SDSU faces Air Force in Mountain West Championship game
SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego State will face Air Force in the Mountain West Football Championship Game Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium, seeking its first outright conference championship since 1986 when it was a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
The Aztecs (9-3, 8-0 in conference play), the champion of the conference's West Division, have won eight consecutive games, their longest streak since a 10-game winning streak from 1976-77. They have not trailed in the second half during the winning streak.
San Diego State has a five-game winning streak over Air Force (8-4, 6-2), the Mountain Division champion, including a 30-14 victory in their last meeting, Nov. 21, 2014.
The Aztecs rebounded from a 1-3 September that included losses at California (35-7 on Sept. 12) and Penn State (37-21 on Sept. 26), plus a 34-27 overtime loss to South Alabama at Qualcomm Stadium on Sept. 19 that led part of the fan base to question the future of the coaching staff.
"After the Penn State game I was wondering if we could ever win another game," San Diego State coach Rocky Long said this week.
"But in this business and with players that are competitors, you don't know what's in your future, but you keep working hard and you keep expecting good things to happen to you. The players kept their faith and kept working hard and we got better and won a couple of game.
"Then all of a sudden the confidence factor showed up and we started playing better. Momentum is amazing thing."
Two key factors in the Aztecs' turnaround are a defense that shares the lead in takeaways among Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 31, and running back Donnel Pumphrey, who has rushed for at least 121 yards during each game of the winning streak.
San Diego State senior quarterback Maxwell Smith will miss the game because of a knee injury sustained in last Saturday's 31-14 victory over Nevada that will require surgery, Long said.
Christian Chapman, a redshirt freshman from Carlsbad High School, will start in Smith's place.
"We're obviously going to try and tailor some plays and take advantage of what he does best," Long said. "The game plan will be simplified from what it was when Maxwell was in there."
Chapman completed six of nine passes for 44 yards against Nevada.
"I thought he looked really confident in the game last Saturday," Long said. "He didn't seem like he was nervous. I thought he made a lot of good decisions. When he didn't think he could get the ball in there, he scrambled with it. As long as the run game gets going, he'll be just fine."
The Aztecs are also expected to be without starting defensive lineman Christian Heyward, a USC transfer, who also suffered a knee injury last week.
San Diego State is seeking its 20th conference title.
Various oddsmakers have made the Aztecs a 6.5-7-point favorite. ESPN's Football Power Index gives San Diego State a 67.7 percent chance of winning.