Before showing up for Fresno State’s anticipated “Night in Navy,” San Diego State already had another color scheme to worry about — black and blue.
The Aztecs will be without starting quarterback Quinn Kaehler, top receiver Ezell Ruffin and starting linebacker Derek Largent as they face the Bulldogs at 7 p.m. Friday in what figures to be a pivotal Mountain West Conference intradivision matchup at Bulldog Stadium.
But the Bulldogs (2-3, 1-0), who will debut navy uniforms and chrome helmets and are urging fans to wear the dark shade of blue, too, will take any help that comes their way as they continue their bid for a third straight Mountain West championship.
Fresno State and San Diego State (2-2, 1-0) were picked 1-2 in the West in the conference preseason poll, with both receiving the same number of first-place votes. Friday’s winner essentially will go up two games on the loser in the division race.
“I’m excited,” Bulldogs quarterback Brian Burrell said. “It’s a big game (between) arguably two of the best teams on this side of the conference.
“They’re a good conference opponent. We need to win this one. Our team is going to be juiced to wear the new uniforms. And we always love to play behind the Bulldog fans.”
San Diego State had appeared likely to give Fresno State a true sense of its progress after a string of three straight losses to Power 5 conference teams that came by an average of 35.7 points. The Bulldogs won their next two, but against an FCS program in Southern Utah and last week versus a lowly New Mexico team.
But with the Aztecs injured at key positions, the Bulldogs have caught a break for a second straight week. New Mexico also was missing its primary starting quarterback and depended mostly on a redshirt freshman behind center.
San Diego State will rely on an even more untested quarterback in true freshman Nick Bawden. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Bawden, who graduated a semester early from Los Gatos High and participated in the Aztecs’ spring practices, has yet to attempt a Division I pass through two mop-up appearances.
“Experience is an amazing thing,” Aztecs coach Rocky Long said. “If you have an experienced quarterback, it gives you some advantages. You never know how a true freshman is going to react at any position. And (quarterback) is the most critical position on every football team.
“You can’t control injuries. Injuries can happen any time.”
Kaehler suffered a shoulder injury late in San Diego State’s 34-17 win against UNLV last week. Ruffin, meanwhile, broke his collarbone in the second game of the season and is expected to miss almost two months.
Largent had an appendectomy last week.
Kaehler and Ruffin played significant roles last year when San Diego State owned a 14-point lead on the then-No. 15 Bulldogs with less than 10 minutes remaining. Kaehler finished with 337 passing yards and Ruffin with 10 receptions for 181 yards.
Fresno State stormed back to win 35-28 in overtime, surviving regulation by blocking a field goal as time expired.
Big comebacks have become a trend in the series.
San Diego State led by 14 in the 2012 meeting before Fresno State rallied for a 52-40 victory at Bulldog Stadium.
In 2011, the Bulldogs were up 21-0 but San Diego State came back for a 35-28 victory in the final game for Bulldogs coach Pat Hill. The teams have played for an Oil Can Trophy since that 2011 meeting.
“As long as we’re division rivals, it’s always going to be a rivalry,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “In recruiting, we’re going after similar kids. The results in this game a lot of times are a factor in recruits’ minds.
“Our players know (the Oil Can Trophy) is a symbol for football supremacy between us and them. Our guys definitely want to keep it here.”
Despite the Aztecs’ injuries, Fresno State still must contend with running back Donnel Pumphrey, who has rushed for 467 yards and nine touchdowns. His 10 receptions are tied for the team lead.
The Aztecs also have annually fielded one of the conference’s top, as well as one of its more complex, defenses. San Diego State is holding teams to an average of 20.8 points per game, which ranks 38th in the country.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, after their rough start, are simply trying to build on each week. They can get to .500 for the season with a victory as they try to become the first team in school history to start off 0-3 but still finish with a winning record.
Burrell, who has started each game but was not anointed the starter until last week, had his first strong outing in the win at New Mexico after opening the year with four straight uneven performances. He passed for 318 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score.
The defense, which struggled mightily during the first three games against USC, Utah and Nebraska, has shown vast improvement the past two weeks while holding those two opponents to an average of 20 points per game.
“You know, playing these guys has always been tough,” senior offensive lineman Cody Wichmann said. “I don’t expect it to be easy on Friday, either. I think we’re going to be fired up. It’s a rival. I love playing these guys. They always play hard.
“We want to keep getting better each week.”