1. Special K It’ll be interesting to see the approach the Aztecs take to minimizing the disruptive force that is UB LB Khalil Mack. Will fullback Chad Young be the one oft designated to help on Mack when he lines up on the edge? Will the Aztecs make more frequent use of their double tight end formation to account for UB’s tendency to have Mack switch up sides? The game within the game will intrigue as San Diego State strives to bolster a running attack that excelled right up until the last two games of the season. Doubtless Special K will be fired up for his final game with UB, especially with NFL scouts sharpening the focus on their microscopes. He’s already the NCAA FBS career leader in forced fumbles and needs to share in a single tackle for loss to gain sole possession of the career standard in that category as well. And don’t forget he’s already intercepted three passes this year, two of them returned for TDs.
2. NFL auditions UB senior Branden Oliver and San Diego State junior Adam Muema are two running backs with NFL aspirations and Muema has indicated he might declare early. Oliver is already UB’s single-season and career rushing leader and is one rushing TD shy of tying James Starks’ career mark (34). Muema was hampered by injury for part of the season but five times exceeded 100 yards with a season-best 233 vs. New Mexico. If he struggles the Aztecs have a dangerous alternative in Donnel Pumphrey, a 5-foot-9, 155 pound true freshman who ripped off three straight 100-yard games earlier this year and owns a long of 72. SDSU has what UB hoped to have this season – a sturdy run-block fullback in Young. UB lost its comparable early on when Boomer Brock went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Aztecs struggled on the ground in their last two, a win over Boise State and a resounding loss to UNLV. UB hit the same wall against Bowling Green. Establishing the run will be paramount if conditions deteriorate.
3. QB comparison SDSU junior Quinn Kaehler transferred in from Diablo Valley College as a walk-on in the spring and is 7-3 as a starter. He’s had quality games against top-flight competition, completing 21 of 39 for 337 yards against ranked Fresno State and 23 of 37 for 288 against Boise State. Both of those were in the warm climes of San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. In SDSU’s lone cold-weather game, at Air Force, he was 15 of 26 for 249 yards and three TDs. Kaehler’s not a runner although he is mobile. UB sophomore Joe Licata (right) has been solid in his first full season as a starter but had a tough go in the season finale against Bowling Green when the running game faltered mightily and the pass protection faltered. He shouldn’t see that kind of pressure today if Oliver gets it going against a defense that has allowed at least 131 rushing yards in seven of 12 games.
4. Cherish the football The most glaring comparative statistic concerns turnover margin. UB ranks fourth in the country at plus 1.3 per game. SDSU sits close to the bottom at minus-1. The Aztecs have fumbled 24 times on the season, losing 14, and have put it on the carpet an astounding 13 times over their last four games. Doubtless the likes of Mack and Adam Redden are licking their chops. Safety Nat Berhe is the Aztecs’ lone first-team All-Mountain West player but the Bulls must also be wary of JR cornerback J.J. Whitaker. He was fourth in the MW and 28th nationally with 11 passes defended and accounted for three of SDSU’s seven INTs. Most teams steer away from Najja Johnson, UB’s all-MAC CB, who had nine breakups and three picks, but he’s not the only ballhawk. Cortney Lester and Mack also have three picks. Key for the Aztecs will be reversing form and keeping hold of the ball in conditions to which they’re unaccustomed.
5. Extra points First meeting between schools. UB is 0-1 all-time in bowl games, last appearing after the 2008 season. San Diego State is making its fourth straight bowl appearance and has lost the last two. … San Diego State kicker Wes Feer has not attempted a field goal in the last six games and has not made one since a 25-yarder against New Mexico State way back on Sept. 28. The Aztecs are 15 of 35 on fourth-down conversion attempts. … Alex Neutz is 53 yards from becoming second Bull with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons (Drew Haddad). … Joe Licata is 66 yards from school passing mark for sophomores held by Zach Maynard (2,694). … Aztecs tied NCAA record by playing four OT games (3-1).
Outlook: San Diego State ranks among the nation’s more resilient teams but a loose handle on the football won’t cut it against one of the country’s more opportunistic defenses. UB, 31-23.