the tiebreaker after having handed San Diego State its only loss earlier in the season.
Hoke & Co. would rather get the victory, though, to match a school-record 11 wins set by Don Coryell's 1966 and 1969 sides and Rocky Long's 2015 and 2016 squads and not have to worry about help from others in reaching the title tilt.
Meanwhile, the Broncos (7-4, 5-2) need the victory Friday and then some help since they are tied atop the Mountain Division with the Utah State Aggies and the Air Force Falcons. The Aggies, who blew their chance to stay a step ahead of the others with a loss to the visiting Wyoming Cowboys last Saturday night, get the lesser-light New Mexico Lobos — a 3-8 team — in a road game later Friday, while the Falcons get an even easier look playing the visiting UNLV Rebels — a 2-9 club — also Friday.
Boise State at No. 21 San Diego State
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 26 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Boise State -2.5
When Boise State Has the Ball
There's not much to choose between the two contenders. Boise State out-scores San Diego State 30.4 to 27.8 on average but allows a shade more points per game — 18.3 to 17.4.
But BSU gains 60 more yards per outing — 388.5 to 326.1 — mostly by moving the ball through the air behind the arm of junior quarterback Hank Bachmeier.
"They have a quarterback who's able to run and throw the ball," Hoke told reporters of Bachmeier. "We've had to defend both (in previous weeks), so that helps us."
The Broncos' QB ranks 20th in the country in passing yardage (2,857) for an average of 259.7 yards per game.
But they're more than simply Bachmeier. Wide receiver Khalil Shakir had 192 all-purpose yards in last week's 37-0 victory over the visiting New Mexico Lobos, while running back George Holani ran for a third-straight 100-yard game. The senior Shakir went over the 1,000-yard mark last week, while sophomore Holani is a yard short of 500 on 99 carries on the season.
But it won't be easy to continue the offensive upswing against the Aztecs' defense.
It's one of the best in college football, allowing just 313.9 yards per game, and is especially stingy against the rush. The Broncos can point to the run game as a big reason for their late-season success, racking up — for example — 239 yards against the Lobos last week.
The SDSU defense, however, is a different beast — and one that should be revved up given the situation and the fact it wasn't at its best in last week's 28-20 edge of the host UNLV Rebels.
"I didn't think we played Aztec football, especially on the defensive side," Hoke told reporters after last Saturday's scare. "We've got to do a better job. We can't give up big plays thrown over our heads. We've got to coach better. We as a staff (have) got to look at some things."
A pick-six by senior linebacker Andrew Aleki last Saturday proved to be a big early moment in the triumph.
When San Diego State Has the Ball
As much as the Broncos have been their best with a better-balanced attack lately, their defense deserves a lot of praise for the team's turnaround after an atypical 3-4 start to the season.
It has 23 takeaways — 13 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries — on the year. Junior corner Tyric LeBeauf leads the team with three picks, while junior JL Skinner has two interceptions and three fumble recoveries and leads the team with 83 tackles.
And the BSU defense is coming off that shutout of New Mexico, during which it allowed just 101 yards.
But it has its hands full with a San Diego State offense that has proven to be more than a one-trick pony. This edition is known for its ground attack — with senior Greg Bell closing in on the 1,000-yard mark
Last week, quarterback Lucas Johnson was efficient for the Aztecs, completing 18 of 24 attempts for 192 yards and three TDs. He found Jesse Matthews on all three scores, and the junior receiver now has a team-high 39 catches on the year. Johnson also has solid targets in senior receiver Elijah Kothe and senior tight end Daniel Bellinger, who have 334 and 283 receiving yards, respectively. Kothe had five grabs for 84 yards against the Rebels last week.
The senior Johnson has passed for 993 yards and nine TDs against four INTs. He has a 62.9 percent completion rate.
Both teams come in with win streaks — the Broncos four straight, and the Aztecs on a three-game heater. So expect it to be a tight one, especially with both defenses playing top-shelf these days.
That said, special teams could have a big say in the game, and Boise State kicker Jonah Dalmas is likely to make a statement. The junior leads the nation in field goals made — 25-of-27 — and needs four to tie the Mountain West single-season mark. If the game is on his foot — and that's a likely scenario given the small separation between these rivals — it's likely game over San Diego State.
San Diego State may not have the field-goal prowess of the Broncos, but don't sleep on Matt Araiza, who handles kicking and punting duties. He's on pace to set the single-season record for average yardage (51.8) and is tied for the nation's lead with 34 of his 67 punts landing inside the opponent's 20.
The Broncos will be a worthy opponent, as they are coming off a game that saw them block two punts — by Kekaula Kaniho and Alexander Teubner — which were returned for touchdowns by Tyreque Jones and Dylan Herberg, respectively.
Boise State's turn-it-on special teams are a big reason why the club has put behind the slow start to the schedule.
"The guys have purpose, plain and simple," Boise State head coach Andy Avalos told reporters. "The commitment to how we're going to show up with a certain purpose every single day and how we're going to work for the team and how we're going to do it for the team (are the reasons for the turnaround). That's the bottom line."
The Broncos are back to winning, and that's bad news for the Aztecs. Bad timing for them, too.
Prediction: Boise State 26, San Diego State 23
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