Just two weeks ago, San Diego State was an undefeated top-20 team marching toward a third straight Mountain West Conference championship and potentially a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. However, Boise State manhandled the Aztecs 31-14 in San Diego to dash any hopes of an undefeated season. Though Rocky Long’s team still controlled its own destiny in the conference race, last week’s ugly 27-3 loss to West Division rival Fresno State put the team two games behind the Bulldogs in the win column, meaning that a return to the title game is now highly unlikely with four games to play.
Desperate to get back on track, the Aztecs face another tough task: a cross-Pacific trip to Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors, 3-4 overall and 1-3 in conference play in their second season under Nick Rolovich, are rested coming off a bye week and had an extra week to prepare for a reeling San Diego State squad set to play its ninth game in nine weeks. Hawaii also features a diverse offense that has averaged 261.0 passing yards and 219.1 rushing yards per game, and has racked up at least 450 total yards in every contest.
San Diego State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 11:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: San Diego State -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Top two rushers in the Mountain West
Both the Aztecs and Rainbow Warriors rely heavily on the running game, which makes perfect sense, because each team features one of the best running backs in the Mountain West. San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny even looked like a potential Heisman Trophy candidate early on, racking up six straight 100-yard performances to open the season, but he has been held to fewer than 70 yards in each of the last two games. Overall, the 5-11, 220-pound senior has 1,115 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, surpassing 1,000 yards on the ground for the second straight season.
Penny leads the conference in raw rushing yardage, but Hawaii running back Diocemy Saint Juste (above, right) leads the league with 156.3 rushing yards per game. Saint Juste has averaged 6.0 yards per carry while racking up 1,094 rushing yards in seven contests. He has scored six touchdowns. Though he ranks second nationally with 26.1 carries per game, expect Saint Juste to take on an even heavier workload in the coming weeks, because quarterback Dru Brown will be without his favorite target, John Ursua, who suffered a season-ending knee injury.
2. Run defense
Despite facing Stanford’s Bryce Love (the nation’s leading rusher) and Air Force (the No. 5 rushing offense in the country), San Diego State has a major statistical advantage over Hawaii in run defense. The Aztecs have held opponents to 143.3 rushing yards per game this season, third in the Mountain West. Teams not named Stanford or Air Force have averaged 125 yards on the ground against San Diego State, though the Aztecs have allowed 192.5 rushing yards per game during their two-game losing streak.
The Rainbow Warriors have surrendered more rushing yards to weaker opponents, so Penny and the Aztecs could be poised for a big game. Hawaii ranks seventh in the Mountain West and 90th in the country in rush defense (183.7 yards allowed per game) and has allowed 5.0 yards per carry. Three opponents — Western Carolina, Colorado State and Nevada — gained more than 200 yards on the ground against the Rainbow Warriors.
3. Turnover battle
In college football, the team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game. In Hawaii’s case, that adage has been true 100 percent of the time this season. The Rainbow Warriors have a plus-3 turnover margin in their three wins, having recorded a plus-1 ratio in each. San Diego State has earned a reputation for taking care of the football offensively, and forcing turnovers. In fact, the Aztecs’ plus-42 turnover ratio is the best in the nation over the past three seasons. SDSU has also won 21 games in a row when winning the turnover battle. However, the Aztecs have been on the wrong side of that battle in each of their last three games and failed to produce a takeaway in either of the last two.
On paper, Hawaii looks like a clear underdog. San Diego State has a better defense, especially against the run, and plenty of offensive weapons at its disposal. And though the Rainbow Warriors have been terrific on offense, the team lost its top receiver to injury, which is significant. Nevertheless, SDSU is on the ropes. The Aztecs have to travel 2,600 miles over the ocean following nine straight weeks of action, including two straight losses. SDSU is the more talented team and should win the game, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Aztecs struggle for a third straight week.
Prediction: San Diego State 28, Hawaii 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Diocemy Saint Juste photo courtesy of Getty Images)