Saturday’s game at Qualcomm Stadium might be a makeshift West Division title game between No. 15 Fresno State and San Diego State, the only remaining Mountain West teams undefeated in conference play.
The Aztecs enter the game 3-3 and 2-0 in league play, coming off a bye week.
Fresno State is 6-0 and 3-0 in the Mountain West. A win over SDSU would give the Bulldogs their first 7-0 start since 1991.
The Aztecs, operating a run-first offense, have had players step up at quarterback and running back, said Matthew Bain, an Aztecs football beat writer for The Daily Aztec, San Diego State’s student newspaper.
Here’s more of what Bain shared in an interview with The Collegian.
THE COLLEGIAN: San Diego State started the year 0-3, including a loss to FCS program Eastern Illinois. Now, heading into Saturday’s game against No. 15 Fresno State, the Aztecs are on a 3-0 streak. How would you characterize the season SDSU’s had so far?
THE DAILY AZTEC: This has truly been a tale of two seasons for the Aztecs.
Almost everything went wrong in SDSU’s first three games. Junior quarterback Adam Dingwell played below expectations, completing 27 of 68 passes for 318 yards, zero touchdowns and five interceptions.
Junior running back Adam Muema, the Aztec with the most preseason hype, injured his ankle against Eastern Illinois University in the season opener. To make matters worse, the Aztecs lost junior linebacker Jake Fely, a defensive leader, to a season-ending foot injury against Oregon State.
SDSU’s “second season” has looked like the season Aztec fans anticipated. SDSU is the only team since 2010 other than the 2012 University of Houston Cougars to start a season 0-3 and be 3-3 after six games.
It would appear that the Aztecs are hitting their stride at the right time: during Mountain West play. A lot of this success, however, results from lesser-known SDSU players like junior quarterback Quinn Kaehler, freshman running back Donnel Pumphrey, junior wide receiver Ezell Ruffin and junior linebacker Josh Gavert.
Quinn Kaehler didn’t seem to be on the radar to start at quarterback for the Aztecs to begin the season. Then Adam Dingwell seemed to struggle some during those first few losses. How has Kaehler adjusted to the starting role and what does he bring to the Aztecs’ offense?
You got it right. Nobody saw Kaehler coming. Fans assumed Dingwell would build on his success last year and develop into an offensive leader. However, college football is hard to predict, and Dingwell didn’t live up to expectations.
Since being thrown into the action midway through the first quarter at No. 4 Ohio State, Kaehler has impressed the SDSU football community. Other than two critical interceptions in his first start against Oregon State, Kaehler has been remarkably accurate, completing 64.1 percent of his passes. He became a fan favorite when he led the Aztecs to their thrilling overtime victory against Nevada.
He completed more than 70 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns, including the game-winning score to freshman wide receiver Eric Judge in overtime. With three starts under his belt, Kaehler is a confident quarterback who is comfortable rolling out of the pocket and throwing to second- or third-option wide receivers.
He is exactly what the Aztecs need on offense: an accurate, reliable quarterback. It’s no secret that SDSU is a run-first team, so it doesn’t need an Aaron Rodgers-like quarterback. It needs somebody like Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Kaehler fills that role.
SDSU’s secondary had a hard time containing Derek Carr in last year’s meeting (he passed for 536 yards, though there was that 96-yard touchdown interception return by Leon Washington). How has this year’s secondary differed from last season’s?
Derek Carr is a phenomenal quarterback, and I’m excited to see what he does on Sundays next year in the NFL.
Last year’s secondary was SDSU’s weakness. Leon McFadden played great, but eventually opponents would simply throw away from whomever McFadden covered.
This year’s secondary is inconsistent. At times it’s SDSU’s weakness and at times it’s SDSU’s strength. Let’s take the game against Oregon State, for example. Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion is another example of a future-NFL quarterback. He has thrown for 2,992 yards, 29 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season. SDSU’s secondary, though, shut him down for three quarters. In fact, the Aztecs held Oregon State scoreless in the second and third quarters. SDSU’s secondary looked very different in the fourth quarter than it did the rest of the game and Mannion had his way, throwing two of his three touchdowns and leading a comeback to win in San Diego.
SDSU’s secondary leader, Nat Berhe, is having a season similar to McFadden’s. He plays very well, so quarterbacks don’t throw to receivers he covers.
So at times this year’s secondary is no different from last year’s. At times it is very different. I guess we’ll see which secondary shows up on Saturday.
San Diego State seems to have found a running back committee it can work with in Adam Muema and Donnel Pumphrey. How has Pumphrey developed this season? Is the run game one of SDSU’s strengths on offense?
It’s no coincidence that SDSU’s three wins came when Muema and Pumphrey played together. The two complement each other very well. Muema is a bulldozer. He’ll try to run through you, not around you.
Now that he’s healthy, Muema looks like the running back Aztec fans are accustomed to. Pumphrey, on the other hand, is a speedster. He’s 5-feet-9-inches and 155 pounds, so he can fit through even the smallest holes. And once he gets through that hole, defenses have a tough time catching up. He is still young and has room to grow, but he has been the most surprising and exciting player for SDSU this year.
Pumphrey averages 7.4 yards per carry. It’s hard to believe, but he was actually the third-string running back at the beginning of the season.
SDSU has success when its running game works. It’s a ground-and-pound team that uses the play-action pass to punish defenses expecting the run. That means the offensive line is also vital to the team’s success.
SDSU’s line is very young this year — it took a few games for the players to settle in. Now that the Aztecs have an efficient running back tandem and a solid offensive line, I would say the run game is their biggest strength.
What are some keys to victory for the Aztecs?
Well, the run game is definitely a key for victory. Kaehler needs to continue leading the team like he has. The secondary needs to be a strength, not a weakness.
I could go on and on about obvious things SDSU needs to do to win. But I think the key to an Aztecs’ victory is on special teams.
The Battle for the Oil Can has become a heated rivalry. Fresno State has played a great season of football. SDSU is playing its best football of the season.
This game is going to be close, and in a close game, every point matters. In their game against the Air Force Academy, Aztec kickers missed an extra point attempt, had another attempt blocked and missed a 37-yard field goal. That’s five points down the drain.
Both teams will need to convert their opportunities on special teams in order to win this game.