How we got here: After dropping their toughest non-conference games, both on the road, the Aztecs returned to form last week as the UNLV Rebels were hapless to stop the Donnel Pumphrey-led ground game. For the Bulldogs, they easily faced one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country and paid the price, as they were blown out by USC, Utah and Nebraska in consecutive weeks. However, Fresno State is coming into this game on a two-game winning streak and a game removed from offensively dismantling New Mexico for a tick under 600 yards.
What both teams have on the line: Fresno State and San Diego State were predicted in the preseason to finish first and second in the MW west division, respectively, and this game will go a far way in deciding who will be playing in the conference championship game. Also, the winner of this game will remain undefeated in conference play and have the edge in the scenario of a tiebreaker.
What to watch for:
1. San Diego State freshman quarterback Nick Bawden
With senior quarterback Quinn Kaehler being sidelined by a shoulder injury, the true freshmen will be thrown into the fire, but that allows for SDSU's playbook to be opened a little bit. With a stronger arm and greater mobility, Bawden will give the Aztecs more options in the passing game. Do not expect head coach Rocky Long to put too much on Bawden, though, as the freshman will most likely play a game manager role and protect the ball. The Aztecs will heavily lean on Pumphrey, Chase Price and the running game.However, if the game situation arises, Bawden can make all the necessary throws.
2. San Diego State's running game vs. Fresno State's defense
Pumphrey will have his number called frequently in this matchup, as the Bulldogs have allowed over 231 rushing yards per game. SDSU's running back duo, especially with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm, will be the focal point of the offensive attack for the Aztecs. The Bulldogs will be looking at the SDSU-OSU game and try to emulate the Beavers game plan to stop the run and force the Aztecs to go to the air.
3. Brian Burrell vs. San Diego State 3-3-5 defense
Burrell has emerged as the full-time starter for Fresno State. He will face one of his toughest tests on Friday against Long's unorthodox defense that gave Derek Carr fits last year. Burrell will have to decipher the multiple disguises that San Diego State will throw at him and will have to evade defenders all night long.
Neither team has the roster or talent to lose the turnover battle and expect to win this game. These two teams are so even across the board that every possession will be at a premium and an untimely mistake can sway the momentum and ultimately the game in a flash. Whoever loses the turnover battle will lose this game.
Outlook: Both teams' offensive strengths lie with their run game. If you are looking for a high-flying shootout, you will be disappointed. This game will come down to which team's offensive linemen can control the trenches, impose their will on the opposition and open holes for their running backs. SDSU, behind Pumphrey and Price, will have the advantage in this area and will wear down the front seven of Fresno State. The Aztecs, who are ranked 35th in the nation in rushing defense at 115.2 yards allowed per game, will be able to win this ground-and-pound match on the road. Burrell, without a strong run game, will not be able to solve Long's defense and that will lead to the ultimate demise of the Bulldogs.
Prediction: San Diego State 30, Fresno State 24