The San Diego State Aztecs travel to Fresno to take on the Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday night.
The annual Battle for the Old Oil Can Trophy pits two of the three teams atop the West Division of the Mountain West (MW) at 2-1 (San Jose State is the third.)
The two schools were the only teams that received first-place votes for the division in the Preseason Media Poll. Fresno State was picked to win (20 first-place votes), while San Diego State was picked to finish second (eight first-place votes.)
The Aztecs and Bulldogs were the only FBS teams in California to win double-digit games in 2021. SDSU picked up its first road victory of the year against Nevada last weekend, and both teams enter riding two-game winning streaks.
After starting the season 1-3 in non-conference play (including a 19-14 loss at Uconn) under new head coach Jeff Tedford (who was a previous head coach at Fresno State from 2016-2019) and losing starting quarterback Jake Haener to a severe high ankle sprain in the third game of the season, the chances for the Bulldogs contending for the West Division crown looked bleak.
An opening conference loss at Boise State, 40-20, further punctuated that notion. However, the Bulldogs rebounded with an impressive victory at home against San Jose State (17-10) and destroyed New Mexico (41-9) this past weekend in Albuquerque to reach their current standing.
In a three-team race for the West Division, a Bulldogs victory over the Aztecs this week would give FSU the upper hand, given their tiebreaker advantage over both contenders. The Aztecs and Spartans will play in San Diego on November 12th.
The Old Oil Can Trophy currently resides in Fresno after the Bulldogs’ 30-20 victory over the Aztecs in Carson last year. The Bulldogs amassed 485 total yards against the vaunted Aztecs’ defense and capitalized on three turnovers from SDSU quarterback Lucas Johnson.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – Fresno State
Two starts for Jalen Mayden at quarterback. Two wins for SDSU. After a 322-yd passing performance in his first start, Mayden was held in check in that department against Nevada (only 156 passing yards), but a 32-yd touchdown run reminded viewers of another left-handed quarterback who terrorized defenses in college football and the NFL: Michael Vick.
Through two games, Mayden has completed 36 of 61 passes for 478 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions while rushing for 59 yards and a touchdown.
Even with the offensive improvement under Mayden, SDSU has not climbed the FBS rankings much in the past two games. They rank 115th in scoring offense (19.14), 126th in passing offense (115.14), 123rd in total offense (289.29), and 128th in third down conversion percentage (25.51%).
Improvement in two critical areas that continue to plague the Aztecs’ offense – red zone touchdowns and penalties – could unlock the full potential of the new-look offense under offensive coordinator Jeff Horton.
Since Horton took over as OC, SDSU has had seven red zone attempts and only scored one touchdown. In their final three games under Jeff Hecklinski, they had four attempts and put two of them in the end zone. Overall, the Aztecs have only scored six touchdowns in 19 red zone trips, a poor 32% rate. In contrast, their opponents have scored 13 touchdowns on the same number of red zone trips (19), a 68% rate.
The Aztecs are 124th in FBS, committing 8.43 penalties per game. While that number is not entirely from the offensive side of the ball, the brunt of the impact has been from pre-snap penalties from the offensive line, including six false starts against Nevada this past weekend. The team is averaging 5.7 false start penalties in three road games this season.
“It’s bothersome,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said about the high number of false starts. “We need to be more disciplined. We’ll have crowd noise (during practice) this week (to help).”
Hoke attributed some of the false starts to young offensive linemen trying to get too good of a start off the ball and added that the defensive line is trying to help in practice simulating some of the pre-snap movement that opposing defensive lines show in games.
Given a louder and more raucous crowd is expected in Fresno on Saturday night than the recent game at Nevada, the Aztecs could ill-afford a high number again. In contrast, Fresno State only commits 4.43 penalties per game, good for 13th in the country.
Starting right guard, Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli returned from a three-game absence due to injury against Nevada. Both he and stating left tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson did not start the game but entered on the third drive and played the remainder of the game. Hoke did not provide a reason why both players did not start when asked during Tuesday’s press conference.
Jordan Byrd’s 337 rushing yards and three touchdowns lead the team. Chance Bell, recovering from an elbow injury that requires the use of a brace during practice and games, has had the most success running the ball over the past two games with 108 yards on 19 carries (5.7ypc.)
Jaylon Armstead, whose 10.6ypc led FBS prior to an ankle injury, returned to the field against Nevada but only played on special teams. Hoke said on Tuesday that Armstead is probably at only 85% and was not quite ready for running back snaps yet.
Key Player – Tyrell Shavers, Wide Receiver 6-6, 2100lbs
Shavers leads the team with 250 receiving yards and two touchdowns, but more than half of those yards came in the game against Hawai’i. The former Mississippi State teammates, Shavers and Mayden, look to have a comfort level together. Given SDSU’s struggles to find the end zone when reaching the goal line, the 6-6 receiver should have a decided advantage in jump ball and fade passes at the goal line against a Fresno State secondary that does not start anyone over 5-11.
The Bulldogs’ defense is on a roll over the past two victories, only allowing a combined 19 points and one touchdown. In six total red zone opportunities in the two games, the defense has allowed only four field goals. They have also collected ten tackles for loss in each game.
“Coach Coyle and the defensive staff are doing a good job of putting a plan together, and some of our younger kids are starting to get a better feel for the game and executing,” said Tedford. “(They are) playing really hard and running to the ball.”
In their most recent game, the Bulldogs held the Lobos to 138 total yards and did not allow a touchdown in a game for the first time since October 16, 2021.
Overall, the Bulldogs are 21st in pass defense (189.14), 41st in total defense (351.29), 36th in sacks (2.57), and 24th in tackles for loss (6.71.)
They are one of 21 schools in the country this season with ten or more players with at least one sack.
Cornerback Bralyn Lux leads the secondary with seven pass breakups and is tied for first with one interception. His 34 tackles are tied for second on the team with safety Elijah Gates, who was injured against New Mexico and awaiting MRI results to determine his future playing status.
Linebacker Levelle Bailey leads the team with 50 tackles to go with four tackles for loss.
Tedford bemoaned the lack of turnovers forced by his defense on the season and mentioned a few dropped interceptions in recent games. “We are in position to make plays, so sooner or later, they have to come,” he said.
The team has forced four turnovers (two interceptions and two fumble recoveries), the third-lowest total by an FBS team this season.
Key player – David Perales, Defensive End, 6-3, 255lbs
The senior is off to a remarkable start in 2022 after being named to the Preseason Rotary Lombardi Award Watch List. In last year’s matchup, Perales had seven tackles and one tackle for loss. This season, Perales leads the MW in sacks with 6.5 (8th best in FBS) and is second in tackles for loss (nine). He is the likely leading candidate for MW Defensive Player of the Year thus far.
When Fresno State has the ball: Advantage – Fresno State
Without his current injury, all the talk about the Bulldogs’ offense would start with Haener, the Mountain West Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. After his former head coach departed for Washington at the conclusion of the 2021 season, Haener entered the transfer portal and reportedly was headed for a reunion back to Washington (Haener’s collegiate career started at Washington.)
In a surprising move, Haener ended up returning to Fresno State once Tedford was hired. A high ankle sprain sustained over a month ago at USC has kept Haener out for the past four games and will again this week. Given the severity of the injury and his aspirations of entering the 2023 NFL Draft, it is possible he does not return at all this season.
Three other Bulldogs’ offensive players made it on the Preseason All-Conference Team alongside Haener – wide receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper, running back Jordan Mims, and right tackle Dontae Bull.
Sophomore Logan Fife replaced Haener after his injury and started the four games since, completing 84 of 120 passes for 892 yards. His 70% completion rate is 13th in FBS and first in the MW. Fife has struggled with turnovers, throwing six interceptions to only two touchdowns.
“(Fife) keeps his poise and composure (under pressure),” said Tedford when asked about Fife’s strengths. “The more he plays, the more he is going to get comfortable.”
Against New Mexico, Fife ran for two touchdowns (2, 30) on read-option plays where he faked the handoff to the running back up the middle and carried it himself down the left side.
Mims is 8th in career rushing yards (2,565) in program history after rushing for 647 yards this season. His seven touchdowns lead the team. In last year’s contest against SDSU, Mims rushed for 186 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns.
Backup running back Malik Sherrod has 230 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and his 5.5ypc are higher than Mims’ 4.9.
Wide receiver Nikko Remigio (transfer from Cal) has added another dimension to the Bulldogs’ offense, catching 33 passes for 357 yards and one touchdown.
Fresno State is 91st in FBS in scoring offense (25.14), 73rd in total offense (389.29), and 54th in third down conversion rate (41.67%).
Key player – Jalen Moreno-Cropper, Wide Receiver, 6-0, 180lbs
Cropper added Moreno to the name on the back of his jersey this year to honor his late grandfather, who passed away in 2020 and was one of his biggest influences. Cropper, who was listed on the Biletnikoff Award and Wuerffel Trophy Watch Lists, had six catches for 84 yards against the Aztecs last year before an injury ended his day early. Cropper has 2,119 career receiving yards, becoming the 13th player in program history to surpass 2,000. In 2022, Cropper has 45 catches for 504 yards and one touchdown.
The Aztecs’ defense looked like its usual dominant self against Nevada, holding the Wolf Pack to only seven points and 227 total yards, including only 35 rushing yards on 21 carries. Most impressive, though, were the ten tackles for loss (Aztecs came in ranked 101st in FBS but are now 70th) and 17 quarterback hurries.
The return of linebacker Michael Shawcroft sparked the defense and earned Shawcroft the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week award for his performance. Shawcroft made a team-high seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and forced a fumble on the second play of the game that safety Patrick McMorris returned for a touchdown. Shawcroft leads the team with 42 tackles, six tackles for loss, and three sacks (tied with Jonah Tavai) for the season.
The performance against Nevada boosted most of SDSU’s statistical rankings, now ranked 60th in FBS, allowing 370.29 yards per game, 33rd allowing 21.43 points per game, and 73rd allowing 147.86 rushing yards per game.
A positional change likely played a large role in the performance of the defense. Senior linebacker Caden McDonald, who was moved to middle linebacker (MIKE) at the start of spring camp after earning All-Conference honors last year playing strong-side outside linebacker (SAM), moved back to SAM this week.
When asked about the move, Hoke said it was something the staff saw during the bye week that would be best for McDonald and the defense. “(Caden) is more comfortable as an outside linebacker (vice playing in the middle of the field),” Hoke said. “He is more functional and feels better playing there.”
Senior defensive end Keshawn Banks played his best game of the season against Nevada collecting his first 3.5 tackles for loss on the year. “It felt good to go out there and make plays and contribute to all our team’s hard work,” said Banks during Tuesday’s press conference.
Banks also noted that the defense is closely analyzing the game film from last year’s matchup that saw the Bulldogs rack up 485 total yards.
“They (are) essentially doing the same thing,” Banks said. “They are getting the ball out fast, they are slinging the rock, running the ball. They are relying on their o-line and their quarterback … We are using it as fuel as well. We didn’t play well (in last year’s game), and we are using it for correction.”
Safeties CJ Baskerville and Patrick McMorris are second and third on the team with 36 and 33 tackles, respectively.
Key player – Zyrus Fiaseu, Linebacker 6-0, 230lbs
The redshirt freshman started his second consecutive game in a different position. Against Hawai’i, Fiaseu started at weak-side linebacker (WILL) in place of an injured Shawcroft. With the return of Shawcroft and the transition of Caden McDonald to SAM, Fiaseu started at MIKE against Nevada and shared snaps with senior Seyddrick Lakalaka. He has totaled ten tackles, and three quarterback hurries in his limited action this season but looks to be a mainstay in the starting lineup moving forward. Against a Bulldog offense that likes to utilize the read-option that Boise State exploited the SDSU defense with in the second half of their game four weeks ago, Fiaseu’s discipline and ability to read and react will be tested and could decide the outcome of the game.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
SDSU’s Jack Browning is 12 of 13 on-field goals after connecting on all three attempts against Nevada. His 92.3% accuracy is the highest percentage among MW kickers. Browning is 10th in FBS and 2nd in the MW with a 45.3 yards per punt average and tied for first in FBS and MW with 21 punts inside the 20.
Fresno State placekicker Abraham Montano has made 10 of 14 field goal attempts in 2022 (long of 43) but has made all five attempts in three conference games. Punter Carson King has a 42.9 yards per punt average with eight punts inside the 20.
Remigio, who was 12th nationally in yards per kick return last year at Cal, returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown against UConn. It was the first punt return for a score by a Bulldog since 2013. Remigio’s 21 yards per punt return average ranks 3rd in FBS. The Bulldogs are still looking for their first kickoff return for a score since 2008.
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Fresno State allowed a 63-yd kickoff and 38-yd punt return to New Mexico last week, something the Aztecs and Jordan Byrd can look to exploit in this game.
Date: Saturday, October 29, 2022
Time: 7:30pm PT
Channel: Fox Sports 1
Betting Line: Fresno State -8.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Valley Children’s Stadium (Fresno, CA)
Records: SDSU 4-3 (2-1), Fresno State 3-4 (2-1)
Series: SDSU 30-26-4
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.