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Does Utah have the goods to slow down vaunted San Diego State running game?

The Aztecs say they ‘don’t buy into Power Five’ and there’s a reason why: Since 2016, SDSU has posted a 6-2 record against Pac-12 opponents

San Diego State’s Greg Bell runs past BYU’s Bracken El-Bakri during game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Provo, Utah.
San Diego State running back Greg Bell runs past BYU defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri during game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Provo, Utah. Bell, who gained 125 yards and scored a touchdown on 17 carries last week against Arizona, will be top of mind for the Utes on Saturday.
George Frey, Associated Press

As San Diego State hosts Utah this weekend, the Aztecs won’t be intimidated by the Utes’ membership in the Pac-12 or their Power Five label.

Since 2016, SDSU has posted a 6-2 record against Pac-12 opponents, with wins over Cal, Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State (twice) and last week’s 38-14 thumping of Arizona in Tucson.

The Aztecs will be looking to continue their success against the Pac-12 Saturday (5 p.m. MDT, CSBSN) when they take on the Utes at Dignity Health Sports Park.

“We don’t buy into Power Five. We just try to hold on to our tradition,” said SDSU safety Cedarious Barfield. “What we want to do now is uphold that and be able to keep going and show future Aztecs that we can play with whoever we need to. Our motto is playing hard and physical.”

Utah (1-1) wasn’t as physical as BYU in last week’s 26-17 loss in Provo. The Utes surrendered 219 rushing yards against the Cougars.

SDSU (2-0) is a physical team that can run the ball.

“They’re a run-heavy team. They ran the ball 55 times in one of their first two games. They’re much more committed to the run,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “That’s what they hang their hat on. They have a whole stable of running backs that are outstanding. The line is physical. That is their No. 1 priority — to establish a run game.

“It poses a big problem for us. It was impressive to watch that tape and see how they operate. They have three good backs and a quarterback that does a great job running that offense,” Whittingham continued. “They have a couple of tight ends they like and a couple of receivers that are playmakers. The offensive line is physical. We’re going to see every bit as physical of an offensive line as we did last week. We need to rise up and play much better.”

Last week, SDSU running back Greg Bell, a Nebraska transfer, gained 125 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, while quarterback Jordan Brookshire completed 10 of 14 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns.

“They have a great O-line. They’re really stout in the run game. They’re physical up front and they have a great group of running backs,” said Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd. “They have a lot of schemes. It’s going to be a challenge up front, in the trenches, but this game is going to come down to winning the line of scrimmage.”

Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan is also impressed with San Diego State’s offense.

“A really good, well-coached offense. A lot of different looks. Complications in the run and pass game. They try to do a bunch of things that are going to be hard on the linebackers,” he said. “They’re going to demand physical play from our defense. We’ve got to do a good job of stepping up and making sure we’re there for the challenge.”

SDSU coach Brady Hoke has a lot of respect for Whittingham and the Utes.

“The opponent speaks for themselves. They’re a physical football team. Kyle’s done a great job. We’ve got to get ready,” Hoke said. “Playing Utah when they were in the Mountain West, I always respected Kyle. He’s a defensive-minded guy. Watching their defense, their physicalness, you know you’re going to get from their front on both sides of the ball.

“With (offensive coordinator Andy) Ludwig, he’s got some insight into what we do from a defensive perspective. It’s a ball game that we’ve got to be a little bit different in some ways. But we also have to do what we do best.”

Against SDSU, the Wildcats converted just one of 13 third-down opportunities. Utah converted only two of nine against BYU.

Despite his team’s strong start to the season, Hoke wants to see improvement this week. The Aztecs, for example, committed eight penalties against Arizona.

“I told the team on Monday, ‘We’ve got to have some composure about us. We’ve got to have some discipline about us,’” he said. “We still need to play on the edge but don’t hurt the football team. … We’ve got a tough opponent. We have to play a heckuva lot better as a football team this week than we did last week.”

SDSU is also wary of Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer.

“He throws the ball well. … He does a great job. When you watch him set his feet and throw it, you can tell he has a lot of experience,” Hoke said. “He’s athletic enough to extend the pocket and make things happen. He’s got a strong arm. He’s got really good touch.”

“They’re kind of like our team. They’ve very physical and they want to get after you. Charlie Brewer, we have a ton of respect for him, coming from Baylor,” Barfield said. “He’s a great quarterback. They’re going to try to attack us. We’ve got to stay together and trust each other.”

Brewer knows that SDSU will be a challenge for Utah’s offense.

“They’re really good. They play really good on defense,” Brewer said. “They beat Arizona pretty badly. We’re going to have to play a lot better than we did this past week.”

The Utes will be looking to make sure the Aztecs’ run of success against the Pac-12 takes a detour Saturday.