There is no mystery here. San Diego State is going to run the football. It’s what it does.
The past two seasons the Aztecs have run it at a rate not far off that of teams that deploy option offenses – 71.3 percent of the time in 2016, 72.8 percent in ’15.
That is one reason Fresno State defensive tackle Nate Madsen likes playing against the Aztecs: It’s a test, physically and mentally. It’s a slugfest start to finish. “Every year,” Madsen said, “I look forward to this game.”
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The past two seasons the Bulldogs have stood up to the physicality of this matchup, losing 17-3 in 2016, 21-7 in ’15.
But there may be signs that this season and on Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium that the Bulldogs have a better chance to disrupt that run game. If they can, they have a good chance of beating the Aztecs with first place in the West Division in the Mountain West and control-your-own-destiny path to the conference championship game at stake.
Fresno State has improved its run defense significantly – the Bulldogs are, somewhat incredibly given where they were just one year ago, second in the MW and 14th in the nation in allowing 107.5 yards per game on the ground. That is down from 247.4.
But that’s only part of it.
On the opposite sideline there are hints that the Aztecs are not at the same level rushing the football as they have been the past two seasons when winning conference titles, even with one of the best backs in the nation in Rashaad Penny, even with banked victories in September over Pac-12 teams Arizona State and Stanford.
San Diego State has 43 rushing plays of 10 or more yards and 18 plays of 20 or more yards, ranking third and second in the conference. It also has fired a number of blanks. In a 31-14 loss to Boise State last week, it rushed the football 34 times and on 24 of those plays it gained 2 yards or less, not counting four sacks.
Fresno State by comparison has 32 rushing plays of 10 or more yards and only four plays of 20 or more yards, ranking ninth and 10th. It is seventh in the conference in rushing offense, and seemingly has yet to find consistency in the run game.
Yet, the Aztecs this season are averaging 4.64 yards per rush and the Bulldogs are averaging 4.61.
San Diego State in its five games against FBS opponents also has allowed an average of 7.5 tackles for loss, ranking 11th of 12 in the Mountain West.
After that loss to Boise State, Aztecs coach Rocky Long picked an apt adjective when discussing the play of a line that this season has four new starters. Terrible, he said.
Fresno State is 14th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 107.5 yards per game. Last season, it was ranked 123rd, allowing 247.4. The 139.9-yard per game difference is the largest improvement for any team ranked in the Top 15 this season.
“To this point we’ve done a pretty good job at the line of scrimmage to let a good running back have good days,” Long said. “We weren’t good. The offensive line was terrible. Obviously then our running backs can’t do what they need to do.”
On film the Aztecs appear the same and certainly the emphasis has not changed. The run game is both a sharp and a blunt instrument for the Aztecs, leading to big plays and a lot of bruises for opponents through four quarters of football.
“They’re going to run it up the middle,” Madsen said. “They’re going to run it down your throat. They’re going to try to pound you on the ground. They have no reason to change. They’ve had success and they’ve been doing what they’re doing.
“Nothing has changed and even if it has just a little you still have to have that same attitude. They’re still going to try to come after you and pound it.”
The Bulldogs’ task has not changed, either.
“You have to play physical,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “You have to hold your gaps. You have to run to the ball. You have to have disciplined eyes, because it’s not just stopping the run game, it’s play-action pass that comes with it.
“They do a really good job of what they do. You just have to be assignment-sound and run to the football, because (Penny) is a great back and he’ll run through one guy, so you have to put multiple hats on him or he’ll make you pay for it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at SDCCU Stadium (54,000)
- Records: Bulldogs 4-2, 3-0 Mountain West; Aztecs 6-1, 2-1
- TV/radio: CBSSN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Aztecs lost at home to Boise State on Saturday 31-14 and are in second place in the West Division. The Broncos shut down running back Rashaad Penny, who has been the Mountain West offensive player of the week four times this season. Penny gained just 53 yards on 21 plays and San Diego State, the two-time defending conference champion, had just 323 total yards in the loss, 83 of it coming on the ground. The Aztecs are leading the conference in total defense, allowing only 311.4 yards per game.