There's more up for grabs than the Old Oil Can when the Fresno State Bulldogs meet the No. 21 San Diego State Aztecs late Saturday night.
First off, there's the Aztecs' perfect record on the line. After seven wins to start the season, they are looking to go 8-0 for the first time since 1975.
Then, there's the fight for first place in the Mountain West's West Division. Whichever team comes away with a victory here gets a foothold on that top spot to earn a berth in the conference championship at season's end.
So … yes … it's more than just a game of kick the oil can when the teams line up in neutral territory at the home of Major League Soccer's LA Galaxy, Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif.
"This is a rivalry game," Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke told reporters. "It's an important game."
Boy, is it ever.
A win by Hoke's crew all but locks up that division for San Diego State, with the top-dog Aztecs at 3-0 and the second-place Bulldogs at 3-1 in conference action.
And the Aztecs have been full measure for their record, especially given they are homeless, with 35,000-seat Aztec Stadium under construction and set to be open for the 2022 season. Case in point, last week's gutty 20-14 road victory over the solid Air Force Falcons.
That game and a win here should get others across the country sitting up to take notice of the Aztecs.
"I really don't care what the rest of the country thinks," Hoke told reporters. "I guess I'm speaking for myself when I say that because this is about the kids on this team — and that's what we care about."
What the 6-2 Bulldogs care about is getting another victory this week.
Of course, it wouldn't just be your ordinary, average, run-of-the-mill win. It would be a statement victory that would likely push them up into the AP Top 25.
"I would hope at some point we want to get to that," Fresno State head coach Kaden DeBoer told reporters. "But we've got to get the job done on Saturday. That's what really matters. They're a very good football team."
Fresno State at No. 21 San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Fresno State -1
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Make no mistake about it, the Bulldogs are a very good football team, too. In fact, there are few programs in the country that can match them when they've got their top-shelf aerial attack on display. At 341 passing yards per game, it's the best in the Mountain West and ninth-best in the nation.
Senior QB Jake Haener is the pilot, of course, having completed 205-of-302 passes for 2,582 yards and 22 touchdowns against six interceptions.
"You look at Jake Haener …" Hoke told reporters. "He runs around at times. He reminds me of (San Jose State's) Nick Nash, and I really didn't want to think about that kid anymore."
Few pass-catchers can claim better success than junior receiver Jalen Cropper, who's eighth in the FBS in receptions — 55 — for 580 yards. And only Pittsburgh Panthers wideout Jordan Addison has more receiving TDs in the country — 11 — than Cropper's 10.
Other threats for Haener include Josh Kelly (32 rec., 483 yds., 2 TDs), Keric Wheatfall (23, 409, 2), Zane Pope (19, 352, 3), and running back Ronnie Rivers (25, 254, TD). The run game isn't too shabby, either, complementing the passing attack with both Rivers (115 att., 537 yds.) and Jordan Mims (54, 318). Both seniors impact the offense.
Whatever the game plan, the Bulldogs will need all of their weapons against a supreme SDSU defense that's seventh in scoring defense in the country, allowing just 15.7 points per contest, and is tied for 30th nationally with 12 turnovers forced.
The Aztecs' secondary is strong, and Cameron Thomas — with 4.5 sacks on the season — leads a solid front seven.
"They're as good as a defense as we have faced to some degree right now," DeBoer told reporters of a unit that's held five of their seven foes to 14 points or fewer this season.
When San Diego State Has the Ball
With such a magnificent defense, the Aztecs haven't needed a ton of offense to go perfect on the year. But what they do bring to the field is a balanced attack. Sort of.
The run game is San Diego State's strength, gushing for 207 yards per game. Much of that is due to Greg Bell's prowess. The senior running back has racked up 603 yards and five scores on 123 carries. He's the bell cow and always a threat.
But he's not the only warrior in the Aztecs backfield, with Jordan Byrd (24 att., 188 yds., 3 TDs), Chance Bell (24, 138, TD), and Kaegun Williams (41, 184, 2) also giving opposition defenses fits.
Fresno State, however, is no pushover, especially in the run game. The Bulldogs are disruptive, getting into the backfield often. And as a unit, the defense has allowed just 20.6 points per contest.
It won't help the Aztecs attack if stud left tackle Zachary Thomas is unable to take the field. His status is unknown for Saturday's battle.
Also up in the air is who starts at QB for San Diego State, although it's believed Lucas Johnson will make his fourth start of the season — and second consecutive — after leading the Aztecs to a 34-32 edge of the Nevada Wolf Pack on home turf in Week 8.
Johnson is 40-of-62 passing for 306 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, displaced starter Jordon Brookshire, a senior, is 40-of-84 for 521 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It's a position the Aztecs may want to nail down to keep up its perfect record.
On the receiving end of things, tight end Daniel Bellinger leads the team with 197 yards on 13 catches. Next is receiver BJ Busbee, with 10 receptions for 118 yards. And then it's wideout Jesse Matthews with 112 yards on 15 grabs.
The Bulldogs represent the best team on the schedule so far for the Aztecs. They can ball.
"The momentum again? That's going," DeBoer told reporters. "We had a little blip on the radar (in a 27-24 loss to host Hawaii) a couple weeks ago. Other than that, I thought we've been doing a pretty good job stringing things along and continue to get better."
This war marks a significant litmus test for the Bulldogs, who are 3-2 on the road and coming off what was nearly a drop to Nevada last week. They staved off overtime with the Wolf Pack by stopping them on a two-point conversion with two seconds remaining in the game.
While that game was highly offensive — Fresno State was actually out-gained 523 to 461 in yardage — this one shapes up as a defensive battle. So it'll come down to how much Haener and Co. can move the ball against such a staunch San Diego State defense.
"It's about hard work and grit," San Diego State senior Bellinger told reporters. "It's about getting in there and being more physical and being the toughest guy on the field … To me, it's like an old-school, blue-collar type of way."
It's a winning way, to be sure.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Fresno State 20
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