This is how the West will be won. Two teams — the San Diego State Aztecs and the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors — battling it out Saturday night at Aloha Stadium, with the winner claiming the Mountain West's West Division title and earning a berth in the conference championship game.
And don't be surprised if it's a shootout.
The Aztecs bring their 5-2 Mountain West record and a perfect 5-0 road mark to Honolulu with a stout defense but face a Warriors team that knows how to score, averaging the second-most points per game in the conference. (The Boise State Broncos average 36.1 points per game compared to the Warriors' 35.8.)
Last week, however, the Hawaii offense sputtered in the red zone, putting together just a 21-7 win over the host UNLV Rebels. But the Warriors did amass 442 yards in becoming bowl eligible with the victory, improving their overall record to 7-4 with a touchdown in each of the second, third and fourth quarters in Las Vegas.
Hawaii has four conference crowns but none yet in the Mountain West, and a win late Saturday would put the Warriors in the title tilt for the first time. Meanwhile, San Diego State is 8-2 overall, coming off a 17-7 defeat of the visiting Fresno State Bulldogs for its fifth win in six games and putting the program in position for a shot at a third conference title.
Over the years, it's been advantage Aztecs, who hold a 21-10-2 edge in the all-time series and boast a 15-3 record in the last 18 meetings between the rival clubs.
San Diego State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23, at 11 p.m. ET
Spread: Hawaii -3
When San Diego State Has the Ball
The Aztecs don't offer the most prolific offense in the country. They're 113th overall in points per game, with 20.4. But the offense has managed to do enough to get the wins and lead the West Division.
Senior QB Ryan Agnew is the biggest reason why, proving to be consistent in leading the program to the success it's enjoyed. Agnew has taken almost every snap for the Aztecs this season, putting up nearly 2,000 yards passing and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions.
The run game is led by senior Juwan Washington and his 450 yards on the campaign. Sophomore Chance Bell isn't far behind at 359 yards but with a better yards-per-carry average of 4.4 compared to Washington's 3.4. Next up is the 4.3 yards-per-carry average of junior Chase Jasmin.
It's not the most ferocious of attacks mounted by the Aztecs. But Hawaii has issues defensively as one of the nation's worst, even though Cortez Davis did have a 43-yard pick-6 in last week's win in Vegas. The Warriors are allowing 33.7 points per game, meaning San Diego State — despite its slow rate of offense — should be able to find a way to score.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Expect more offense from the Warriors than what was seen in last week's road win in Vegas. Especially if they return QB Cole McDonald to the starter's role, which is likely after his relief performance last Saturday night turned the game in favor of the Warriors.
McDonald gave way in the starter's seat to the future of the program, redshirt freshman QB Chevan Cordeiro, but then stepped back in to lead Hawaii in the second quarter, giving the team the spark it needed to get the triumph. The redshirt junior's ability to earn yards with his legs was the biggest reason for the turnaround. McDonald ran for 43 yards on 11 carries to go along with his 20-for-26, 211-yard passing performance against the Rebels.
It'll help that McDonald & Co. are back on home turf as well, where it can be a daunting task for visiting teams given the tropical distractions. And amid those distractions is the prolific offense of the Warriors, which features experienced receivers as part of a passing game that — if McDonald is on — is hard to slow down.
"They spread you out sideline-to-sideline and throw it all over the place," San Diego State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett told the San Diego Union-Tribune early this week. "But they're actually doing a nice job of effectively running the ball (with Miles Reed rolling up 90 yards last week)."
No matter, because Arnett's charges are among the best in the nation — eighth-best in total defense in allowing just 270.0 yards per game — meaning the Warriors haven't seen anything better than them this season in trying to move the ball. The Aztecs know how to put up a wall, as they did in holding Fresno State to just 206 yards last week.
If the old cliche that defense wins championships means anything, then this one certainly belongs to the Aztecs, especially with the Warriors' offense going through its issues in recent weeks.
It's obvious that this one comes down to how the Aztecs fare against Hawaii's sharp ball movement. And how often does a game — especially a massive one — come down to turnovers? If that's the case Saturday, this one goes the way of San Diego State, which boasts a turnover margin of plus-11 vs. minus-14 by Hawaii.