WHEN: Saturday, October 26 -- 7:30 PM, PST.
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium; San Diego, CA (70,561)
2013 SEASON: Fresno State 6-0 (3-0), San Diego State 3-3 (2-0)
RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will carry the Bulldogs broadcast in English and Spanish, respectively. The San Diego broadcast can be heard on The Mighty 1090 AM and 105.7 FM.
SERIES RECORD: The Aztecs lead the all-time series 27-21-4. In 2012, Fresno outlasted SDSU 52-40 at Bulldog Stadium.
San Diego State did not have a very good September. Okay, the inexplicable loss to Eastern llinois was in August, but that just goes to show that month wasn't great, either. The Aztecs were supposed to be preseason conference contenders, yet ineffectiveness and injuries threatened to end the season before it really began.
However, the season doesn't end in September, and San Diego has slowly rounded into form in the last few weeks. An ugly win over New Mexico State brought a silver lining in the form of Donnell Pumphrey. A wild overtime tilt with Nevada, followed by a business-like win over Air Force, showed they were capable of exploiting subpar defenses. They may not have expected to be .500, but it is far better than it looked not so long ago.
Fresno is a different caliber of opponent, the front-runner for the non-AQ BCS berth that Aztec faithful dreamt of themselves eight weeks prior. This is a rivalry game, though, with both the Oil Can Trophy and the inside track in the West division on the line. Winning this game is critical for both teams, as the season will look very different for each depending on the outcome.
What to watch - San Diego State: The offense is not as explosive as other teams in the Mountain West, but Quinn Kaehler has very quietly entrenched himself among the top half of the conference's quarterbacks. He hasn't had to do it alone, though: Adam Muema has gotten healthy enough to resemble the hammer he was in 2012, while Pumphrey has been an excellent change-of-pace back. Their ability to control the pace of the game was absent in the team's initial losing streak and has been a big part of their recent success.
Maintaining offensive balance will be crucial because the Aztecs offensive line has been shaky in more obvious passing situations. Kaehler has been sacked 13 times in 5 starts, trailing only Brett Smith in the conference, and his effectiveness drops on third down. Fresno's pass rush has been better able to cover for the secondary's adventures recently, so giving the quarterback enough time to connect with Ezell Ruffin or Colin Lockett when a big third-down play is needed could be considered a potential turning point.
On defense, the Aztecs will have to find a way to be as opportunistic as they were against the 'Dogs last year, and then figure out how to protect the lead if they do so. San Diego returned two Derek Carr passes for scores in 2012, but were otherwise torched for over 500 yards through the air. This will be easier said than done, of course, since fumble luck (8 of 10 recovered thus far) is inherently unpredictable and the team has mustered just one interception in 2013. Even keeping the turnover margin even -- San Diego has the worst differential in the MWC-- can give the Aztecs a fighting chance.
What to watch - Fresno State: The offense keeps on humming, but the Bulldogs may have finally found the balance that allows it to jump from threatening to lethal. The running game has piled up over 200 yards in each of the last three games, with Marteze Waller earning the lion's share of carries and Josh Quezada pitching in with a dozen carries of his own. Their contributions will be needed, especially when Fresno needs tough yards of their own, because San Diego has only given up six first downs on 17 third-and-short (3 yards or less) rushing attempts.
On the other hand, Derek Carr may take a cue from Sean Mannion and Cody Fajardo and elect to take matters into his own hands by getting the ball to his playmakers. The Aztecs have shown little ability to stop above-average quarterbacks from moving the ball at will, so a game plan with 50 or more passes would not be surprising. If Fresno strikes quickly, they could have the game in hand much as they did against Las Vegas last weekend and coast to an easy win.