SAN DIEGO STATE AT FRESNO STATE
Friday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
Records: Aztecs 4-1, 1-0 Mountain West; Bulldogs 1-5, 0-2
TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: 71 degrees, 10 percent chance of rain
Keys to victory
1 Run to the ball Fresno State has not tackled well this season, ending with the fundamental act of wrapping up and driving through the ball carrier. But it starts with getting a lot of hats to the ball, and Friday against the Aztecs and Donnel Pumphrey that is an imperative. Pumphrey leads the nation in rushing by just about 30 yards a game – 178.2 per game to 148.8 for D’Onta Freeman from Texas – and he can get through even the smallest opening and take the football a long way.
2 Run the ball The Bulldogs put together their best rushing game of the season in banging out 255 yards at Nevada. That was against a rushing defense ranked 11th of 12 in the Mountain West. San Diego State is second, allowing 3 yards per rushing play and 102 per game. The Aztecs’ movement up front could give Fresno State problems, which would be nothing new in the series. The Bulldogs last season gained 12 yards in 22 rushing plays, in 2013 it was 43 in 19 and in 2011 it was 48 in 28.
3 Get them into third down San Diego State, which is averaging 5.2 yards per rush and 8.4 yards per pass, is facing a bit of a statistical anomaly. The Aztecs have converted only 33.9 percent of their third-down plays. They have yet to run for a first down on a play of third-and-4 to third-and-9 and quarterback Christian Chapman has completed only 54.3 percent of his third-down passes. The trick for the Bulldogs will be getting the Aztecs into third-and-medium to long situations.
Fresno State junior Aaron Mitchell will make his third consecutive start at center after moving from left guard to open Mountain West Conference play. On Friday, he has a much more difficult task in facing San Diego State than he did against UNLV or Nevada.
The Aztecs in their 3-3-5 alignment will give the Bulldogs a lot of looks and bring pressure on just about every play. Identifying fronts and setting protections will be critical.
It’s not just calling out a three- or four-man front and identifying the “Mike” linebacker.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Mitchell said. “We just have to have our eyes up and have clear IDs. It’s not necessarily blocking or identifying a guy; it’s more the guy in that spot. It could be a safety down in the box, it could be a cornerback out on the edge. It’s having our eyes up and playing with our eyes rather than with our head down and not be able to see things in front of us.”
The Bulldogs and offensive line coach Mark Weber have been working on the different looks through the week, improving as they’ve gone along.
“They do have some tells for what they do and you have to do a great job of seeing what they’re in, identifying it and making sure your protections are set,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “They are going to pressure you. They are going to try to intimidate your quarterback.
“But if you can pick up their pressures – most of the time it’s only going to be five, though they’ll do more – now the coverage is not as good because they don’t have an extra guy there.”
Mitchell will get some help from guards Micah St. Andrew and Jacob Vazquez, but the key will be playing aggressively whether they ID everything the right way or not.
“It’s football,” Mitchell said. “If they bring four, then we have an extra guy and he goes and finds work. We always preach, ‘If you’re uncovered, if you ever go through a play as an offensive lineman and you don’t hit someone, you did something wrong. If you’re uncovered, go find someone and blow them up.’ ”
QB ploy – Fresno State gave graduate transfer quarterback Zach Kline two series in the second quarter at Nevada, playing in relief of starter Chason Virgil.
That could be in the game plan again this week. It also may not.
“We aren’t going to disclose what exactly the plans are,” said DeRuyter, who several times over the past two seasons has kept his starting quarterback a secret until game time. “I don’t know that it helps us to say, ‘He’s coming in during the second quarter.’ Now, we may do that, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Out of oil – Fresno State and San Diego State play for the Old Oil Can Trophy, which doesn’t have much history, having been created in 2011 and isn’t much to look at. It’s an old oil can, rusty and dented.
What matters is that the Aztecs at the moment have it, having beaten the Bulldogs 21-7 last season.
“I know our players were excited about getting it last year and I’m sure their players are excited about getting it back,” Aztecs coach Rocky Long said at his weekly news conference.
“We showed it to them. They don’t know the story. We tell them the story that it’s supposedly the oil can of when they took buses over the hill and had to fill it with oil to get back over the hill to Fresno. We tell them that story. I don’t know if they believe that or even care, but they care about the oil can. They care about trophies and it’s a trophy. It’s just a little different-looking trophy, that’s all.”
One-shot deal – The Bulldogs have converted 33 percent of their third-down plays, which is a problem in facing the Aztecs. To score, Fresno State likely is going to have to string together plays and keep the sticks moving.
Consistency has not been a play-to-play strength. Dropped passes, poor pass protection … it’s a long list.
To illustrate that point, San Diego State has allowed 15 plays of 20 or more yards (14 passes and one run), which is tied for fourth fewest in the nation with Virginia Tech and behind only Ohio State (12), Army (14) and Michigan (14).
Ailing starters may return – Fresno State was down two starters at Nevada with tight end Chad Olsen and inside linebacker Robert Stanley sitting out because of injury.
Both did some work in practice during the week and DeRuyter said there is a chance both can get some reps against the Aztecs.
Et cetera – San Diego State has won 12 consecutive Mountain West games, tied with Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference for the longest active streak against conference opponents.
In that run, the Aztecs have outscored opponents 410-142.
▪ Telling stat on the Bulldogs’ struggling run game. The 169 rushing yards by Dontel James last week in a loss at Nevada were the most by a Fresno State running back since Robbie Rouse went for 261 in a victory at Nevada on Nov. 10, 2012.
▪ Long on the Bulldogs: “Their biggest problem has been inconsistency. They’re a really talented football team that plays really well at times, and sooner or later they’re going to put a game together where they play an entire game to their ability and when they do that, they could beat anybody. But they’ve been inconsistent in things. Fumbles have hurt them, turnovers have hurt them. They have a couple really good running backs. Their offensive line is pretty good. They’ve got the best set of receivers we’ve seen since we played Cal. Their quarterback at times misses receivers and at times throws darts.”
▪ The Bulldogs’ Virgil completed passes to a season-high eight receivers at Nevada, but the majority of his passes are targeted for KeeSean Johnson, Aaron Peck or Jamire Jordan. All three are ranked in the top 10 in the conference in receptions and receiving yards per game, and have accounted for 1,286 of Virgil’s 1,366 passing yards through five games.
▪ Fresno State has outscored its opponents 34-28 in the first quarter this season but could have difficulty maintaining that margin. San Diego State in the first quarter has outscored its opponents 58-28.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada