San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey sliced up the Mountain West Conference during the past two years. Working behind a big, physical line and in a pound-your-face-to-pulp offense, he averaged 6.3 and 7.5 yards per play and scored 13 touchdowns each season.
Twice, he has been a first-team all-conference selection and last season was Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.
In two games against Fresno State, though, Pumphrey has rushed for a more human 4.6 yards per play and scored just one touchdown – and no defense in the West Division is anywhere close to that level of proficiency.
San Jose State? Pumphrey has rushed for 9.9 yards per play against the Spartans and scored four times. UNLV? It’s 6.7 with seven touchdowns, including a game this season. Nevada? It’s 6.6. Hawaii? It’s 6.0.
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To revive its 2016 season, Fresno State (1-5, 0-2), is going to have to find a way to pull that off one more time Friday at Bulldog Stadium. But complicating that task, there’s a factor they have not had to contend with in the past in quarterback Christian Chapman.
It’s just straight power football. Everyone gets a little juiced up for this. They’re just calling you out – who’s the bigger man each and every play?
Fresno State inside linebacker Jeff Camilli on the matchup with San Diego State
The matchup is a different type of challenge for a defense that for the past month has had difficulties against teams using 11-personnel packages while playing at tempo, struggling to get lined up correctly before the snap and then fitting the run properly.
Different by no means should be construed as easier.
“They have really good personnel, they’re very committed schematically to what they do so they get to repeat the same fundamentals over and over again,” inside linebackers coach Nick Toth said, “so they’re pretty good at executing and it’s almost triple option-like in that they’re comfortable banging on you and banging on you and banging on you until they figure out how to bang on you the best and once they do that then they’re going to really hammer it.”
But it is a game the Bulldogs look forward to every season.
“It’s just straight power football,” said inside linebacker Jeff Camilli, who is leading the Bulldogs in tackles and has had 10 or more in three consecutive games and four of five this season. “Everyone gets a little juiced up for this. They’re just calling you out – who’s the bigger man each and every play?
“Me, personally, it’s a very fun game. I love playing against San Diego State. I love the power runs that they do. I love everything about it. It’s a slugfest the entire time, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey is leading the Mountain West with 10 explosive runs of 20 or more yards and has 43 over the last two-plus seasons.
The question will be whether the Bulldogs can stand up to the physicality, and do it when potentially playing with fewer defenders in the box than they’ve had in their recent meetings with the Aztecs (4-1, 1-0).
The past two seasons, San Diego State was not all that effective at the quarterback position. That allowed the Bulldogs to load up against Pumphrey and the Aztecs’ running game.
In 2015, senior Maxwell Smith was off to a very slow start, completing only 42.7 percent of his passes and averaging 133.8 passing yards in four games before facing the Bulldogs. In 2014, the Aztecs started a freshman backup in Nick Bawden, who had yet to throw a pass and is now a fullback.
This year, they have to deal with Chapman, who has completed 63.3 percent (69 of 109) of his passes for 912 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions. Chapman is third in the conference in passing efficiency with a rating of 154.13.
“He has been very efficient,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “When you’re running that type of an attack, it’s almost like (defending) Air Force. You have to go man coverage and commit more guys to the run game and when you do that, you’re susceptible to big plays on the back end.
Our guys know what the challenge is. He has gotten better. We need to be better. It’s a matter of playing hard, getting off blocks and getting multiple guys to the ball. If one guy has to tackle him every time, he’s going to make that guy miss. He has proven that to everybody they’ve played against.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on slowing down Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey
“Chapman has done a good job of hitting guys on play-action deep balls and they have some receivers that will go up and get it. It’s not like you’re playing an option team that is not capable of throwing the ball. This team is very capable of throwing the ball, so you can’t just load up against the run.”
Fresno State, with two senior cornerbacks, has suffered busted coverages in two of its past three games, giving up a 40-yard touchdown pass to Tulsa and a 36-yard scoring pass at Nevada.
But the bigger danger remains in the front seven and against Pumphrey, who is leading the Mountain West in rushing by plenty. The Aztecs back has averaged 178.2 yards in five games. Nevada back James Butler is second at 121.3. Pumphrey also is leading the conference with 10 runs of 20 or more yards.
The Bulldogs won’t have to scramble when it comes to dealing with tempo, but they will see tight ends and fullbacks and a lot of Pumphrey (as well as backup Rashaad Penny) and the Aztecs’ ground game.
“Every year, when we have San Diego State, I know it’s going to be a physical, bloody week,” defensive end Nate Madsen said. “It’s going to be a physical game. It going to not only be physical, it’s going to be a long game. It’s going to be four quarters of just battling.
“We can’t just show up. It’s going to be a blood bath and it’s going to be four quarters of who can go the hardest and who can finish the game.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. SAN DIEGO STATE
- Friday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Bulldogs 1-5, 0-2 MW;
- Aztecs 4-1, 1-0
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)