Rocky Long expects more out of his San Diego State Aztecs.
“I’m at the point now that I know we can be better than we are,” the Aztecs coach said this week as he prepared to meet the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) at San Diego Country Credit Union Stadium. “We’re inconsistent in a lot of areas.”
The one area where the Aztecs have not been inconsistent this season is the win column. San Diego State currently leads the West Division of the Mountain West at 7-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play with three league games remaining. A loss on Saturday will eliminate the Wolf Pack (5-4, 2-3) from West Division title consideration.
“There’s an old saying,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said. “You always remember the games in November. These games are much more meaningful now.”
Both teams are coming off a victory. The Wolf Pack, 5-3 under Norvell in the month of November since 2017, beat New Mexico 21-10 last Saturday at Mackay Stadium. The Aztecs had a bye last week after beating UNLV 20-17 on Oct. 26. The Aztecs have won four games in a row though all four victories have come by an average of just 7.8 points. All seven of San Diego State’s victories this year have been by an average of just 9.6 points.
“I think we can be a really good football team but we aren’t yet,” said Long, who has now won seven or more games in each of his nine seasons at San Diego State.
Norvell, whose Wolf Pack beat the Aztecs 28-24 last season at Mackay Stadium, does not agree that the Aztecs are not yet a really good football team.
“This is a solid football team in all phases,” the Pack coach said of the Aztecs.
“San Diego State is a very physical football team,” Wolf Pack cornerback Daniel Brown said. “That’s the brand of football they are always going to come with. You just have to respect it.”
The Aztecs, a two-touchdown favorite on Saturday, are already a really good football team on the defensive side of the ball. San Diego State is eighth in the nation in points allowed (14.1 a game), 12th in total defense (283.5 yards a game), third in rushing yards allowed (69.9 a game) and sixth in total first downs allowed (118). The Wolf Pack, by comparison, is 83rd in the nation in yards allowed (413.3 a game) and 116th in points allowed (34.6 a game). The most points San Diego has allowed in a game this year was in a 23-17 loss to Utah State in September. The Wolf Pack has allowed under 24 points just three times in nine games.
Long, though, wants his Aztecs to keep improving.
“If we keep playing like we’ve been playing, it’s hit and miss whether we can win enough games to get into the (Mountain West) championship game (on Dec. 7),” Long said.
The Aztecs and Wolf Pack were in similar situations a year ago when they met at Mackay Stadium. San Diego State entered that Oct. 27, 2018 game in Reno with a 6-1, 3-0 record while the Pack was 4-4, 2-2.
The Aztecs jumped out to leads of 14-0 and 24-15 at halftime a year ago at Nevada and proceeded to disappear in the second half in a 28-24 Pack win. The Wolf Pack would go on last year to win four of its final five games to finish 8-5, 5-3 while the Aztecs would lose five of its final six to finish 7-6, 4-4.
“We just didn’t want it as bad as they did,” San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew said of the Pack. “They played with more effort and more fire in the second half and we just thought it was going to be handed to us. We thought it was going to be easy in the second half.”
Agnew, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior, has passed for 1,427 yards and 10 touchdowns this season with just three interceptions. The Aztecs’ run-based offense, though, is led by running backs Juwan Washington (432 yards), Chance Bell (267), Jordan Byrd (213) and Chase Jasmin (169).
That running game has produced just seven touchdowns this season but is a big reason why the Aztecs are fourth in the nation in time of possession at 34:51 a game.
“Their quarterback (Agnew) is a veteran, savvy player,” Norvell said. “He does a good job of protecting the ball. And they have a big, physical offensive line. They just do a great job of taking care of the ball and a great job with field position.”
Saturday’s game, though, will be a matchup of the two worst offenses in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are 11th in the 12-team conference at 21.8 points a game while the Pack is last at 19.3 a game. The Wolf Pack is 11th in yards per game at 358.4 while the Aztecs are 12th at 328.8.
The two best offensive players on the field on Saturday just might be the kickers, a pair of freshmen. The Aztecs’ Matt Araiza has made all 18 of his extra points and 14-of-16 field goals for 60 points while the Pack’s Brandon Talton is also 14-of-16 on field goals and 18-of-19 on extra points, also for 60 points.
“I expect a highly competitive game,” Long said.
The Aztecs lead the series with Nevada 7-4 (5-1 at San Diego) but two of the games went to overtime (a pair of Aztec wins in 2012, 2013) and three others (1995, 2012, 2018) were decided by four points or less.
“We’re playing a team that is as talented as we are, that has as much incentive to win the game as we do,” Long said. “They still have a chance to win the West Division of our conference and they are just one (victory) away from bowl eligibility. Both of us have the same motivational factors. They’re just like us. There’s days when they are really, really good and there’s days they struggle, same as we do.”
Carson Strong is expected to start for the Wolf Pack at quarterback. Strong completed 28-of-40 passes against New Mexico last week for 305 yards and two touchdowns and is now 3-3 as the Pack starter this season.
Strong will be just the eighth Pack quarterback (and the first freshman) to start against the Aztecs after Ralph “Happy” Reed (1945), Bill Mackrides (1946), Mike Maxwell (1995), Jeff Rowe (2004), Cody Fajardo (2012-14), Tyler Stewart (2015) and Ty Gangi (2016-18).
“He threw for a high percentage and did a good job of using the whole field and making his reads,” said Norvell of Strong’s performance against New Mexico. “He’s just got to learn how to dial it (his emotions) back. There are times when he’s like a pitcher that sometimes can’t find the strike zone. But I’m proud of the way Carson responded (against New Mexico).”
San Diego State can clinch the West Division title with wins over Nevada this weekend and Fresno State on Nov. 15, both at home. The Wolf Pack will have to win its final three games against the Aztecs and Fresno State (Nov. 23) on the road and UNLV (Nov. 30) at home to have a chance at a division title.
“All of our goals are still ahead of us,” Brown said. “The next three games are big for us. We want to show how much we’ve progressed over the last three years since Coach Norvell has been here.”