The San Diego Aztecs aim to stay undefeated in Mountain West Conference play Saturday as the squad travels north to play the Nevada Wolf Pack. San Diego State narrowly avoided disaster last week and held on to beat San Jose State 16-13 at home. Of course, every win counts the same in the standings and the Aztecs to improve to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in league play. Nevada, now 4-4 overall and 2-2 in conference play, had a far easier time beating Hawaii 40-22 on the road to end a two-game losing streak.
San Diego State at Nevada
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: San Diego State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Smoke and mirrors?
The average college football fan might look at San Diego State’s record and think this is the same ‘ol Aztecs squad we’ve come to expect under head coach Rocky Long. In part, they’d be right: San Diego State landed third in the "others receiving votes" group in the most recent AP poll (so unofficially 28th) and is in the driver’s seat in the MWC West because it continues to lean on its strong defense and methodical rushing attack and consistently capitalizes on scoring opportunities. That style of play has enabled the Aztecs to win six in a row, including five straight decided by a single possession. In some cases, those close wins have been impressive — upset victories over then-No. 23 Arizona State and at Boise State, specifically — but a four-point win over Air Force and last week’s three-point win over winless San Jose State (as double-digit favorites in both games) were less so.
The Aztecs have succeeded despite a long list of injuries to starters and key contributors, including senior quarterback Christian Chapman and running back Juwan Washington. Despite having been sidelined for each of the last three games, Washington still leads the Aztecs in rushing yards (513) and touchdowns (5). Still, Long and his coaching staff always seem to find a capable ball carrier. Second-leading rusher Chase Jasmin has been steady and has averaged 86.6 rushing yards over the last five games as the top rusher in a running-back-by-committee unit.
2. Nevada QB Ty Gangi
There are several quality quarterbacks throughout the Mountain West Conference, so Nevada QB Ty Gangi is sometimes overlooked in the league. Nevertheless, Gangi has been a stabilizing force for the Wolf Pack since becoming the full-time starter midway through the 2017 season, and his play is a big reason why Nevada is on pace to play in its first bowl game since '15.
Gangi has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a senior. On a per game basis (he missed the matchup with Fresno State due to injury), Gangi ranks fourth in the conference in passing (269.0 ypg). Only one Mountain West QB has tossed more picks, but only three have thrown more scoring strikes. He’s also getting better every week: Gangi was 21-for-29 passing for 247 yards and did not throw an interception in the win over Hawaii.
3. Third-down conversions
San Diego State ranks second in the Mountain West in total defense (306.9 ypg), and third in yards allowed per play (4.62). The Aztecs are at their best stopping the run, and the unit leads the league and ranks No. 5 nationally in rush defense (83.57 yards allowed per game). Only Utah (2.39) has held its opponents to fewer yards per carry (2.41) among FBS defenses.
But the Aztecs are susceptible on third downs. Opponents have converted 38.1 percent of the time on third down this season, which ranks seventh in the league and 60th in the country. With Gangi under center, receivers McLane Mannix and Kaleb Fossum on the outside and freshman running back Toa Taua in the backfield, no third down marker is out of reach for Nevada.
The Wolf Pack have been far better on third downs defensively. Jay Norvell’s defense has surrendered a mediocre 401.8 total yards per game and 5.45 yards per play overall, but thanks to a talented pass rush led by pass rushers Korey Rush and Malik Reed, Nevada has allowed third down conversions just 30.58 percent of the time, which is second best in the league and 17th nationally.
SDSU leads the Mountain West with a 94.74 percent scoring rate in the red zone, but without its best quarterback and running back, and with an offensive line that has surrendered a surprising 2.86 sacks per game, the Aztecs could be in big trouble if they get off schedule on first and second downs.
San Diego State is a legitimate Mountain West title contender and a fringe Top 25 football team, but the Aztecs don’t play beautiful football and rarely win big. Nevada also matches up well and hosting the game in Reno is a bonus. The Wolf Pack have an edge at every offensive position, and though San Diego State has one of the best defenses in the conference, the Aztecs are far from perfect against the pass and on third down.
Nonetheless, whether by smoke and mirrors or old-fashioned, hard-nosed football, San Diego State has found a way to win. We should expect the Aztecs to continue their winning ways Saturday.
Prediction: San Diego State 21, Nevada 17
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of goaztecs.com)