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‘We’ll have our hands full’: Can No. 14 Utes contain SDSU’s vaunted run game?

The Aztecs are 21-point underdogs but SDSU coach Brady Hoke is focused on winning this game between the two former conference mates

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San Diego State running back Jordan Byrd carries the ball against UNLV Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Las Vegas.

San Diego State running back Jordan Byrd carries the ball against UNLV Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Las Vegas. After scoring on a long run and punt return last week against Idaho State, Byrd is hoping to add a kickoff return for a TD to his list of accomplishments.

Chase Stevens, Associated Press

Though San Diego State knocked off Utah 33-31 in triple overtime last season, the Aztecs are 21-point underdogs as they visit Rice-Eccles Stadium. 

The No. 14 Utes takes on SDSU Saturday (8 p.m. MDT, ESPN2). 

But the Aztecs aren’t concerned about what the oddsmakers think.

“It’s actually exciting to me. A lot of kids don’t get this opportunity to play a top-25 team. It’s going to be an honor to play against them,” said running back/return specialist Jordan Byrd. “It’s going to be a really good game. It’s going to be our first away game. The crowd is going to be really loud. We never take any team lightly. What happened last year is last year. This is a new team. Utah’s a new team and we’re a new team. It’s going to be a good game.”

“I know one thing — we want to go out and play well,” said coach Brady Hoke. “We want to compete and we want to win.”

SDSU opened the season with a surprising loss at home against another Pac-12 foe, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Aztecs 38-20. Last week, SDSU rebounded with a 38-7 home victory against Idaho State.

Against the Bengals, the Aztecs ran for 380 yards even though starting running back Chance Bell was out with an injury. Bell could be sidelined against Utah as well.

In Bell’s absence, Byrd returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and he recorded a 53-yard TD run. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister, who previously played at Oregon and Virginia Tech, ran for a 47-yard touchdown run as well.

“Byrd does it all,” Hoke said. “Jordan as a football player, he takes a lot of pride in everything he does.”

Byrd is hoping to make an even bigger impact.

“Hopefully I can get a kickoff return as well. That’s one of my goals,” he said. “It’s going out there and having fun. It’s helping the team out — it’s one thing I love to do.”

SDSU ranks No. 4 nationally in rushing offense with a stable of productive runners. Jaylon Armstead averages 12.9 yards per carry while Byrd averages 11.4. Kenan Christon and Cam Davis each average 4.5 yards per carry. 

Hoke said he would like to see his offense become more balanced but he likes his running backs. 

“We have pretty good backs. They’re all very prideful,” he said. “It’s something we have to count on. We’ve got to ride those guys as much as we can … There’s a difference in all of them … At some point, the hot hand will get the carries during the game.”

Hoke was happy to see his team earn its first victory of the season last week. 

“Guys went out and played better than we did in Week 1,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of improvement that we still have to do.”

Utah safety Cole Bishop knows one of the keys Saturday will be slowing down SDSU’s run game. 

“They’re a really physical team. Last year I pulled my hamstring right before the game so I’m excited to do what I can to help the team win and try to be really physical,” he said. “They run the ball a lot. We’ve just got to be really physical.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the Aztecs are “very similar” to last year’s team. 

“More similarities than differences, particularly schematically — shotgun, spread attack, a stable of backs,” he said. “They’re athletic. They did lose a couple of good O-linemen from last year. They had to replace them. … They do a good job. Brady Hoke does a great job with recruiting. We’ll have our hands full.”

From an offensive standpoint, the Utes are wary of SDSU’s defense, which caused problems for Utah last year. 

“They move around a ton. They’re well-coached and they play hard. They certainly had our number last year,” said offensive line coach Jim Harding. “So they should have the attention of the kids. It will be a good challenge for us because they’re really well-coached and they play their tails off.”

“They just rally to the ball. They have guys that are ballhawks,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “They’re physical and a well-coached team. It’s going to be a challenge but we’re looking forward to it.”

SDSU safety Patrick McMorris, whose brother, Malik, is a graduate assistant with Utah’s defensive line, enjoyed last year’s win over Utah. Where does it rank in his playing career?

“It was exciting. To be in front of our fans was amazing,” McMorris said. “Where does that rank? Triple overtime? It has to be top two at least. It was great.”

“It was a nerve-wracking game, for sure,” Byrd recalled. “You don’t get those overtime games very often.”

Now, a year after a dramatic win over the Utes, SDSU is looking to pull an upset of Utah on the road. 


Utes on the air

San Diego State (1-1) at No. 14  Utah (1-1) 

Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium 

TV: ESPN2

Radio: ESPN 700