San Diego State comes into the Mountain West Football Championship Game on a roll, but wounded. The Aztecs swept through the conference and finished 8-0 en route to the West Division berth. However, the Aztecs also come in limping after two significant injuries, one on each side of the ball. First, starting quarterback Maxwell Smith, who had not thrown an interception since a loss at Penn State, tore his ACL in the first quarter last week against Nevada. Then later in the first half defensive tackle Christian Heyward went down with a torn MCL and ACL.
The Aztecs will need everyone to step up their play on both sides of the ball in order to compensate for the loss of these two players. Here are five players that will be key for a San Diego State victory.
1. Donnel Pumphrey (Running Back)
It's not a secret the Aztecs are going to run the ball. Everyone knows it and still the Aztec running game can't be stopped. San Diego State is averaging 235.7 yards per game on the ground and Pumphrey is a huge part of that. More than half of the 2,828 yards the Aztecs have picked up on the ground this season have come from Pumphrey. The junior is an integral part of the Aztecs offense due to his big play ability. With Smith not playing in this game redshirt freshman Christian Chapman will now be called into duty. If Pumphrey can control the game on the ground that will alleviate pressure from Chapman and open up things through the air.
2. Christian Chapman (Quarterback)
Chapman came in last week and went 6-9 for 44 yards. This week the Aztecs will need Chapman to be more of a threat passing the ball in order to keep Air Force from selling out to stop the run. Chapman doesn't need to be spectacular; he just needs to protect the ball, limit turnovers and manage the game offensively.
3. Kwayde Miller (Left Tackle)
Miller is the starting left tackle and will be charged with protecting Chapman's blind side. Young quarterbacks are sometimes prone to making mistakes that come with lack of experience like: holding on to the ball too long, not moving around in the pocket, and not sensing the pressure. Miller needs to keep the pocket clean for Chapman, giving him time to find the open receiver when he does go back to throw.
4. Jake Fely (Linebacker)
With the triple option it is important to maintain your gaps and make sure that you don't allow the play to turn up field. Fely is one of the best players in containing the run game. Coach Rocky Long will have his players ready for the triple option and you can expect Fely to be an important part of that defense.
5. Damontae Kazee (Cornerback)
Air Force quarterback Karson Roberts has thrown more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9) this season including three last week against New Mexico. Kazee leads the Aztecs in interceptions (7), pass deflections (14), and solo tackles (51).
He's capable of coming up and tackling running backs as well as staying with the receiver in coverage. He could be a major disruptor of the Air Force offense with his ability to do both things well. Kazee could very well be the most important defensive key to a victory for an Aztec defense that leads the nation in turnover margin (20).
The loss of Heyward and Smith should create an interesting game in what otherwise could have been a favorable matchup for the Aztecs. The offensive line and running game will be key in allowing Chapman time to move the ball through the air, while stopping the run and creating turnovers will allow for the Aztecs defense to continue to dominate.
Should San Diego State continue rolling as it has been all conference season then the Aztecs will be Mountain West Champions.