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As San Diego State prepared to play Ohio State early this season the Aztecs had just one game tape to go on, the Buckeyes’ opener against UB. And what they saw in that tape was a Bulls linebacker play like a whirlwind in a performance that captured national attention.

And now the Aztecs face the test that Ohio State and most other teams have failed. They have to find a way to contain Khalil Mack.

San Diego State coach Rocky Long spoke glowingly of Mack as he joined Bulls coach Jeff Quinn on a conference call Monday that introduced the participants in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Long remembers watching UB’s No. 46 riddle the Buckeyes for nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown. And he wanted to know more.

“This is interesting because coach Quinn’s team played Ohio State right before we played Ohio State, so we watched them on film and obviously he jumped out at us right away,” Long said.” We didn’t know who he was at that time. That’s the first game of the year. We looked him up as soon as we saw the things he was doing to the Ohio State offensive line.

“I mean, he’s a great player, and obviously he’s been predicted to be one of the top guys in the draft,” Long said. “He’s one of those guys that you cannot block. And he’s got a motor where he goes full speed all the time, as evidenced by the tackles for losses he has, the sacks he has. He’s a very disruptive force. You’re going to have to make your offensive game plan predicated on trying to slow him down some because he’s such an impact player. Before we even knew who he was he jumped out on tape for us.”

Mack looms as the difference-making presence in a matchup between two teams that play a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that has increased in popularity but marginally so. Long estimates he’s employed the 3-3-5 for some 20 years, which would date to his days as defensive coordinator at Oregon State.

“I’ve been running it probably for 20 years now and it was basically because we couldn’t recruit great big 6-foot-4, 300-pound defensive linemen but we could recruit some athletes,” Long said. “So we ended up putting smaller guys out there that ran pretty well.”

Familiarity means the advantage could fall to the offenses on Dec. 21. While variations will be at play, both teams are accustomed to seeing the 3-3-5 throughout spring ball and training camp.

“I think the two teams on offense are pretty similar, not exactly the same scheme,” Long said. “They want to run the ball and use play-action pass and try to throw the ball off play-action pass and get some big plays out of it. Knowing the way the two defenses are set up and knowing the scheme obviously will give the offenses a heads-up or an advantage maybe if you want to say that.”

UB owns some huge advantages defensively based on statistical comparison. The Bulls ranked No. 4 nationally in turnover margin at plus-15. The Aztecs are tied for 118th at minus-12. UB is No. 10 in the country in red zone defense. San Diego State ranks dead last, having allowed points 39 of the 41 times opponents and ventured inside the 20. Thirty-five of those have been touchdowns.

Yet San Diego State has defied the numbers, sometimes in bizarre ways. They were one of only two teams to hold powerhouse Fresno State to 35 points or fewer, losing 35-28 in overtime. They took Boise State, the Mountain West’s flagship program, to OT and won 34-31. Yet they’ve also gone to OT with 4-8 Nevada and 1-11 Hawaii, winning both. Only one of their seven victories has been by more than seven points and none by more than 10.

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UB senior guard Jasen Carlson had hoped he might heal in time for a bowl game after he suffered a compound leg fracture against UMass on Oct. 20. Quinn confirmed on Monday that Carlson will not be available … UB will leave for Boise next Tuesday morning … The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl has averaged crowds of 26,000 and last year drew a television audience of 2.2 million, organizers said. … This will be the first meeting ever between the two schools.

Mack, winner of the Jack Lambert Award presented to the nation’s top linebacker by the Columbus Touchdown Club, also was a finalist for the Butkus Award presented by the Butkus Foundation. The Butkus went to Alabama linebacker CJ Mosley over the weekend.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com