Every Saturday at 12:30, the Southeastern Conference puts one of its biggest games on CBS. In the South, it’s a MAJOR deal. It’s where Chris Davis returned the Kick-6 to win the Iron Bowl and Johnny Manziel dismantled Alabama to win a Heisman Trophy.
In college football this space is hallowed ground. This weekend, 5th-ranked Texas A&M and resurgent Ole Miss were supposed to take it but the Aggies are having COVID-19 issues and don’t have enough scholarship athletes available to play the game. So, which game is filling the slot?
San Diego State at Nevada.
It’ll be the first major TV appearance for the Aztecs since 2008, when they nearly upset Notre Dame on NBC. It’ll be a huge opportunity for them to grab some recognition from both Top-25 voters and potential recruits outside the west coast. They’re getting this chance for several reasons. One is SDSU is 3-1 while Nevada is 4-0 so it’s a compelling game.
Another is the Aztecs have done a fantastic job of following pandemic protocols and sometimes the best ability in sports is availability.
“You talk about social distancing we were literally, early, hitting bags only six yards apart,” says SDSU head coach Brady Hoke. “We couldn’t put a running back next to a quarterback because it was too close in an offset backfield. So, we’ve come a long way.”
The players and coaches continue to meet virtually and live in “pods” to cut down on social interactions. It obviously hasn’t impacted the Aztecs running game. San Diego State has the nation’s 4th-most potent rushing attack.
The passing game, however, is still a work in progress.
SDSU is 114th in the country throwing the ball. Starter Carson Baker was replaced by dual threat transfer Lucas Johnson last week against Hawaii. The Aztecs had just 30 yards passing in the whole game, and still won 34-10 because they ran for more than 300 yards. That’s quite a feat when they were looking at nine or even 10 defenders near the line of scrimmage for much of the game.
“Oh, we’re used to a stacked box, just because of our reputation, especially those first two games,” says offensive lineman Jacob Capra. “It comes down to doing your job and being part of a machine that operates well.”
They went for 287 yards against New Mexico then gouged Utah State for 407 on the ground. Finding a little balance could open things up even more.
“I do love the fact that our running game, our backs and offensive line, have done a nice job but there’s no question that during the course of the year people are going to keep stacking it up until we really prove to them we can get the ball down the field,” says Hoke.
Getting the ball down the field is what Nevada does best. The Wolfpack have the nation’s 2nd-best passing offense, led by sophomore Carson Strong. The best way to neutralize an air attack is to get the QB on the ground as fast and often as possible.
Good thing the Aztecs have a solid pass rush, ranking 12th in the nation in sacks per game.
“This quarterback has definitely got an arm, he’s got the accuracy, he’s a good pocket passer,” says defensive lineman Jonah Tavai. “We’ve just gotta get home and affect him.”
A win in this game puts the Aztecs in the hunt for a Mountain West Conference championship game appearance. A loss very likely means their hopes for a title shot are gone.