LOGAN—After three months and 96 games of Mountain West Conference football, the dust has finally settled. The lone contenders remaining—Utah State and No. 19 San Diego State—will compete for the championship this Saturday at 1 p.m. MT in Carson, California.
Head coach Blake Anderson said he wants to make the most of this opportunity. That, of course, means bringing home the first Mountain West championship trophy in program history.
“We don’t want to be satisfied with being there,” he said. “We want to find a way to win it.”
Almost everything was up in the air less than a week ago. Boise State and Air Force still had hopes at a Mountain Division title, and Fresno State still had a chance at representing the West Division, but when both the Aggies and Aztecs won, it finalized the pairing.
Few expected USU to be in this situation. Certainly not the Las Vegas oddsmakers, who put the over/under mark at 3.5 wins. The media wasn’t any closer, and picked the Aggies to finish second-to-last in the division. It’s hard to blame anyone too much. What most saw was a program that had picked up just one win the season before, lost its head coach and forfeited its final game due to player protests.
Winning a game like this one is a tall task, especially considering SDSU’s record. The nationally-ranked Aztecs have lost just one game so far, a 30-20 defeat to Fresno State on October 30. What will probably dictate how the game goes, Anderson said, is how USU approaches the areas where the team is outmatched. Anderson admitted that his team’s physical advantages are few.
“Honestly, on paper, there may not be an advantage of any kind in this particular game for us,” he said, “but that is not an environment we’re that uncomfortable in. We’ve been in that pretty much all year, and guys have thrived in it.”
With very limited exceptions, SDSU is bigger in each position group. That will put USU in a situation similar to the games against BYU, Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming, where Anderson relied on quickness and spreading the field.
“We’re going to have to do a great job of maneuvering, running crisp routes and using quickness and space and speed to try to gain an advantage.” he said.
SDSU’s offense likes to run the ball. Led by running back Greg Bell, the Aztecs average 178 rushing yards per game.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” he said. “They want to run the ball. They want to control the line of scrimmage. They want to control the clock and make you play a physical brand of ball.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t throw it. That happens a lot, too. Both Lucas Johnson and Jordon Brookshire have taken turns at the quarterback spot and have put up similar numbers. Both played against Boise State in last week’s win, and Anderson said he doesn’t know who will get the start Saturday. Either way, he added they’re both very capable. The concern for Anderson is that because his defense will need to focus on stopping the run, the Aggie corners may be put in some stressful one-on-one situations with SDSU’s wide receivers.
San Diego State’s defense is where the team has its biggest strength. It ranks second nationally in rush yards allowed per game, 11th nationally in total defense and is led by defensive end Cameron Thomas—the recently-named Mountain West defensive player of the year.
Thomas has recorded more quarterback hits and more quarterback hurries than any other player in college football this season. Anderson said that Thomas is just one of an entire defensive line that causes problems.
“You see length combined with speed,” Anderson said. “They are built.”
Aggie quarterback Logan Bonner, who has taken his fair share of hits, said he is ready to go. His backup, however, will probably not be ready. Andrew Peasley was injured in last week’s game at New Mexico.
“I’m hoping it isn’t anything significant that is going to cost him time in the offseason,” Anderson said. “At this point, right now, he is day-to-day and is in a good amount of pain.”
On top of all of that, San Diego State brings one more major weapon to the field. The nation’s top punter in average yards per punt, Matt Araiza, suits up for SDSU.
“He has shown the ability to punt out of his own endzone and pin you inside the 10,” Anderson said. “That’s a weapon that not many have.”
This will be just the second Mountain West championship game the Aggies have played in. The first came in 2013, when USU lost to Fresno State 24-17. USU last won a conference championship in 2012 as a member of the Western Athletic Conference. The game will be broadcast nationally on Fox at 1 p.m.