West title at stake for SDSU against UNLV

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West title at stake for SDSU against UNLV

by Anthony Reclusado, Senior Staff Writer

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With a berth in the Mountain West Championship game on the line, the San Diego State football team is going all in when it takes on UNLV in Sin City.

The win, or a University of Nevada loss to Utah State, will see the Aztecs (7-3, 6-0 MW) clinch the West Division and give them their chance to win the program’s first outright championship since 1986.

However, UNLV (3-7, 2-4 MW) will try to play the role of party crasher as the Rebels try to prevent SDSU from celebrating on their home turf.

“They are talented enough to beat us for sure,” Aztec head coach Rocky Long said Tuesday. “It’s going to be the team that plays the best that’s going to win.”

No MW team has played better than SDSU, which enters Saturday’s tilt on a six-game winning streak that has been predicated on a simple formula: defense, forcing turnovers and running the ball.

Defensively, the Aztecs will have their hands full trying to contain a Rebel offense that features three running backs that have each rushed for over 300 yards this season.

If that is not enough, UNLV is not afraid to gamble on their backup dual-threat quarterback Kurt Palandech. The sophomore has accounted for 857 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air and on the ground.

It will ease Long’s mind that promising junior linebacker Randy Ricks will return to the lineup after battling a toe injury and senior linebacker Jake Fely is cleared to play.

The SDSU secondary will also have to cover UNLV’s sophomore wide receiver duo in Devonte Boyd and Kendal Keys.

“This is the best combo of receivers we’ve played against since Cal,” Long said.

But the Rebels will have to mind their Ps and Qs against an Aztec defense that ranks fifth in turnovers forced with 24, including 16 from interceptions.

Junior cornerback Damontae Kazee leads SDSU with eight forced turnovers. He has six interceptions and two forced fumbles. Not to be outdone, junior safety Malik Smith has recorded three interceptions in as many games.

“This year, we’re getting a lot of turnovers on defense that changes (the momentum) in games and gives our offense good field position a lot of the time,” Long said.

The Aztec offense maintains possession by punishing opponents with the rushing attack, which allows the defense to remain fresh and to continue the cycle.

Junior running back Donnel Pumphrey leads the country’s No. 20 ground game, averaging 144.3 yards on the current win streak, including nine rushing touchdowns.

Of course it is never a tough decision for offensive coordinator Jeff Horton to give Pumphrey a breather with a great complimentary back in Chase Price. The senior is averaging 92.8 yards the last six games and with five touchdowns in the last three games.

That’s bad news for UNLV, which has struggled stopping the run. There has yet to be a team in the MW that has solved the one-two punch of Pumphrey and Price.

The UNLV defense will also have stay honest in its coverage as SDSU’s graduate transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith, who has found his rhythm and takes advantage of the play-action.

Regardless, one thing is for certain when these two teams meet Saturday night: What happens in Vegas will certainly not stay in Vegas.

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