San Diego State had a true freshman at quarterback making his first career start, and not much in the form of a passing game.
They tried early, failed.
The Aztecs did not complete a pass until their fourth drive of the game, into the second quarter. But they had a running game and Fresno State knew that coming in, that it would be all downhill and right at them.
It would be a physical test, but the Bulldogs passed it in the 24-13 victory Friday in which they limited the Aztecs, particularly on first downs, making the going all the more difficult for that freshman quarterback, Nick Bawden.
Never miss a local story.
The Aztecs had come in averaging 6.8 yards rushing the ball on first down, but after a first quarter in which it gave up 21- and 14-yard runs, Fresno State clamped down. From the second quarter on, San Diego State ran on first down 14 times and gained 45 yards, just 3.2 per play.
"Here's the thing, we can talk about adjustments and what not, but our kids, they wanted to get into a fight," defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. "They knew it was going to be a physical game and it didn't matter. They wanted to go. We changed some things and we moved some things around, but it is what it is. Those kids went out and played their butts off. They just wanted to go, man."
San Diego State gained 270 yards, 186 coming on the ground.
Donnel Pumphrey, who was second in the Mountain West Conference in rushing at 116.8 yards per game, gained 94 yards but it took 24 runs and he didn't score.
San Diego State had scored 10 rushing touchdowns this season and at least one in 15 consecutive games, but could not manage even one against the Bulldogs.
Fresno State also allowed only 6 of 15 third-down plays to be converted; and with the Aztecs pressing at their lead in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs' defense came up with two game-turning plays.
Donavon Lewis picked off a pass by Bawden, thwarting a drive at the Bulldogs 28-yard line with 6:15 remaining after San Diego State had closed to 17-13.
Jamal Ellis had an interception later in the fourth quarter, which set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Marteze Waller with 3:26 remaining that ended any doubt and got the Bulldogs to 2-0 in the Mountain West Conference.
"I got one last year against them and I was hoping I'd get one again this year and it worked out," Lewis said of his interception, the second of his career. "It tipped off two of our defensive guys and it was just kind of there. I just went up and got it."
But the work against the run proved pivotal. San Diego State, which got 36 yards on scrambles by Bawden, averaged a season-low 4.1 yards per rushing play.
"Any time you play San Diego, it's a game about physicality and at the end of the day you just have to be more physical than that team," said Lewis, who also had five tackles and was credited with an assist on a tackle for loss. "They're a good football team, but I think we out-physicaled them today. That showed."
The Bulldogs had taken a few lumps in their first three games of the season -- playing up a competition level or two at USC, at Utah and against Nebraska -- but they didn't have too many issues against the Aztecs. They knew going in that they could not allow the Aztecs to continue to hit at a nearly 7-yard per play clip when running on first down.
"Ten yards is a first down, so giving up 7 yards is too much," Lewis said. "We had to stop the run.
"At the beginning of the year, we just needed to come together more as a team and we've made those strides and now it's showing that we can play together, we can play as one."
Said Toth: "You know what, we're getting back to where we want to be. We're not there yet. We're still missing too many tackles, the quarterback scramble bothers me. We had some takeaways, we were in the backfield, so we're getting back to where we want to be.
"I don't know about proving anything -- we're not where we want to be yet. But I liked how hard they played."