The Central Michigan Chippewas (8-5, 6-3 MAC) and San Diego State Aztecs (9-3, 5-3 MWC) meet up in Albuqerque on Saturday afternoon, when the two schools fight for the clay pot trophy in this year’s edition of the New Mexico Bowl.
Both teams will be hungry to end the year on a positive note after being unable to clinch conference championships, as SDSU was unable to advance to the championship game (Hawai’i advanced due to a head-to-head tiebreaker) and CMU couldn’t get out of their own way in their title game against Miami.
The last time CMU played a Mountain West team was the Josh Allen version of the Wyoming Cowboys in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, a game which did not end terribly well for them, falling 37-14. They’ll look for a better result on Saturday.
To learn more about CMU’s upcoming opponent, we talked to Mountain West Wire’s Matt Kenerley:
Hustle Belt: SDSU finished 9-3 in the regular season, and carry an undefeated out-of-conference mark, which is extremely impressive. They were narrowly shut out of the Mountain West Championship Game due to a handful of tough conference losses, however. What were the expectations heading into the season, and how have the Aztecs performed up to this point?
Matt Kenerley: There was some uncertainty about how the new-look offense would come together, but nearly every prognosticator thought the Aztecs would be a factor in the race for the Mountain West crown and they didn’t disappoint on that count. The offense had its moments, but strong defense and special teams really defined the season and while not playing for the title is perhaps a little disappointing, rebounding from last year’s November slump is a positive takeaway.
HB: SDSU is famous for milling out dominant running backs, including Marshall Faulk, Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny. Will the offense CMU be facing be much of the same with Juwan Washington handling carries, or has it become a bit more balanced?
MK: The Aztecs have thrown the ball 44% of the time after doing so on just 40% of plays in 2018 and it’s been a good thing. The ground game has actually struggled quite a bit in 2019 despite a shift toward more pistol and spread concepts, finishing the regular season at the bottom of the Mountain West on a per-play basis, and that can’t be totally explained away by Washington’s season-long health issues (at present, he’s questionable for the bowl game).
Ryan Agnew’s emergence at quarterback, as well as that of young talents like Kobe Smith and Jesse Matthews at wide receiver, have helped them be functional more often than not, but there have been times where the whole attack has disappeared. They haven’t scored more than 17 points since October, after all, which is a dangerous path to tread.
HB: Starting corners Kyron McKinnie-Harper and Darius Bracy are both going to be out for the game, on Saturday, leaving youngsters Montrae Braswell and Norman Anderson to shoulder the load. Does that change up the gameplan for SDSU? What should CMU fans expect from the SDSU corps of receivers?
MK: The passing game doesn’t have a lot of flash, creating just six plays of 30-plus yards this fall, but it makes up for that in steadiness and it’s hard to imagine the Aztecs changing now. Smith and Matthews have done some of their best work on third downs, making catches in traffic and grinding for the extra yard, while tight end Daniel Bellinger has surprised as a niche weapon with 20 yards per catch in four of the last seven games. Add Agnew’s elusiveness to that and Central Michigan will need discipline and sound tackling to keep the Aztecs in check.
HB: The SDSU defense has been nearly elite this season, and their next challenge will be to face an offense on the verge of having two 1000-yard rushers, as well as a receiver pair who were voted first-team All-MAC. Where does the Aztec defense focus its attention, and how do you think they’ll gameplan against a very aggressive offense?
MK: I think the CMU/Miami game is instructive because the Hurricanes were able to get fairly consistent pressure with four rushers, but San Diego State’s 3-3-5 defense means that fourth athlete could come from anywhere. The defensive line trio of Keshawn Banks, Myles Cheatum and Cameron Thomas has been sensational, and four different linebackers have at least three tackles for loss behind them.
It also doesn’t hurt that Luq Barcoo, who’s earned a spot on various All-American teams recently, is the closest thing the Mountain West has had to a shutdown corner this season with eight interceptions and 16 pass breakups. Darren Hall is no slouch on the other side of the field, though, with 16 pass breakups of his own. Both are tied for the FBS lead, so it may be a little more like being locked in with Rorschach as it were, than the other way around.
HB: Which players on the CMU side of the ball do you think will make SDSU fans nervous?
MK: I think someone who could stifle the running game and force Ryan Agnew into a mistake would create a lot of unease, so I look at the defensive end tandem of Sean Adensaya and LaQuan Johnson as a potentially significant mismatch. Tight end Tony Poljan, if he plays, could be another since the Aztecs haven’t faced very many players of his talent at that position this fall.
HB: Finally: how do you think the game will go down in the chilly air of Albuquerque?
MK: I think it’ll be a duel of defense and field position, meaning that the game will probably turn based on how much the Aztecs can move the ball on offense. If CMU can create opportunities and get at least three points whenever they cross midfield, it may only require a six- or ten-point lead for the Chippewas to really dictate the terms of the game.
Many thanks to Matt Kenerly of Mountain West Wire for answering our questions! We did a Q&A with MWW back on Wednesday, which you can check out at MWWire.com. You can follow them at @MWCWire on Twitter, and Matt personally at @MattK_FS!