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A lot at stake in the Aztecs Rivalry Week matchup with Fresno State

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The #21-ranked Aztecs will host the Fresno State Bulldogs in a big-time rivalry matchup on Saturday night at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. This year, it will be for more than the historic Oil Can Trophy. The meeting will for sure have implications in the MWC West as it features the top two teams in the division. The Aztecs stopped the #1 rushing team in the nation, the Air Force Falcons, and their triple-option offense last week. However, they must not fend off a triple blow because the Bulldogs want nothing more than to take away SDSU’s undefeated streak, the Oil Can, and potentially their national ranking. 

The game kicks off Saturday, October 30th at 7:30 PM and will be available to watch via CBS Sports Network and via XTRA Sports 1360 AM for those that prefer to hear uncle Teddy on the call.

A Short “Battle for the Old Oil Can” Trophy History

There has always been a rivalry amongst the teams, but the trophy is relatively new. The “Old Oil Can” was adopted in 2011 after a 1930’s era oil can with Fresno markings was recovered at a San Diego State construction site. “The oil can likely came from a time when Aztec and Bulldog teams and their fans traveled back & forth to football games between the two schools via the old, twisting, precipitous Grapevine section of Highway 99 over the Tejon Pass,” per Jacquelyn K. Glasener, executive director of the Fresno State Alumni Association. Historians note that during that time period, travelers carried extra oil and resources in preparation for potential harsh Grapevine conditions. Is the oil can from a Fresno State fan that traveled to Aztec Bowl for a game day during the Great Depression? Probably not, but the trophy is good for the rivalry in a tradition-rich sport.

San Diego State leads the all-time series 30-25-4 while Fresno State leads the Oil Can series 5-4. 

Fresno’s Resume

Fresno enters the game with a 6-2 record. They gave #11 Oregon all they could handle in Eugene and came within a field goal of Hawaii on the rock, two places that are extremely tough to play at. Both losses came by a combined 10 points. The Bulldogs have beaten two really good teams at #13 UCLA, who hasn’t been ranked since week five, and at home last week against Nevada. A national ranking next to a team’s name doesn’t scare the Pride of the Valley.

Bulldog Offense

It is unclear how much the Aztecs will see of Fresno’s all-time TD leader, Ronnie Rivers (49). The running back suffered a lower leg injury after a 64-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of last week’s victory over Nevada. Rivers has produced 573 rushing yards in 115 attempts. Fresno’s Offensive Coordinator, Ryan Grubb, noted that Rivers will be allowed to practice “as tolerated” this week. Regardless, SDSU will prepare for both him and Jordan Mims, who has accumulated 318 yards on 54 attempts. Both backs are well capable of effectively running the football. 

While Fresno’s rushing attack is great, the Aztec’s main focus will be shutting down QB Jake Haener. CFB fans know Haener from his incredible performance against UCLA in which he threw for 455 yards, and while noticeably injured led the Bulldogs on a 75-yard TD drive with 45 seconds remaining in the game to upset the #13 Bruins. The man is tough. Along with his resiliency, he’s athletic and can extend plays. Haener is one of the top QBs in college football with the 3rd most passing yards in the country (2,582) and is tied for 6th in passing TDs (22). He’s a threat and the Aztecs are on red alert.

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Aztec’s Units

Coming off a top-30 victory at Air Force, SDSU is now the #4 rushing defense in the country. While they may not be #1 anymore, I don’t think anyone could have asked for a better defensive performance when it came to stopping the Falcon’s triple-option. Air Force has the #1 rushing offense in the country for crying out loud. The defense played a physical football game and absolutely rocked the service academy’s rushers. Bravo.

However, the Aztec secondary got dusted multiple times but was bailed out by overthrows and WR drops. Granted, there was a change in the defensive game plan in preparation for the triple-option and it is easy to overcommit to the run when facing that scheme. Regardless, the secondary needs to clean that up when Jake Haener comes to town. I still have all the confidence in the Aztec defense as they are one of the best units in all of college football. 

While they performed better than they did against San Jose State, the offense is still struggling. One thing that worked especially well against AF was the Chance Bell, Jordan Byrd, and Kaegun Williams combination. I expect OC Hecklinski to utilize them more while still giving Greg Bell his workload. They have such a broad range of skill sets and should be used accordingly.

With Fresno giving up 476 Yards to Carson Strong and Nevada last week, I am hopeful that SDSU can throw for a fraction of that. Maybe the screens that Hecklinski has been calling will give the offense the confidence to throw past the first down marker. The passing woes aren’t going to change overnight and all that we can ask for are improvements every week. 

I cannot stress enough how good Matt Araiza is. Araiza has both punted a football 80+ yards and made a 50+ yard field goal in back-to-back games. While gaining national attention on the internet, he received kudos from NFL punting legend, Pat McAfee, and next-level praise from USA Today’s “For The Win” Writer, Jason Kirk. Kirk says Matt Araiza is “a guy who might be, relative to his position, one of the most advanced players ever”. This is because he is on pace to have the best punting season football has ever seen, regardless of level. Araiza’s yards per punt average is 54. That’s three yards greater than the best CFB punting average ever, which was set by Texas A&M’s Braden Mann at 51 yards. The NFL record is 52.6, which is also happening this season by the Raiders AJ Cole III. On top of that, after only seven games, Araiza has tied the all-time record for most 60-yard punts in a season and is on pace to break several more records. 

Some people have even called for his Heisman campaign — #Araiza4Heisman. The bottom line is that Matt and the special teams unit have won the Aztecs games and I’m glad that they are getting the recognition they deserve. Look for Araiza to continue contributing in big ways against Fresno State.

Odds

The over/under is set at 45.5 and the spread opens as a pick ’em via Circa Sports. This game is huge and Fresno St. will be the best team that SDSU has faced all season. Aztec and Bulldog fans should both be equally as excited. It will be a terrific matchup amongst two Mountain West foes with a lot to play for. To the winner goes the spoils.

Andrew Serrano — Twitter: @sirandys

Andrew is a San Diego State University graduate and sports enthusiast who enjoys playing below-average golf and trying new craft beers. During his time at SDSU, he was a KPBS Newsroom Assistant and NPR copywriting intern.
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