San Diego State has already knocked off one Pac-12 foe this season. Can the Aztecs do it again when Utah visits this weekend?
The Utes (1-1) suffered only their second regular-season non-conference loss since joining the Pac-12 when they fell to BYU 26-17 last weekend. Utah's nine-game winning streak in the Holy War came to an end behind offensive struggles and an inability to be disruptive on defense. The Utes forced zero turnovers and had zero sacks against the Cougars. Offensively, they gave up a pair of turnovers and struggled to extend drives.
The Aztecs (2-0) had no such troubles in a 38-14 victory over Arizona last weekend. San Diego State limited the Wildcats to 230 total yards and nine first downs and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. Arizona went 1-of-14 on third down and crossed midfield on only three drives. It helped the Aztecs improve to 6-2 against Pac-12 opponents dating back to the start of the 2016 season.
Utah has won five straight games over San Diego State and leads the series 17-12-1. The Utes last lost to the Aztecs in 2005 — Kyle Whittingham's first season as head coach at Utah.
Utah at San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Utah -8.5
When Utah Has the Ball
The Utes may have found their successor to Ty Jordan in the backfield. Micah Bernard brought Utah within striking distance of BYU with some dynamic running in the second half. Bernard finished with 146 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries. With ball security being a persistent problem for Tavion Thomas, Bernard is likely to be Utah's primary running back going forward. Through his first two games, Bernard is averaging 10.1 yards per carry. That average ranks third among all Pac-12 players.
Charlie Brewer had a tough outing against BYU's defense. After completing 70 percent of his passes and throwing for 233 yards in the season opener against FCS Weber State, Brewer threw for 147 yards and completed only 58 percent of his passes against the Cougars. The senior has the track record for being a reliable passer, and much of his troubles against BYU can be chalked up to inconsistent play from Utah's offensive line. It is a concern for the Utes and Brewer, though, since San Diego State is tough and physical on defense.
Utah will need to attack the Aztecs through the air. San Diego State has allowed just 97 rushing yards through two games. The Aztecs did surrender 326 passing yards in their opener against New Mexico State, although they also tallied three interceptions against the Aggies.
When San Diego State Has the Ball
The Aztecs are at their best when they have a dominant runner in the backfield. Greg Bell fits that role to a tee. Bell is averaging 143 rushing yards per game and 7.5 yards per carry. After churning out a career-high 161 yards in the season opener against New Mexico State, Bell followed up with 125 yards on 17 carries against Arizona — highlighted by a 55-yard touchdown run that opened the scoring for San Diego State. He has 10 carries covering at least 10 yards through two games, which is tied for the national lead.
Jordon Brookshire was efficient enough in the passing game to keep the Wildcats from focusing all of their attention on stopping Bell. Brookshire threw for 183 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-14 passing in Week 2. His 228.4 passer rating was the best for an Aztec quarterback since 2012 and is the sixth-highest at San Diego State over the last 25 seasons. If Brookshire can show similar efficiency against Utah, it will take some teeth out of the Utah defense. He suffered a foot injury in the win over Arizona, which caused him to miss practice time, so his mobility is something to keep an eye on. If Brookshire is unable to go or is limited, backup Lucas Johnson will be thrust into action.
The Utes uncharacteristically gave up 219 rushing yards to BYU last weekend. It was the most yardage surrendered on the ground since the 2019 Alamo Bowl. San Diego State can't count on the Utes doing it two weeks in a row. Utah has led the Pac-12 in rushing defense each of the past three seasons.
This will be your classic low-scoring, defense-first cage match. Utah is hungry to prove its flat effort against BYU was a fluke. San Diego State is eager to show it can beat a top-tier Pac-12 team. The Aztecs looked impressive in dominating two awful football teams. This time, they're taking a big step up in competition. Utah isn't a team that San Diego State can bully on defense or overpower with its running game. The Utes are more well-rounded on both sides of the ball and will find a way to go into Pac-12 play next week on a winning note.
Prediction: Utah 24, San Diego State 17
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.