When the Rams travel to San Diego State to play the Aztecs this weekend, one team won’t have much to play for.
It’s not the Rams.
Though San Diego State (3-7, 3-2 MWC) is no longer bowl eligible and is guaranteed a losing season, they can still play spoilers in CSU’s run to the Mountain West Championship.
If the Rams (8-2, 4-0 MWC) are able to defeat the Aztecs Saturday afternoon in San Diego, they will move one step closer to winning their third conference championship in three years and also becoming the first team in school history to go undefeated in conference play.
“That will be something for this team to say we’re the only team that’s ever gone through the conference undefeated,” said CSU head coach Sonny Lubick. “That’s something that will hopefully motivate a few players. It motivates me, I’d like to do it also.”
A big part of the Rams’ success on Saturday will hinge on how well CSU can slow the San Diego State passing attack, tops in the Mountain West.
The Aztecs have the conference’s top passing quarterback in junior Adam Hall and the leading two receivers in the Mountain West in seniors J.R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood.
The trio also appears among national stat leaders. Tolver (1,280 yards) and Osgood (1,133) are second and fourth, respectively, in national receiving yardage, while Hall ranks third nationally in both attempts (437) and passing yards (3,133).
“We’ve played big-time receivers, but this will be our first tandem,” said CSU cornerback Rhett Nelson, who returns to action this week having missed the past two games with neck stingers. “They can spread us out and give us threats on both sides of the field. It’s definitely going to test the defensive backfield more than we’ve been tested in the past.”
Tolver and Osgood have combined for 168 receptions this season and need 45 over their last three games to break the NCAA’s single-season tandem reception record of 212. Despite their passing attack, Rams’ defensive coordinator Larry Kerr says the Rams won’t be looking past the run.
“You want to see San Diego State get good on offense, they start running the football,” Kerr said. “They don’t try to run it very much, but if you let them run it, you’re in trouble.”
Indeed, even though the Aztecs are rushing for a MWC-worst 68.4 yards per game, that running game helps to establish their conference- best 315.8 passing yards per game.
“If you’re all about stopping the pass and suddenly they start running on you and you’re not prepared, that’s bad news,” said CSU linebacker Drew Wood. “It’s the same way with Nevada and all those passing teams; if they can run the ball, it opens up their pass even more.”
Lubick estimated roughly 80 percent of the time San Diego State lines up, they do so in a one-back, four wideout or a no back, five wide-out formation. The Rams aren’t deep in their secondary and even with Nelson’s return to the lineup this weekend, CSU boasts just five healthy bodies in the defensive backfield.
“We’ll have to have some guys who maybe haven’t played as much step up and help us out,” Lubick said. “Any further injury could really KO us.”
The Rams’ injuries have been aided by their second bye week of the season. When the Rams take the field in San Diego, they won’t have played a game in more than two weeks.
“I didn’t want to have a bye week because we were playing so well, but you can’t do anything about that,” Wood said. “I’m not worried because we’ve been coming out strong in practice. Everybody knows it’s the last three games. There’s no time to have any flatness.” n