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What Utah State needs to do to defeat San Diego State and win a Mountain West title

Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against New Mexico.
Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against New Mexico during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Albuquerque, N.M. The Aggies will need to get their passing game going against a tough San Diego State secondary to have a chance at winning the Mountain West Conference championship game.
Andres Leighton, Associated Press

After a year of exceeding expectations, Utah State will look to defy expectations once again as underdogs in its matchup with No. 19 San Diego State on Saturday for a Mountain West Conference title.

The game brings a lot of intrigue along with it as the Aztecs with the nation’s ninth-ranked scoring defense take on the Aggies and their explosive offense that ranks third in the conference in scoring.

Though no one saw them being in this position, Utah State players and coaches said getting to the championship isn’t enough to make them happy.

“We don’t want to be satisfied with being there, we want to find a way to win it,” head coach Blake Anderson said. “These opportunities are rare and considering what we’ve come through and what has happened here the last year and a half, we feel very fortunate to be in this game and we want to maximize every ounce of it.”

Anderson admitted that on paper there may not be anywhere on the field where his team has a clear advantage over the Aztecs, but his team isn’t uncomfortable being in that position at all.

Here are some things to look for as the Aggies try to pull off the upset and win their first Mountain West Conference championship game.

Win the passing game

The most interesting position group matchup to watch will be the Aggies’ receiving corps — highlighted by the nation’s receiving yardage leader Deven Thompkins — trying to get open against one of the best defensive backfields in the conference.

Led by senior cornerback Tayler Hawkins, who has the fifth-best coverage rating in the country, the Aztec pass defense has forced a conference-best 15 interceptions this season.

Outside of 6-foot-6 junior receiver Justin McGriff, the Aztec defensive backs have a size advantage over all of Utah State’s receivers, meaning that the Aggies will have to use their quickness if they want to have a chance at getting open down the field.

For a Utah State team that has been relying on long passing plays as of late, the receivers will have to show up to Saturday’s game ready to compete.

“They have length and they have size in the back end, so we’re going to have to do a great job of maneuvering and running crisp routes to try to gain an advantage,” Anderson said.

Slow down the Aztecs’ rushing attack

At certain points this season, Utah State has been gashed by opposing rushing attacks, including a 362-yard performance by Wyoming just under two weeks ago.

It’s no secret that San Diego State wants to run the ball as it tries to control the clock and keep its strong defense on the sideline. In the past decade, the Aztecs have lost just six times when they possess the ball for 36 minutes or more and are 49-9 in their last 58 games when they have the edge in time of possession.

A strong, physical and athletic offensive line sets the tone for an Aztec offense that uses a stable of runners. Junior right guard William Dunkle — who was once verbally committed to Utah State — leads the conference in both pass and run blocking grades.

If the Aggies want any chance at winning the game, they will have to plug rushing lanes and get the Aztecs behind the chains so they can get the ball in the hands of their offense.

Senior linebacker Justin Rice said he and the defense don’t expect to see anything different offensively from the run-first Aztecs.

“(Stopping the run) has been a big point of emphasis (for us) the last couple of weeks,” Rice said. “We know that in order to win this game we need to be at our best in (the rushing defense) category and it will continue to be a big point of emphasis this week.”

San Diego State defensive lineman Cameron Thomas (99) walks to the sideline during an NCAA football game against New Mexico Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Carson, Calif.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Contain Cameron Thomas

San Diego State junior defensive lineman Cameron Thomas established himself this season as one of the best pass-rushers in the Mountain West and even the country.

According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas has the most quarterback hits in the nation (18), the most quarterback pressures (72) and leads the team in tackles for loss (20.0).

Utah State — which has struggled at times with protection — now faces the task of keeping Thomas in check. Quarterback Logan Bonner, who has taken his fair share of hits this season, will need a clean, Thomas-less pocket if the Aggies hope to establish themselves offensively.

Bonner got banged up in the Aggies’ final regular-season game against New Mexico but is going to play.

The same can’t be said for backup Andrew Peasley, who Anderson said is highly questionable to suit up Saturday. Peasley’s likely absence makes keeping Bonner upright and away from Thomas that much more important.

“To me what you see (in Thomas) is length combined with speed,” Anderson said. “(San Diego State) allows a lot of movement defensively and he fits their system perfectly.”