Perhaps the best medicine for the San Diego State Aztecs was a loss to drop them from the ranks of the FBS unbeatens. Thank you, Fresno State Bulldogs?
"It hurts to lose," Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke told reporters of last week's first loss of the season — a 30-20 one to the rival Bulldogs. "You hate it. But I told the players if it doesn't hurt, they should leave the program."
Doubtful that'll happen. More likely, San Diego State will rise up — now that their gruff is up — and shut down the oft-potent Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in the Mountain West tilt late Saturday at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex in Honolulu.
And … oh yeah … that comes in front of a capacity crowd for the first time this season, with COVID-19 restrictions now relaxed on the Hawaiian Islands.
"Fired up to see all our great fans for SDSU," Hawaii head coach Todd Graham told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Can't wait. Go 'Bows!'"
And it should be a good one.
Despite the loss to Fresno State and a drop in the conference's West Division standings to second place behind the Bulldogs, the Aztecs (7-1, 3-1 MW) earned their first-ever placement — at No. 24 — in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings.
And they'll be game to prove it's where they belong after having a decidedly rough defensive outing, which is a rare thing for them.
Of course, SDSU will need to bounce back in order to get a win in Hawaii, where the home team is always a tough out and can run — sometimes at will — up and down the field, to keep pace in the division.
Meanwhile, Hawaii is 4-5 overall and 1-3 in conference play, coming off last week's 51-31 road loss to the Utah State, who currently leads the Mountain Division. But Saturday night represents an opportunity for the Warriors to only get back to .500 and become bowl eligible, but also to do so in front of a capacity crowd at home.
No. 24 San Diego State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6, at 11 p.m. ET
Spread: San Diego State -7
When San Diego State Has the Ball
Even after a loss, Hoke is sticking with Lucas Johnson as his starting quarterback against Hawaii. Call it a vote of confidence for Johnson, who had 280 total yards of offense with a touchdown through the air, but he also tossed a couple of critical interceptions.
Facing the Rainbow Warriors' defense also will be a different challenge than Fresno State, seeing that Hawaii gave up 51 points, 554 yards, and 30 first downs to Utah State last week.
"We've got to continue to make good decisions whether it's throwing it or tucking it and running the football," Hoke told reporters. "I thought Lucas was a little better with that, a little more decisive (last week). This is the same thing Lucas and I have talked about. He's got to be able to run the ball a little bit more consistently."
Johnson had 60 yards on the ground (on eight carries) against the Bulldogs to go with 220 passing in a 14-for-31 pedestrian performance.
But it wasn't just Johnson who got bulldogged by Fresno State. Greg Bell, who is fourth in the Mountain West with 668 rushing yards, managed just 63 on 15 carries. Overall, the Aztecs finished with 165 rushing yards and two carries on 33 carries (5.0 ypc).
"I thought, honestly, we were sporadic," Hoke told reporters. "We were able to move the ball some, and then we got stalled by one reason or another."
Even though Johnson needs to perform better (he's 54-of-93 for 526 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs on the season), SDSU's offense revolves around running the ball. The Aztecs are second in the conference in rushing with 200 yards per game compared to 137 passing. Only Air Force averages more on the ground and fewer through the air.
With an emphasis on the running game, it's just not Bell who needs to gain ground when given the ball. Fellow seniors Kaegun Williams, Chance Bell, and Jordan Byrd each have 177 or more rushing yards this season, and Johnson and initial starting quarterback Jordon Brookshire (who has missed time due to an ankle injury) have combined for 54 carries. So Hoke is perfectly comfortable when Johnson chooses to tuck it and run.
When Johnson does throw, the top targets are wide receiver Jesse Matthews (17 rec., 151 yds., 2 TDs), tight end Daniel Bellinger (16, 216, TD), and wideout Elijah Kothe (11, 163, TD).
When Hawaii Has the Ball
The Rainbow Warriors and Aztecs have one thing in common. Both teams are at their best when they run the ball effectively. Hawaii is 6-0 under head coach Todd Graham, who is in his second season at the school, when it puts up at least 200 rushing yards.
This year's ground game is led by Dae Dae Hunter, a dynamic freshman who is eighth in the conference in rushing (558) despite ranking 17th in carries (78). That means he's averaging a robust 7.2 yards per carry.
But running on San Diego State's staunch defense is easier said than done. In fact, one of the reasons the Aztecs lost last week to Fresno State was the 179 rushing yards they allowed. It was the second-highest total in a game (Air Force had 192) this season.
"We knew we had to affect the quarterback, and that's something we didn't do enough," Aztecs stud defensive end Cameron Thomas told reporters of the defense's Week 9 performance. "We left our secondary out to dry for that, and as you saw, that really affected us a team."
Despite these two recent slip-ups San Diego State is still sixth in the nation in rushing defense (92 ypg) and has surrendered a total of four rushing touchdowns.
Thomas and Co. are pretty good against the pass too (212.9 ypg), which is why the Aztecs are second in the Mountain West and 12th nationally in total defense (304.9 ypg). They also are tough to score against, holding teams to 17.5 points per game (12th in the FBS).
While the key to success may lie in running the ball, Hawaii still likes to fling it to. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro has 1,706 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. He needs to improve his accuracy (55.4 percent), but his arm combined with his legs (nearing 1,000 career rushing yards) makes him a dangerous signal-caller to defend against.
Cordeiro's favorite target is running back Calvin Turner Jr., who leads the team in receptions (52), receiving yards (624), and touchdown catches (3, tied with Nick Mardner). Last week, Turner and fellow back Dedrick Parson combined for 225 yards and two touchdowns on 15 catches. Mardner is second to Turner with 33 receptions and 615 yards.
Hawaii only needs to watch last week's game tape for a blueprint on how to beat San Diego State. Fresno State rolled up 485 yards of total offense, putting a stop to the Aztecs' 29-game streak of holding foes to under 450.
The Bulldogs also forced SDSU into three turnovers after committing a total of six in its previous seven games. And Fresno State converted half (9 of 18) of its third-down opportunities and only went three-and-out three times in 13 drives against the Aztecs' stout defense.
It obviously was a winning formula for the Bulldogs, but is it one the Rainbow Warriors can replicate? While a division title is out of reach, Hawaii can still become bowl eligible with two more wins.
"Even if we didn't have a shot, our goal is to win every week," Cordeiro to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "That's our mindset. We don't want to give up the season, especially for our seniors. I want to have an extra game for them. It would mean a lot to them."
But San Diego State is obviously no pushover and will be motivated after last week's loss. And the Aztecs have history on their side, having won 16 of the last 20 head-to-head meetings.
Make it 17 out of 21 come late Saturday, but the Warriors will go down fighting.
Prediction: San Diego State 21, Hawaii 20
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