The San Diego State Aztecs are big fans of Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo.
“He’s the best quarterback in the league,” Aztecs coach Rocky Long said this week. “He’s torn us up the last two years. He’s just as good as he was and maybe a little bit better.”
Long and the Aztecs will take on Fajardo and the Wolf Pack on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. CBS Sports Network) at Mackay Stadium in a pivotal Mountain West showdown. The Pack, 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the Mountain West, trail the Aztecs (4-3, 3-1) by a game in the West Division.
“This game is big if we want to get to the Mountain West championship game,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said.
“The winner of this game is in the driver’s seat in the West Division,” Long said.
Long knows exactly who is sitting in the Wolf Pack’s driver’s seat these days.
“He’s (Fajardo) the guy that makes their offense go,” said Long, who was the head coach at New Mexico when the Lobos shut out the Wolf Pack and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, 23-0, in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to win. In modern day football, the team with the best quarterback has the best chance to win.”
Fajardo has passed for 1,814 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 585 yard and 10 touchdowns this season for the Wolf Pack. San Diego State quarterback Quinn Kaehler, who missed the equivalent of two games earlier this season because of a shoulder injury, has passed for 1,045 yards and just three touchdowns this year while being intercepted seven times.
“Cody always makes the right plays,” San Diego State senior cornerback J.J. Whittaker said. “He’s very efficient.”
“He’s the best quarterback in our division,” Aztecs senior defensive end Dontrell Onuoha said. “He’s a great quarterback. He’s a great player. Most of their offense comes from him.”
Fajardo shredded the Aztecs’ defense the last two years, throwing for 697 yards and five touchdowns and rushing for 115 yards and another touchdown in the two games combined. The Aztecs, though, won both games in overtime (39-38 in Reno in 2012 and 51-44 at San Diego State last year). Kaehler, though, has also played well against the Wolf Pack, throwing for 286 yards and three touchdowns last year.
“The quarterbacks don’t duel against each other,” Long said. “They duel against the defense. What we ask Quinn to do is completely different than what they ask Fajardo to do.”
The Aztecs basically ask Kaehler to hand the ball off to running back Donnel Pumphrey. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound sophomore from Canyon Springs High in Las Vegas, has rushed for 989 yards and 12 touchdowns this year.
The Wolf Pack is as big of an admirer of Pumphrey as the Aztecs are of Fajardo.
“He’s one of the most electric players in our league,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said.
Pumphrey ran for 112 yards on just 11 carries last year against the Wolf Pack. His 72-yard touchdown run opened the scoring in the game.
“Last year he was just a little fast guy and they had to find creative ways just to get him the ball,” Polian said. “This year he is a polished running back.”
“He’s a guy who can make people miss,” Wolf Pack safety Duran Workman said. “We’re going to have to get a lot of hats to the ball.”
Pumphrey, who hopes to be playing in the Mountain West championship on his 20th birthday on Dec. 6, was the Gatorade Nevada High School Player of the Year in 2012 after rushing for 1,491 yards and 19 touchdowns for Canyon Springs. He ran for 4,152 yards and 49 touchdowns in his high school career.
“He’s a great back,” Wolf Pack linebacker Jonathan McNeal said. “Very explosive. He makes people miss in the open field and that’s what separates him from everybody else.”
The Wolf Pack has allowed 4.6 yards a carry and 153.9 yards a game on the ground this year. Arizona’s Nick Wilson (171 yards) and Boise State’s Jay Ajayi (152), though, are the only two runners to gain at least 100 yards against the Wolf Pack this year. The Wolf Pack has lost its last eight games -- Arizona, Boise State this year and BYU, Colorado State, Fresno State, UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State last year --when it has allowed an opposing player to gain at least 100 yards.
San Diego State had two runners (Pumphrey with 112 and Adam Muema with 134) go over 100 yards against the Pack last year. The Aztecs, whose running backs are coached by former Wolf Pack head coach Jeff Horton, ran for 255 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s overtime victory over Nevada.
Long put Saturday’s game into perspective.
“Everything they do goes through Fajardo,” Long said. “Everything we do goes through our running game.”
Polian is well aware what the Aztecs like to do.
“Rocky wants to play great defense and run the ball,” Polian said. “They are the Stanford of the Mountain West. They don’t mind beating you 17-14. They are not going to beat you by out-scheming you. They want to physically take a toll on you.”
Long is 3-0 lifetime against the Wolf Pack.
“He’s a brilliant coach,” Polian said. “He doesn’t do it with smoke and mirrors. His teams reflect his demeanor. They coach toughness. They are old school football and you are going to see a lot of two tight ends and a fullback and just one wideout, which is something you don’t see a lot of in our league.”
The Aztecs are 7-1 when Pumphrey has rushed for at least 100 yards the last two seasons. Pumphrey also has had 145 runs on first down in his career and has averaged 6.8 yards a carry with 15 touchdowns.
“We have to stop Pumphrey,” Polian said. “We have to avoid putting them in a lot of 3rd-and-3 situations.”
San Diego State’s defense has allowed an average of just 18.7 points and 339 yards a game. The Aztecs also have 16 sacks this year from 10 different players.
“They are the most physical opponent we’ll play this year,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack, which will become bowl eligible with its next victory, insists it is up to the challenge.
“As a defense we’re pretty physical ourselves,” McNeal said. “We’re all going to be pretty beat up after this game but it’s going to be OK with a win.”
“It’s going to be cold (game time temperatures are expected to be in the low 30s) and it’s going to be physical, smash-mouth football,” Workman said. “That’s the type of game I like to play.”
The Wolf Pack offense hasn’t had many problems moving the ball and scoring against the Aztecs the last two years, averaging 41 points and 525 yards in the two heartbreaking losses.
“I hope we’re better on defense than we’ve been against them the last two years,” Long said.
Long is most afraid of Fajardo’s ability to run the ball.
“He’s as fast as Kaepernick,” Long said. “He makes one guy miss and then he outruns everybody else to the end zone. Part of it is scheme but mostly it’s just how he executes it. It’s the skill set of the quarterback.”
“Cody is a lot faster than he looks,” Whittaker said. “His speed is deceptive. I think we’ll do a good job against him. We have to or else we’ll be in trouble.”
Fajardo led the Wolf Pack to comeback victories over BYU (42-35) and Hawaii (26-18) the last two weeks. The Pack trailed BYU 28-13 at halftime and Hawaii 10-0 in the second quarter.
“The team is in a good spot right now,” Fajardo said. “You can see something special building. The guys are playing for each other.”
Fajardo rallied the Pack from a 44-23 deficit in the fourth quarter last year at San Diego State to force overtime. “Obviously we’d like to start fast and score at the beginning of games,” Fajardo said. “But if we get down nobody gets discouraged. Last week at Hawaii we kind of made a joke about it. Guys were saying, ‘Hey, we’re only down (10-6). We can come back from that no big deal.”
Polian is hoping his Wolf Pack doesn’t need any dramatic comebacks against San Diego State. “If we get down by two touchdowns against them, it will be tough to come back because they’ll just run the ball and eat the clock,” Polian said.
The last thing Fajardo wants is for the Wolf Pack offense to become one dimensional against San Diego State’s aggressive and physical defense.
“You watch them on film and you think that they are out there with about 15 guys,” Fajardo said. “They are all over the place and it looks like they have more than 11 guys out there.”
Polian is hoping the cold temperatures on Saturday night will be a Wolf Pack advantage.
“I promise you that not many San Diego State guys are used to 35 degrees,” Polian said. “I’m from Buffalo. It’s not going to bother me and it‘s not going to bother our players. Hopefully it’s going to be an advantage for us.”
San Diego State’s coldest game this year was 60 degrees at Albuquerque against New Mexico in a 24-14 victory. Last year, though, the Aztecs beat Buffalo (49-24) in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise when the temperature was 30 degrees. The Aztecs are 14-19 in their school history when the temperature at kickoff is below 50 degrees. They won 27-20 at Air Force last year when the temperature was 49 degrees. It was 63 degrees the last time the Aztecs came to Reno in 2012.
“I’m from Southern California but now I think of myself as a Reno native,” Fajardo said. “But the first couple times I played in the cold weather here I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ But now I want it cold. We can use that to our advantage.’”