Before diving into this week’s keys, let us revisit last week’s three keys to victory against Boise State and how they impacted the SDSU Aztecs’ victory.
Win the Red Zone battle
Both teams were perfect in scoring on their red zone chances (Aztecs 4-4, Broncos 3-3). After scoring touchdowns on their first two red zone drives, the Broncos had to settle for a field goal on their third, arguably the most important drive of the game. With the Broncos ahead 13-3 in the second quarter, the Aztecs’ unsuccessful fake punt gave the Broncos the ball at the Aztecs 31-yard line with a chance to make it 20-3. After one first down took the ball inside the red zone and eventually to the five-yard line, the Aztecs defense held firm and forced a 22-yard field goal to keep the game within two scores. The Broncos did not score the rest of the game.
The Aztecs settled for field goals on their first two trips to the red zone, although the second trip came at the end of the first half and was kicked on third down. The Aztecs took the first two drives of the second half into the red zone and finished both with touchdowns for a 27-16 lead. If they would have settled for field goals on one or both of those drives, the rest of the second half would have been played much differently.
Win the turnover margin
The Aztecs forced three interceptions in the game and did not commit a turnover themselves, holding a +3 turnover margin against the team tied for the second-best margin in the nation. Boise State is now 1-4 when they lose the turnover margin this season. SDSU won its 28th straight game when forcing at least three turnovers and its seventh straight game when not committing a turnover.
Win the “Middle 8”
The trend with the “Middle 8” scoring determining the outcome of a Boise State game this season continued. Jordon Brookshire entered the game with 3:04 remaining in the first half and led the Aztecs to a quick ten points before halftime. “They hit some first down shots and got some momentum going,” said Boise State head coach Andy Avalos postgame.
While the offense did not score in the first four minutes of the second half, it took the opening drive 75 yards and scored a touchdown with 9:26 remaining in the quarter. The “Middle 8” period completely turned the game around for the Aztecs, coinciding with the insertion of Brookshire for an injured Lucas Johnson. The Aztecs now hold a 65-7 scoring advantage over its opponents this season during the “Middle 8.”
The victory over Boise State clinched the West Division and gave the Aztecs the right to host the conference championship game this Saturday against Utah State. Here are the three keys to winning the conference championship.
Rush for 200 yards
Utah State head coach Blake Anderson mentioned during his weekly press conference last week that the biggest concern for his team heading into the season was the physical mismatches on the offensive and defensive lines against some of their bigger opponents. He added the struggles could continue “until we can recruit bigger, develop bigger…bring some guys along.” That lack of size has proved evident in losses to physical teams such as Boise State, BYU, and Wyoming this season. In particular, they allowed 362 rushing yards in their loss to the Cowboys.
The Aztecs rushed for greater than 200 yards in each of their first five games and improved to 52-2 the last 54 times they rushed for that mark. The Aztecs have yet to reach 200 rushing yards since. There is no better time than Saturday for the Aztecs to get back to their dominant running ways, given the size advantage at the line of scrimmage.
Hold the Aggies to less than 33% third-down conversions
Utah State is 24th in the nation, converting 44.6% (87 of 195) of its third downs. The Aztecs’ defense has held its opponents to only 31% (61 of 195) conversion on third downs. The Aztecs are 54-5 the last 59 times they have held opponents to 33% or less third-down conversions. In order for the Aztecs’ defense to shut down the Aggies high-powered offense, it will need to keep them in third and long situations in order to make it tougher for Utah State to convert first downs.
The fewer snaps the defense is on the field early in the game will lead to fresher legs, especially on the defensive line, making the pass rush in the fourth quarter even more formidable. The Aztecs line collected four sacks in the fourth quarter last week against Boise State.
Get Jordan Byrd involved
On the surface, the most dynamic weapon on the San Diego State team appears to have had a great season, selected to First Team All-Conference as kick returner. Digging deeper into the statistics might show that Byrd’s production and involvement, especially on the offensive side, has not been as pronounced as expected.
Byrd scored a touchdown on a 100-yard kickoff return against Utah in the third game of the season but has yet to break another one for a score since. He also does not have a punt return greater than 19 yards on the season.
The head-scratcher, though, has been his lack of involvement in the offense. For the season, he rushed for 245 yards on 34 carries and caught 11 passes for 77 yards. In the two games he received more than four carries in, he produced 75 yards (2 touchdowns) against Towson and 32 yards against Air Force. He received zero carries against Nevada and only one for two yards against Boise State, although his 47 yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter against UNLV showed the explosiveness he possesses that this offense has lacked most of the season.
A big, explosive play by Byrd in the run game, the pass game, or on special teams will give the Aztecs the extra boost they need to win their 22nd conference championship.