San Diego State and Fresno State—to label these two programs as bitter sibling rivals couldn’t be more accurate. Since 1923 two of most diametrically opposite schools within the California State University system have been battling on the football field for pride. For the last 11 seasons the two sides added the Old Oil Can trophy to symbolize this historical grudge match. Decent trophy, but the animosity between the two might just require more volume than what one container can fill.
Let me explain just a tiny bit.
Regionally, just think of how foreign these two west coast cultures are to each other. San Diego’s landscapes encompass beaches and vacation vibes, while Fresno boasts farmlands and country livin’.
Within the Group of Five, the Aztecs are considered to be rich in untapped potential & resources—the Bulldogs are considered rich in community spirit. For the Aztecs, their nemesis is always being overshadowed by the more prestigious & wealthy schools just up the 5 north. For the Bulldogs, their nemesis has often been themselves—their identity misconstrued into negativity both inside the stadium and in their surrounding environment in the form of gang affiliation.
Historically, the Aztecs with their high flying Air Coryell passing attack set the small college division upside down in the 1960’s as they dominated many of the old time Fresno State teams. When the Western Athletic Conference came looking for expansion in 1978, they chose SDSU. Fresno State was without an invite for almost two decades, all the way until 1992.
When the top teams in the WAC cut ties and formed the new Mountain West Conference in 2000, SDSU was a charter member. Fresno State would have to wait a full 12 seasons before receiving an invite. It’s a chip on the shoulder that Fresno carries every time they play the Aztecs. The animosity started there so many years ago and it’s been manifesting itself on the football field ever since.
Today, SDSU’s football home Snapdragon Stadium has ushered in a new standard to college football venues—While Fresno is scrounging to keep up their aging Bulldog Stadium. With potential PAC-12 and BIG-12 expansion circling around, once again San Diego State is the name at the forefront of all the major expert opinions. And just as usual, Fresno State appears to be on the outside looking in. For a mascot to be named the Bulldogs, Fresno State is more so alike to forever be the Scrappy Doo to SDSU’s Scooby.
The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same
And so the Aztecs travel to the Valley this Saturday night riding a two game win streak and have battled their way to just be above .500 at 4-3 (2-1). The Bulldogs after licking their wounds to start the season, are now licking their chops at their own back to back wins. They are now one game shy of being even in their record at 3-4 (2-1).
For both programs it is a far cry from where they usually stand atop the best of the Group of Five programs. Last season in 2021, these two met at the top of their game. Boasting Top-25 National standings with NFL prospects left & right. This years teams—though not without prospective pro talent—neither have performed successfully enough to earn much media attention.
After an undecided off-season, in just his third game of the year Fresno State QB Jake Haener, injured his ankle against PAC-12 deserters USC. In what some still fear as being fractured, Haener has not played since—leaving the Jeff Tedford Bulldog offense in shambles.
Stepping in his place is sophomore QB Logan Fife, who after some initial struggles has begun to show improvement in managing the offense and utilizing his legs as a weapon.
After an off-season that saw the SDSU QB room make some wholesale changes, the team brought in transfer Braxton Burmeister. But after a series of unfortunate injuries and offensive staff changes, the master plan for that experiment seems to have met it’s end for now.
For the Aztecs out of necessity and a bit of luck—new QB Jalen Mayden has taken the reigns of the offense. He’s performed admirably the last two starts, elevating a passing game that was previously non-existent.
No matter what malfunctions both teams may have, when the Aztecs and Bulldogs get together the Western division of the MW Conference is usually at stake. And this season is no different because both sides are once again competing with each other for a final seat in this game of musical chairs.
Three Keys to Beat Fresno
1. Stop Jordan Mims
The Aztecs were beaten last season by the Bulldogs. A bitter defeat that ended SDSU’s chances of being undefeated, but consequently didn’t end the Aztecs chances of winning the western division. But what it did do was expose some cracks in the Red & Black defensive armor.
“Let’s be honest, they beat the crap out of us last year” admits an honest Coach Hoke on 760AM’s the Coaches Show this week. “On both sides of the ball they were physical. They’re good upfront and this is going to be a battle.”
Uncharacteristically, the Aztecs gave up gashes of yardage on the ground by RB Jordan Mims. In order for the Aztecs to not have a repeat conclusion they must sure up their run defense. This season that has proven to be more of a challenge than expected. Even against some of the lower performing rushing attacks, the Aztecs have struggled giving up on average just under 148 yards per game.
Defensive lineman Jonah Tavai, Justice Tavai, and Keshawn Banks have their work cut out for them this week. After dominating last week on the road at Nevada, this group may be rounding into form at just the right time. Much will be expected from the linebackers to step up and fill in the gaps with all hats to the ball.
LB Caden McDonald, Michael Shawcroft, Seyddrick Lakalaka and others will be looking for redemption from last year. The emergence of redshirt freshman LB Zyrus Fiaseu is also a key player. Fiaseu jumping to the Mike Linebacker spot is definitely note worthy to see what kind of impact this will have on the game. The linebacker unit as a whole will have to be very focused on their assignments as Fresno’s Mims is averaging just under 100 yards per game and has 7 touchdowns already to his credit.
Overall containing Jordan Mims makes the Bulldogs offense one dimensional. And that’s what you want with QB Fife. To put all the game on his shoulders and make him prove he can move chains consistently against Kurt Mattix’s defense is key. Known to still throw interceptions, the Aztecs must take care of this first step in order to reap any turnover rewards.
2. Expect the Unexpected
Last week the Bulldogs offense and coach Jeff Tedford had the opportunity to face New Mexico and their 3-3-5 defense. The same defense SDSU employs because of their shared connection with former head coach and current Lobos defensive coordinator Rocky Long. New Mexico kept the game close for a half, but the power and adjustments of Tedford’s offense took over in the 3rd and 4th quarters, leading the way for a 41-9 victory.
For the Aztecs to avoid this same fate they must have all hands on deck to create wrinkles to their schemes and gameplan to give moves and counter moves to a wise old ball coach in Tedford.
“You look at every piece of film that you can. We have two analysts one on offense with Gary Bernardi who’s a very veteran coach and one with Kevin Wolfhausen on defense. Those guys there’s not a whole lot if anything that gets by them, its great to have two veteran coaches in those positions here and they really do a great job for us.”
The game film study is one of the most crucial ways to beat an opponent. Everything starts at the conceptual level to devise a gameplan the team can be confident and capable to execute. Coach Hoke, Mattix and Horton must learn from the mistakes made last season.
“I always look at a game a year ago. There’s a lot of carryover on some of the things that we do and that they do in New Mexico, but I also look at the San Jose game. They’re one the best defensive lines in our league, it’s gona be a battle and it’s gonna be fun…and we’ve got to prepare for our best game.“
What the Aztecs need to prepare for is the small possibility that QB Jake Haener suits up for the Fresno Faithful. As admitted by the Beware of Bulldogs Podcast, the coaching staff is extremely tip-lipped about their players health status in season. Though vague sources revealed Haener’s injury is a sever one, the gutsy QB is known to play through them. With this all important matchup circled on the schedule for both teams, no doubt if there was one to aim for a return to action, this would be the one.
3. Help Jalen Mayden Out
Much has been made of the new look offense and QB Jalen Mayden’s performances. He’s dazzled in more ways than one. Mayden has made plays in the pocket and made plays with his legs. Though accuracy can be tightened up, this game is time for the offense to come together and play on the same page.
Too many mistakes have prevented this team from dominating offensively. Wether its false start penalties, dropped passes, fumbles after the catch, or getting the plays in on time to the huddle—this is not the game the Aztecs can afford to make mental mistakes.
With a loud and hostile crowd on a Halloween weekend, Bulldog Stadium is sure to be rockin. Rather than allowing that to be a disadvantage the Aztecs offensive line needs to turn that on Fresno’s heels by attacking more than just protecting.
“If SDSU’s QB can run, that’s Fresno State’s weakness—a mobile QB that can get it done with his legs. That’s torched us this year. San Jose couldve smoked us if they ran Cordero more.” said Calen Pletz of the Beware of Bulldogs Podcast this week.
With Jalen demonstrating his ability to get things down with his legs, perhaps there are more opportunities for him to do so this week. Or even yet, Braxton Burmeister now in his backup role and WR packages—utilizing his athletic ability as much as possible to create mismatches on designed run plays or coming out of the slot position can help keep things in attacking mode.
One thing’s for sure and coach Hoke echoes our belief, that both sides get up for this game. “Both teams are gonna get each other’s best shot.”
Click below to get our full conversation with the Beware of Bulldogs Podcast about this rivalry matchup. Last week’s prediction we got it right but with far too much credit given to Nevada. This week we are sticking with respecting our opponent, but still pick our Aztecs to win it.
San Diego State 20 Fresno State 17