Nevada faces test from Pumphrey, Aztecs
Special to The R-C
SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS vs. NEVADA WOLF PACK
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mackay Stadium
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: 630-AM, 94.5-FM
RECORDS: San Diego State (8-1, 5-0), Nevada (3-6, 1-4)
Nobody has to tell the Nevada Wolf Pack about Donnel Pumphrey.
“Donnel Pumphrey is exceptional,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said this week. “He’s as good as we’ve seen. He’s a player we are going to see play on Sundays (in the NFL).”
The Wolf Pack are also going to see plenty of the San Diego State running back Saturday night when the Aztecs invade Mackay Stadium. The Aztecs (8-1 overall, 5-0 Mountain West) have already clinched a spot in the Mountain West championship game and have won 16 conference games in a row. The Wolf Pack (3-6, 1-4) have lost five of their last six games and need to sweep their final three regular season games to become bowl eligible.
“We are fighting right now to salvage the season,” Wolf Pack linebacker Alex Bertrando said.
Bertrando and the Wolf Pack defense figure to have their hands full trying to contain Pumphrey. The Las Vegas native (Canyon Springs High School) currently leads all FBS running backs in the nation with 1,581 yards. He is also fifth in NCAA history (FBS) with 5,853 career yards. His 30 career 100-yard games as well as his 58 rushing touchdowns and 63 overall touchdowns also leads all active FBS backs.
“He’s fast,” Bertrando said. “He runs the ball well between the tackles and when he needs to break outside he can beat you with speed.”
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Pumphrey has rushed for 351 yards and three touchdowns on just 47 carries (7.5 a carry) in three games in his career against the Wolf Pack. He had 154 yards and two touchdowns last year when the Aztecs beat the Pack 31-14 in San Diego.
“We just need to play physical and keep him between the tackles,” Bertrando said.
The Wolf Pack have struggled against most running backs this year, let alone the No. 5 rusher in NCAA Division I-A history. A total of nine players have rushed for at least 100 yards in a game against the Wolf Pack this season, led by Wyoming’s Brian Hill (289 yards) and Hawaii’s Diocemy Sainte Juste (205). The Wolf Pack rank last in the Mountain West in rushing defense, allowing 279.9 yards a game on the ground. Wyoming (391 yards), Cal Poly (383), New Mexico (373) and Hawaii (344) have all run for 300 or more yards against the Pack this year.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Polian said. “They are going to run it against us until we slow it down.”
Pumphrey, who averages 6.5 yards a carry, ran for 281 yards against California and 223 against Utah State this season. Those are the second and third highest single-game rushing totals in the Mountain West this season behind Hill’s 289-yard effort against the Wolf Pack.
“For our team to win and have success he needs to get the ball a lot,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said this week.
Pumphrey is being mentioned this season as one of the favorites to win the Heisman trophy.
“He deserves it,” Aztecs tight end David Wells said. “He’s the leading rusher in the nation. And he’s been doing it for four years now.”
The Aztecs, who haven’t lost to a Mountain West opponent since a 38-29 loss at Boise State on Nov. 15, 2014 (they lost at Nevada two weeks earlier, 30-14), average 273.9 rushing yards a game.
“We just want to keep opening up holes for him and let him do his thing,” said Wells of Pumphrey.
“Look, he’s going to get his yards,” Polian said. “Everybody they play gears up to stopping him and he still gets his yards. He’s that talented.”
The Aztecs seem to thrive on the challenge.
“Coach always tells us we need to be the toughest team on the field,” Wells said. “It doesn’t matter how many guys they put in the box (to stop the run). We still want to run it down their throat.”
The Wolf Pack also have a productive running back in junior James Butler, who is fourth in the Mountain West with 989 yards. He had just 20 yards on eight carries last year against San Diego State but he also had 103 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown, at Mackay Stadium against the Aztecs in 2014.
“I talked to (Wyoming’s) Brian Hill after our game against them and we call ourselves the conference of the running backs,” Butler said. “It’s cool to see that.”
Butler, like Pumphrey, is just 5-foot-9.
“He (Pumphrey) has an ability to break tackles as a smaller man and he can also hurt you with his feet,” Butler said.
The Wolf Pack’s offense has improved drastically the last two games with new quarterback Ty Gangi. The sophomore took over the offense against Wyoming two weeks ago because of a shoulder injury to Tyler Stewart and has passed for 601 yards and four touchdowns in just seven quarters. The Pack have also scored 60 points in those seven quarters against Wyoming and New Mexico after scoring just 68 points combined in its four previous games with Stewart.
“He’s handled the pressure well,” Polian said. “From time to time he will try to do a little bit too much. He’s trying to make the incredible play instead of just taking the routine one. But there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue to develop and get better. He’s had a ton of positives and a lot of production.”
“He’s shown his presence and he’s not afraid to take chances,” Butler said.
“We have more weapons back there with Gangi,” tight end Jarred Gipson said. “The offense is coming together and I think we can still put up more points on the board.”
At the beginning of the season, Saturday’s game was regarded as a possible showdown for the West Division title. The conference’s media, after all, picked the Aztecs to finish first and the Wolf Pack second in the division before the season. The Aztecs, though, have already clinched the division, outscoring their five league opponents 180-26, while the Wolf Pack have fallen to fifth place in the six-team West Division.
The last time San Diego State came to Mackay Stadium in 2014, the Wolf Pack won to climb into a first-place tie in the division with the Aztecs (at 3-2 in league play). Since that game, however, San Diego State has gone 15-1 in league play in the regular season while the Wolf Pack have gone 6-10.
“San Diego State is clearly the class of the Mountain West,” Polian said. “They are the standard.”