San Diego State Aztecs vs Fresno State Bulldogs – Week 9/Game Preview

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Credit: MW Wire

San Diego State Aztecs vs. Fresno State Bulldogs

Dignity Health Sports Park – Carson, CA

Kickoff: Saturday, October 30 @ 730pm

TV: CBS Sports Network

#20/21 San Diego State returns home after a successful two-game road trip to play Fresno State in the battle for the “Old Oil Can” Trophy on Saturday night. 

The “Old Oil Can” was coined as the result of a joint contest in 2011 to name the annual rivalry game between the two teams. The winning entry described the discovery of an oil can from Fresno that was supposedly recovered during a San Diego State campus building project. 

“The oil can likely came from a time when Aztec and Bulldog fans traveled to football games between the two schools via the old, twisting, precipitous Grapevine section of Highway 99 over Tejon Pass,” said Jacquelyn K. Glasener, executive director of the Fresno State Alumni Association.

The trophy currently resides in San Diego as the Aztecs won the last matchup in 2019. Last season’s game was canceled due to COVID-19 contact tracing within the Bulldogs football program. 

“Right now, we’ve got the ‘Old Oil Can,’ and we’d like to keep it,” Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke said on Tuesday. The trophy represents a “symbol to us,” said Aztecs tight end Daniel Bellinger. “We can’t let them take it from us.” Bellinger discussed how losing to Fresno State in his freshman year and watching them run around on their field with the trophy “left a sickening feeling in our stomachs.” 

Aztecs kicker/punter Matt Araiza noted that while they want to win this game and keep the trophy another year, “it is part of the path to winning the conference trophy, which means a lot more to us.”

Credit: NCAA Logos

The Aztecs are 7-0 for the first time since 1975 and for only the fourth time in their Division I era. They are one of nine remaining unbeaten teams out of 130 FBS schools. 

This matchup pits the two teams selected to finish third and fourth in the West Division this season. While the Bulldogs were picked fourth behind the Aztecs, unlike SDSU, they received one first-place vote. 

The Aztecs currently lead the West Division standings at 3-0, while the Bulldogs are in second place at 3-1. The winner of this game will be atop the division with four weeks remaining. 

Fresno State was ranked as high as 18th earlier this season but dropped out of the Top 25 after a loss at Hawaii. While the Bulldogs did not receive any votes in the AP Poll this week, they received ten votes in the Coaches Poll, which would put them as the 34th ranked team.

The Aztecs are one-point favorites in the matchup. 

Opponent Information

Team: Fresno State Bulldogs

City: Fresno, CA

2021 Record: 6-2 (3-1)

Series Record Against SDSU: 25-30-4


Head coach Kalen DeBoer is in his second season in charge of the Fresno State football team. He previously served as the offensive coordinator at Fresno State in 2017 and 2018 before departing for one year as offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019. His coaching stops also include Eastern Michigan, Southern Illinois, and Sioux Falls. DeBoer was an All-American wide receiver at Sioux Falls from 1993  through 1996 and transitioned from graduate assistant to offensive coordinator to head coach in 2005.

The Bulldogs offense returned almost all of the production from its Mountain West-leading 479.3 yards of total offense last year. Their 481.5 total yards per game through seven games this season is 11th in the nation. 

The offense is led by senior quarterback Jake Haener, who has thrown for 2,582 passing yards (3rd in FBS) and 22 touchdowns (6th in FBS). In an upset victory against UCLA earlier this season, Haener threw for 455 yards. Aztecs safety Cedarious Barfield called Haener a “gunslinger” during his appearance at the Tuesday press conference. Coach Hoke praised Haener’s ability to extend plays with his athleticism, much like San Jose State quarterback Nick Nash was able to do the past two years. 

Junior wide receiver Jalen Cropper leads the receivers with 580 receiving yards and ten touchdowns, including four against UNLV, a single-game program record. He also became the first Bulldogs receiver to catch a touchdown in at least six consecutive games since Davante Adams, who holds the record with nine-straight games.

The Bulldogs possess two explosive running backs in Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims, who have totaled 891 rushing yards and chipped in 38 receptions out of the backfield. This will be the Aztecs’ first true test against a balanced yet explosive offense this season.

(AP Photo/Andy Nelson)

The Bulldogs have a great defense as well. They play a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, similar to the Aztecs 3-3-5, which utilizes an extra player in the secondary instead of the front (linemen and linebackers) found in standard defenses. 

The Bulldogs defense averages three sacks (16th in FBS) and eight tackles for loss (2nd in FBS) per game. Coach Hoke pointed to these statistics that show how well-coached and physical they are defensively. 

The Bulldogs completed their non-conference schedule at 3-1, including a huge road victory at then #13 UCLA, 40-37. Their lone non-conference loss was at current #7 Oregon in a close game, 31-24. The Bulldogs fumbled the ball five times and lost three, including one late in the fourth quarter when the game was tied at 24. 

Their conference schedule began with a close win against UNLV and a loss at Hawaii. They bounced back with wins against Wyoming and Nevada. In their 34-32 victory against Nevada this past Saturday, their offense made big plays in the run and pass game. Rivers scored on a 64-yard touchdown run, while Mims rushed for a career-high 134 yards, two touchdowns, and was named Mountain West offensive player of the week. 

Turnovers have played a crucial role in the Bulldogs’ outcomes this season. In their two losses against Oregon and Hawaii, they committed nine turnovers (four interceptions and five fumbles lost) which directly led to thirty-four points by their opponents in games they lost by a combined ten points. 

They flipped the script against Wyoming, forcing five turnovers (four interceptions and a fumble) and scoring all 17 of the points in the game off them. Overall, they have a -1 turnover margin on the season.

Players to Know

Senior running back Ronnie Rivers (#20). 

The super senior running back was selected to the First Team All-Conference in 2020. He was named on the Preseason Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists. In their opening game of the season against UConn, Rivers became the Bulldogs’ leader in career touchdowns on a 61-yard reception. Earlier this season, he moved into third all-time at Fresno State with 4,458 all-purpose yards, passing his father along the way. In that upset victory, Rivers rushed for 144 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns. He is the sixth player in Fresno State history to accumulate 3,000 yards rushing in his career. 

Senior defensive end Arron Mosby (#3).

The 6’4, 246lb lineman has been a menace to opposing offenses this season. In the season’s first game, he forced and recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. He collected three and a half tackles for loss against Oregon, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble against UNLV. He leads the team with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries and is second with ten tackles for loss on the season.


The Aztecs defense entered the game against Air Force with the best rushing defense in the nation, allowing only 61.2 rushing yards per game. Air Force rushed for 192 rushing yards in the game, more than triple the amount the Aztecs defense was allowing. On the surface, one would surmise that the Aztecs’ defense played poorly. Nothing could be further from the truth, given they held Air Force to 145 rushing yards below their FBS leading average. The Aztecs now sit at fourth in FBS, allowing 79.9 rushing yards per game. 

After stopping the nation’s top rush offense, the Aztecs now take on the challenge of stopping the nation’s 9th best pass offense in Fresno State. Coach Hoke called it a “definite 180” when asked about the difference in styles between Air Force and Fresno State during his appearance on ESPN on Tuesday. 

Credit: USA Today Sports

The Aztecs defense did, however, improve two other top defensive metrics after the Air Force game, now only allowing 15.7 points (7th in FBS) and 279.4 total yards per game (5th in FBS). They also held their 29th straight opponent to fewer than 450 yards of total offense, the longest active streak in the nation.

Junior defensive end Cameron Thomas continues to spark the defense. Thomas has the fifth-best defensive rating in the nation per Pro Football Focus among players with 300 snaps. He has the most quarterback hits in the nation (14) and leads the team in tackles for loss (11) and quarterback hurries (13). 

Safety Patrick McMorris leads the team with 47 total tackles, 13 tackles ahead of Thomas, who is second on the team. 

For the second consecutive game, the Aztecs offense was unable to reach 200 rushing yards after doing so in each of the first five games. Their season average is still at 207 yards per game, 27th best in FBS. Four different running backs received at least six carries and amassed at least 32 yards against Air Force. Chance Bell led the way with 50 rushing yards. In the season, Greg Bell still leads the team in rushing with 603 yards and five touchdowns. 

Quarterback Lucas Johnson won his third game as a starter this season but continued to struggle making plays in the passing game. He completed 11 of 13 passes but for a total of 72 yards and was only able to garner one net rushing yard on the evening. Coach Hoke said on Monday during an interview with XTRA 1360 that Johnson played better in the second half against Air Force once “he got his feet under him.” 

The Aztecs have won all seven games this season, relying primarily on the running game and defense, but at some point in the very near future and possibly as early as this Saturday. Their passing offense will need to step up and win a game for them if they want to achieve their goal of winning the 22nd conference championship. 

Punter Matt Araiza continues to lead FBS with a 54 yard average per punt, which would be a FBS single-season record ahead of Braden Mann’s 51.0 average in 2018 if it stays at that mark through the end of the season. With his two punts of greater than 60 yards against Air Force, he tied the FBS single-season record of 14, previously held by Mann, and has five games to become the sole record leader. This season, Araiza has made three of five field-goal attempts from 50 yards or more and has been the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week for the past two weeks. 

Injury Updates

Wide receiver Kobe Smith continues to miss action after suffering injuries from a car accident before the Towson game. His future status remains unknown. The Aztecs were also with left tackle Zach Thomas against Air Force. If he is unable to play again this week, it is likely that Desmond Bessent will get his second straight start replacing Thomas. While Greg Bell was held out of the first half against Air Force, coach Hoke stated on Monday this week in an interview with XTRA 1360 that Bell was “fine and doing great.” 

The Bulldogs’ Rivers sustained an injury on his 64-yard touchdown run against Nevada and did not return to the game. He was expected to practice this week, but his official status for Saturday’s game is unknown.  

Opponent’s San Diego Connection

  • Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Batton attended Palomar College
  • Sophomore defensive back Chrishawn Gordon attended Valley Center High
  • Senior linebacker Tyson Maeva attended San Diego Cathedral Catholic High
  • Sophomore offensive lineman Elijah Carson attended Morse High
  • Freshman tight end Kamron Beachem attended Oceanside High
  • Senior defensive tackle Kevin Atkins attended Vista Murrieta High
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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America's Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.
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