A two-game, mid-season hiccup likely ended San Diego State’s two-year run as Mountain West champions, and dashed the team’s hopes of a New Year’s Six bowl game. But the Aztecs (8-2, 4-2 MW) have won back-to-back games, leaving them with an outside shot to win the West Division for the third consecutive year.
Both Boise State and Fresno State upset the Aztecs at home in October, giving the Bulldogs the tiebreaker in the division standings as well as an outright lead. Should San Diego State get back on track and beat Nevada and New Mexico to close the regular season, it would still need Fresno State to lose to both Wyoming and Boise State. But there is still hope, which means this week’s matchup with the Wolf Pack (2-8, 2-4) is a must-win.
Nevada at San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Diego State -16
Three Things to Watch
1. Strength vs. strength
San Diego State has a top-notch defense. The Aztecs rank third in the Mountain West and among the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (18.8 ppg), and lead the conference in total defense (295.0 ypg), which ranks seventh in the country. The unit has been even better in conference play, allowing just 17.7 points and 269.5 yards per contest against Mountain West opponents. These teams also have averaged just 139.7 passing yards per game — the best of any FBS team in league play — and none have managed more than 176 passing yards in a single game. SDSU also has surrendered just three touchdown passes to Mountain West teams.
However, the Aztecs will be tested by a prolific Nevada pass offense. Despite inconsistency at the quarterback position during the first half of the season, the Wolf Pack have the second-best passing offense in the Mountain West (253.7 ypg) and lead the league with 25 TD passes. In conference play, Nevada is tops with 291.8 passing yards per game and 18 TDs. Quarterback Ty Gangi ranks third in the Mountain West with 2,066 passing yards and is second with 20 touchdown passes.
2. Weakness vs. weakness
Nevada has done a great job moving the football through the air, especially in Mountain West play, but the Wolf Pack have struggled stopping opponents from throwing on them. Nevada has allowed a league-worst 279.2 passing yards per game this season, as well as a 68.1 percent completion percentage, which rank No. 119 and 127 in the country, respectively. Five opponents have thrown for more than 300 yards to date. The Wolf Pack have allowed 8.9 yards per pass attempt this season, which is the second worst in the league and is tied for 124th overall.
Fortunately for the beleaguered Wolf Pack secondary, the Aztecs attempt only 19.8 passes per game, making them one of only nine FBS offenses to throw fewer than 20. Quarterback Christian Chapman has posted a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and averages a solid 7.6 yards per pass attempt, but the San Diego State offense isn’t designed to put the ball in the air often.
3. Strength vs. weakness
The bad news for Nevada? San Diego State doesn’t pass very often because the Aztecs have one of the best rushing attacks in the Mountain West, and one of the best running backs in the nation. Rashaad Penny leads the conference and ranks second nationally with 1,602 rushing yards. Penny is tied for the league lead and ranks fourth overall with 15 rushing touchdowns, and averages 7.0 yards per carry. He has eight 100-yard games and has surpassed 200 rushing yards three times – including each of the last two weeks.
With Penny and backup Juwan Washington (580 yards, 5 TDs) leading the way, as well as a solid offensive line, the Aztecs rank second in the Mountain West and No. 15 in the country with 247.3 rushing yards per game. On the other hand, Nevada has surrendered 204.6 rushing yards per contest, which ranks 109th.
Nevada is better than its 2-8 record would indicate, and the Wolf Pack have shown improvement over the course of the season. Unfortunately for the underdogs, San Diego State might be better than its 8-2 record. Offensively, Nevada can move the football through the air, and though the Aztecs have great overall numbers against the pass, part of that can be attributed to SDSU’s methodical ball-control offense. After all, San Diego State has allowed 12.1 yards per completion in Mountain West play, meaning the unit is susceptible.
Nevertheless, the Wolf Pack’s only chance to pull an upset lies in stopping Rashaad Penny and the Aztecs on the ground — something few teams have been able to do, much less teams that rank towards the bottom of the FBS in rushing defense and total defense. With such a big edge at the point of attack, San Diego State should take care of business and stay alive in the Mountain West title race.
Prediction: San Diego State 31, Nevada 13
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.