The San Diego State Aztecs remember what the Nevada Wolf Pack did to them last season.
“They beat us up,” Aztecs coach Rocky Long said of the Wolf Pack’s 30-14 victory over the Aztecs on Nov. 1, 2014 at Mackay Stadium. “They beat us on the scoreboard and they beat us up physically.”
The two teams will meet again Saturday night (7:45 p.m., ESPN2) at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. The Aztecs (8-3 overall, 7-0 in the Mountain West) will bring a seven-game winning streak into the final regular season game of the year and have already wrapped up the West Division championship and will meet Air Force in the Mountain West title game Dec. 5. The Wolf Pack (6-5, 4-3) clinched second place with San Jose State’s 40-23 loss to Boise State on Friday night.
“I assume they will have a lot of confidence coming into this game,” said Long of the Wolf Pack. “I’m sure they will try to beat us up again.”
A big reason why the Wolf Pack beat the Aztecs a year ago was the way they controlled San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey. The Pack held the 5-foot-9 Pumphrey to 85 yards on 13 carries and also forced him to lose the ball twice on fumbles. It was the only game in the last eight last year that Pumphrey did not reach 100 yards and score at least one touchdown. “Donnel Pumphrey is the most explosive running back in the Mountain West,” said Brian Polian, who became the first Wolf Pack coach to beat San Diego State last year since Jim Aiken in 1946. “When he hits a crease he can finish it like nobody else in the league.”
Pumphrey, who had 112 yards and a touchdown in a 51-44 overtime win over the Pack in San Diego in 2013, is a huge part of the Aztecs’ offense. He is third in the Mountain West in rushing with 1,310 yards and 14 touchdowns and has also caught 24 passes for 325 yards and two scores from quarterback Maxwell Smith (1,485 yards, 13 touchdowns).
The diminutive Pumphrey, who was the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012 as a senior at Las Vegas’ Canyon Springs High, is adept at running behind a big (average size 6-6, 322 pounds) offensive line. “They are big, they are strong, they mash you and they just wear you down,” Polian said.
The Aztecs have certainly mashed their way through the Mountain West this season, winning all seven of their league games by an average of 26 points. They have won nine league games in a row overall by an average of 25 points (average score 36-11), including a 52-14 thumping of UNLV a week ago. “They are playing with confidence and coaching with confidence right now and deservedly so,” Polian said.
The game against the Wolf Pack means little for the Aztecs. The Aztecs will head to a bowl game after meeting Air Force in the Mountain West championship. But don’t tell Long that this game has little meaning to his Aztecs.
“We’re all in this game,” said Long, who is 40-23 in five seasons at San Diego State. “We’re going to try to win. If this was a playoff system, I might rest my starters. But this is not a playoff system. We’re going to try to win this game like any other game. Our kids like to play football.”
The Aztecs’ defense is first in the Mountain West, holding opponents to just 16.8 points and 285.5 yards a game. Their defense struggled in three consecutive non-conference losses to California (35-7), South Alabama (34-27) and Penn State (37-21) but has not allowed more than 17 points in any of its last seven games against Mountain West teams. “The defense has played real good the last six weeks,” said Long, who is also the Aztecs’ defensive coordinator. “These guys love to play. They are energetic, they are exciting and they are always yacking (talking trash) to themselves and to the other team. But that’s who they are. They like to run around, they like to hit other people. They are fun to watch.”
Long’s defense when he was the head coach at New Mexico shut out Chris Ault’s Wolf Pack and freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick 23-0 in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl.
“Their team reflects their head coach,” said Polian, who learned Friday that his offensive coordinator (Nick Rolovich) will leave the program to become the head coach at Hawaii. “They’re tough and they play old school football.”
The Aztecs defense is led by linebackers Calvin Munson (8.5 sacks) and Jake Fely (64 tackles) as well as a three-man front of Jon Sanchez (5.5 sacks), Christian Heyward (two sacks) and Alex Barrett (11.5 tackles for a loss). The Aztecs are first in the Mountain West in rushing defense, allowing just 100.5 yards a game. They held Penn State to 72 rushing yards, UNLV to 80, Wyoming to 62, Fresno State to just 12 on 22 carries, San Jose State to 35 on 35 carries and Hawaii to 53. The Aztecs have not allowed a Mountain West player to rush for 100 yards since Boise State’s Jay Ajayi (134 yards) on Nov. 15, 2014. That was also the last Mountain West game the Aztecs lost.
The Wolf Pack features backs James Butler (1,133 yards) and Don Jackson (980), who both went over 100 yards against the Aztecs last year. Jackson had 124 yards and Butler had 103 and both scored a touchdown. “It’s going to be a physical game, a smash mouth game,” Butler said.
Pumphrey, who was also offered a scholarship by the Wolf Pack coming out of high school, needs just 71 yards to reach 4,000 for his career. “This game is going to be about want to, will and passion,” Wolf Pack defensive end Lenny Jones said.
“Both teams have exactly the same philosophy,” said Long, whose offensive coordinator is former Wolf Pack head coach Jeff Horton. “Both teams do the same thing. They run the ball and use the play-action pass. It doesn’t matter how we line up on defense. They are going to run it. And it doesn’t matter how they line up because, guess what? We are going to run it. This will be a good, old-time football game.”
The Wolf Pack hasn’t had many problems scoring against San Diego State, averaging 31.3 points in the seven-game rivalry dating back to 1945. San Diego State leads the series, 4-3, but the Pack has outscored the Aztecs, 219-167, in the seven games. “We played with them toe to toe last year,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack is coming off a demoralizing 31-27 loss at Utah State. The Pack led 27-7 in the third quarter and saw the Aggies score the game’s final 24 points. It was the first time the Pack lost a game after it was leading by 20 or more points since a 49-48 loss to Arizona (a 21-0 lead) in the New Mexico Bowl in 2012. “I’m over the nausea that Saturday caused,” Polian said this week. “We should have won the game and we gave it away. It’s unbelievably frustrating.”
“When you have somebody on the ground you have to finish them off and we didn’t do it,” Jones said. “But, hopefully, it’s a lesson learned.”
A victory on Saturday will give the Pack its second consecutive winning season in a row after going 7-6 last year. Polian is 17-19 in three seasons as the Pack coach. “You are only as confident as your last game,” Polian said. “And I’m confident we’ll go down and compete our tails off. If we can play our best game we’ll have a chance to win it.”