Mountain West Conference play is in full swing as San Diego State travels to Fresno State Friday night in the Battle for the Old Oil Can Trophy. The Aztecs, who haven’t won in Fresno since 1997, are 4-1 overall and 1-0 in league play following last week’s 26-7 victory over UNLV. The win helped San Diego State move forward from a disastrous fourth quarter that led to a 42-24 upset loss against South Alabama, which knocked the Aztecs out of the AP Top 25 and potentially ended their hopes of securing a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.
With a 27-22 loss to Nevada last week, Fresno State dropped its fourth consecutive game and now sits with a 1-5 overall record and a 0-2 mark in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs have now lost 14 of their past 18 games, giving head coach Tim DeRuyter one of the hottest seats in the conference. DeRuyter and the Bulldogs must stage a major second-half turnaround to avoid a third straight losing season and a second consecutive season without a bowl game.
San Diego State at Fresno State
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 14 at 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Diego State -17
Three Things to Watch
1. San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey
Simply put, Pumphrey is one of the best running backs in the country. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior leads the nation with 891 rushing yards and an average of 178.2 rushing yards per game, as well as an average of 204.4 all-purpose yards per contest. He also is the FBS’ active leader with 5,163 career rushing yards, 54 rushing touchdowns, and 6,167 all-purpose yards. He needs 1,235 more rushing yards this season to break Ron Dayne’s all-time FBS record, which he set back in 1999.
Given how poorly Fresno State has fared against the run, Pumphrey could be in for another career night against the Bulldogs. While the Bulldogs have limited Pumphrey to 4.6 yards per carry in two previous meetings, Fresno State has allowed 272.0 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks last in the Mountain West and 126th (out of 128 FBS teams) nationally. Overall, opponents have gained an average of 5.3 yards per carry against the Bulldogs this season. FBS opponents have done a little at 5.6 yards per rushing attempt.
2. An Improving Fresno State Offense
Through six games this season, the Bulldogs have averaged just 5.05 yards per play, which ranks last in the Mountain West and No. 111 in the nation. Fresno State has scored just 23.5 points per game and averages 377.8 total yards per contest, which ranks No. 10 and No. 11 in the league, respectively. But, despite those unfortunate figures, the Fresno State offense has shown improvement: the unit averaged 22.3 points per game, 315.2 total yards per contest and 4.58 yards per play in 2015.
Fresno State currently ranks second in the Mountain West in passing (248.2 yards per game), and redshirt freshman quarterback Chason Virgil is second in the league (227.7 ypg) in that category. Though Virgil has struggled with his accuracy (completing just 48.6 percent of his passes), he has teamed up with arguably the best wide receiver trio in the conference for some big plays. He has three touchdown passes that have gone for at least 65 yards.
Aaron Peck (28 receptions, 479 yards, 3 TD), Jamire Jordan (24, 405, 2) and KeeSean Johnson (36, 402, 3 TD) all rank among the top seven in the conference in receiving. Peck, who has averaged 17.1 yards per catch, and Jordan (16.9 ypr), have been particularly explosive.
Also, running back Dontel James rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown last week, which pushed his season totals to 468 yards and three scores. James and the Bulldogs put together their best rushing performance of the season – 255 yards on 48 attempts for an average of 5.31 yards per carry, so perhaps there is more to come from this aspect of Fresno State’s offense.
3. The Best Defense in the Mountain West
San Diego State currently leads the Mountain West in total defense (313.2 yards per game), and yards allowed per play (4.76). The Aztecs have been at their best against the run, having surrendered just 102.0 rushing yards per game and 3.04 yards per carry. No opponent has averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry against San Diego State this season, and the Aztecs have held three teams to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Those numbers are great on their own, but become more impressive given the outlying performance against a top-notch Cal offense in Week 2. The Aztecs surrendered 604 total yards in the 45-40 victory over the Golden Bears, but did force three interceptions including a pick-six by Ronley Lakalaka.
San Diego State’s defense has recorded eight interceptions in just five games. The Aztecs also have at least one sack in each game for a total of 12. Opposing quarterbacks have managed a 119.26 passer rating against this defense, which leads the conference.
And, to make matters worse for Fresno State, San Diego State put together its most complete defensive performance last week against UNLV. The Aztecs surrendered just 122 total yards and held the Rebels to a miniscule 2.49 yards per play. UNLV quarterbacks were just 2-for-13 for nine yards and an interception.
If the Bulldogs are somehow able to control Donnel Pumphrey and the San Diego State running game, they can keep it close or potentially score an important upset. However, the Fresno State defense has yet to show any meaningful improvement against the run recently. Nevada ran for 226 (4.6 ypc) last week, the fewest the Bulldogs have surrendered to an FBS team this season. Only two other teams in the FBS are giving up more rushing yards per game than Fresno State ( 272.0 ypg).
The Bulldogs have shown promise at times this season, particularly in the passing game, but the Aztecs are the toughest defense, statistically speaking, Fresno State has faced yet. Even if the Bulldogs can put together one or two big plays in the passing game, it’s unlikely to be enough to help pull off the win..
Prediction: San Diego State 38, Fresno State 17
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.