TEAMS: BYU Cougars (7-5) vs. San Diego State Aztecs (9-3, 7-1 Mountain West Conference)
WHEN: Thursday Dec. 20, 8 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: BYU -31/2; Over/Under 48 points
Longstanding rivalries, rich with history were sacrificed in the name of conference realignment: the Backyard Brawl, the Border War, the Lone Star Showdown went the way of leather helmets and wedge formations.
But some budding rivalries were uprooted before they could really sprout. But one such rivalry is budding new flowers, thanks to the Poinsettia Bowl.
Though it’s not the coup the Cotton Bowl would have scored had Texas or Texas A&M not balked at a pairing, the Poinsettia Bowl is giving the burgeoning San Diego State-BYU series another installment.
The match-up isn’t a rivalry in a traditional sense: BYU holds a 27-7-1 advantage with wins in nine of the last 10. There’s no geographic bragging rights at stake, and the series only really began in earnest in 1978, after SDSU joined the Western Athletic Conference. The first meeting was in 1947, but there was a 22-year gap between games from ’48 to ’70.
However, in BYU’s final few seasons as a member of the Mountain West Conference, resentment built. Bad blood built mostly on the basketball court, where both universities were cultivating top 25 programs at the same time.
The natural elements for rivalry became apparent when these two basketball teams faced. San Diego State is a party school; BYU is an Honor Code school. The contrast in each university’s reputation couldn’t be more stark, and shone through in every meeting.
It spilled over onto the gridiron in 2010, the Cougars’ last season in the MWC. San Diego State was on the ascent after more than a decade of struggling in football. Brady Hoke had the Aztecs on track to snap one of the longest bowl droughts in the nation.
Conversely, BYU was sputtering to a disappointing start that ended a run of four straight double digit-win seasons. The SDSU win was a turning point for BYU’s season, and of paramount importance; the Cougars were 6-6 in the regular season, so each win was vital to extending the program’s run of bowl appearances to six straight. This season’s is BYU’s eighth consecutive.
The win was mired in controversy. Officials on the field missed a fumble, and a replay review booth with two BYU alumni on duty did not overturn the call. The situation was, and remains a contentious point exacerbating the fledgling rivalry.
The postseason berth SDSU earned that season was the first of what this season marks three straight. That’s a program record. The Aztecs are winners of seven straight, including on the Smurf Turf at Boise State that helped seal a share of the MWC championship, the first time SDSU has won that title since helping to form the conference in 1999.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
BYU was struggling on defense early in 2010. After losing to Utah State, 31-16, Bronco Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and absorbed his duties. Often doubling duties complexes a head coach’s work — look no further than Jimbo Fisher and Lane Kiffin — but BYU has thrived under Mendenhall’s direction.
The Cougar defense is among the nation’s very best this season, allowing just 14.7 points per game. BYU excels in all facets defensively, evidenced in allowing the second fewest rushing yards per game (84.3) and 13th fewest passing (182.1).
Kyle Van Noy is one of the premiere blitzing linebackers in college football. Van Noy has 11.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries on the season. His ability to bring pressure supplements a tenacious front featuring linemen Ezekiel Ansah and Bronson Kaufusi.
Expect a war of attrition, with the stingy Cougar rush defense paired against one of the most prolific ground-based offenses in the nation. SDSU averages 229.2 rushing yards per game, 15th most in the FBS, behind the two-pronged attack of Adam Muema and Walter Kazee. Muema averages 6.4 yards per carry, which puts him on par with All-Americas Kenjon Barner, Ka’Deem Carey and Johnathan Franklin. Kazee provides a reliable third down option.
San Diego State lost quarterback Ryan Katz midway through the season, leaving Adam Dingwell to captain the offense. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s units are not typically pass-happy — Ryan Lindley’s 3153 yards on 447 attempts were an aberration — but this season, Ludwig’s offense has been especially conservative.
Dingwell has thrown 115 times for 795 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. His high point was his first of five games with substantial snaps, when he relieved Katz at Nevada and threw three touchdown passes. He won’t have a similar effort at the Cougars’ expense, but SDSU will need him to move the ball in the air some. Tight end Gavin Escobar is the X-factor. Escobar’s 41 receptions, 519 yards and six touchdowns are all team highs. His size and trusty hands are necessary to give SDSU’s rushers breathing room against a stifle defense.
Despite registering better than 29 points per game, the Cougar offense has been very iffy. A revolving door at quarterback has contributed to some inconsistency. Riley Nelson has started nine games, but thrown almost as many interceptions (12) as touchdowns (13). Dual threat Taysom Hill showed flashes of brilliance, but was lost to a knee injury. Senior James Lark muddied the waters with an outstanding performance in the season finale. Both Lark and Nelson could play on Thursday, which complicates how the Aztecs will defend.
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long crafted a version of the 3-3-5 stack defense while at New Mexico. The Aztecs struggled with the formation initially this season, giving up 41 (North Dakota), 38 (San Jose State) and 52 points (Fresno State) in succession. Since, SDSU has only given up more than 30 once, in its overtime win over Nevada, and more than 20 only in the season finale against Wyoming. Five SDSU opponents were held to 19 or fewer down the stretch.
The rover position accentuates the abilities of one of the defense’s more athletic players, and this season, leading tackler Nat Berhe mans it for SDSU. His freedom in the secondary becomes of utmost importance in defending BYU star receiver Cody Hoffman, who has 1134 yards and 11 touchdowns.
These are programs that gained notoriety under LaVell Edwards and Don Coryell’s explosive offenses, but Thursday’s match-up should come down to the team that can muster one, big offensive play.