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San Diego State vs. Fresno State preview: Keys to reclaiming the Oil Can

The Aztecs are heavy favorites Friday night, so how can the Bulldogs pull an upset for homecoming?

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

WEEK 7: San Diego State Aztecs (4-1, 1-0 Mountain West) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (1-5, 0-2 MWC)

WHEN: Friday, October 14 — 7:30 PM PT

WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)

TV: CBS Sports Network

RADIO: The broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM.

SERIES RECORD: San Diego State leads the series, 28-23-4. In the last meeting on October 3, 2015, the Aztecs won 21-7.

WEBSITES: GoBulldogs.com, the official Fresno State athletics website | GoAztecs.com, the official San Diego State athletics website

FOOTBALL STUDY HALL TEAM PROFILES: Fresno State | San Diego State

The Fresno State Bulldogs are facing a bleak second half.

This isn’t just figurative, either. It’s anyone’s guess as to how many fans will bother to show up for homecoming on Friday, what with rain in the forecast and the Big Fresno Fair in full swing (get your Big & Rich tickets now!) and a full slate of high school games across the Central Valley, as well. Just how much of an open revolt there is remains to be seen.

Stemming the slide in a rivalry game, reclaiming the Oil Can Trophy from the West division’s best team, doesn’t seem likely... but it isn’t impossible. It’ll take continued growth, as head coach Tim DeRuyter argued earlier this week, and catching a break or two. And weirder things have happened this season: No one expected South Alabama to pull another stunner against this San Diego State team, either.

Three keys to a Fresno State win

Throw early and hope you’re successful. The San Diego State defense doesn’t have all that many weaknesses, especially in its vaunted secondary. The Aztecs have held opposing QBs to an overall rating of just 119.26, the best figure in the Mountain West, but the splits reveal some interesting details: In the first quarter, that rating jumps 136.68, which is still modest but nonetheless provides some evidence that the ‘Dogs may want to push with Chason Virgil early.

This, of course, will be easier said than done. SDSU has picked off eight passes and allowed just 6.6 yards per pass on the whole, and allowed just a 52.6% completion rate in first quarters, the last of which is just outside the top 20 nationally.

Throwing on first down deserves a lot of consideration, too, as the numbers suggest both that the Aztecs secondary gets better with each successive down (147.82 to 134 to 69.41) and Chason Virgil gets worse (129.87 to 129.53 to 77.4). The downside is that, if Virgil can’t find success early, this game could get ugly in a hurry, but it’s probably still Fresno State’s best option.

Don’t let Donnel Pumphrey salt the game away late. This, too, is a tall task, considering that the Bulldogs have faced more rushing attempts in the fourth quarter of games. And it may not surprise you to learn that this team has continued to break when pushed late: They’ve allowed 551 rushing yards and 5.62 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter. For the sake of perspective, that’s better than the nine best 4th-quarter run defenses combined.

It’s no secret, though, that Donnel Pumphrey has been a late-game weapon, averaging 8.57 yards per carry in those last 15 minutes. Stopping #19 is paramount in every situation, obviously, but if the game is close late, the Bulldogs might as well try to sneak an extra defender or three onto the field to slow Pumphrey down.

Keep Chason Virgil on his feet. Beating this Aztecs defense isn’t likely to come from screens and like-minded plays. The Bulldogs will need to find big plays, which has been a modest surprise in this year’s offense despite a lack of efficiency: Eighteen plays of 20-plus yards puts them in a tie for fourth in the MWC. The first time Virgil is taken down, however, fans are likely to experience flashbacks to last year, when Zack Greenlee ran for his life seemingly every play.

The offensive line played perhaps its best game of the year last Saturday in Reno, but the Aztecs have a better version of Malik Reed in defensive end Alex Barrett. The senior has five sacks in 2016, which nearly matches the 5.5 he tallied a year ago, and his play (along with that of fellow end Kyle Kelley) has freed the linebackers to terrorize skill position plays all over the field.

It’ll be interesting to see how often Rocky Long turns his linebackers loose on this offensive line and trusts his secondary to make plays on the back end. Regardless, keep an eye on how often offensive tackles Christian Cronk and David Patterson get pushed, or how often they get help from a running back or tight end on blitz protection. How they play could give Virgil happy feet if they can’t keep him clean.