2021 Mountain West Football Championship: Three Statistics That Could Decide The Game
The San Diego State Aztecs and Utah State Aggies could be decided by a handful of key factors. We dive into the numbers you need to know.
Stats don’t lie.
The Mountain West football championship game between San Diego State and Utah State is now just days away. Both teams have beaten the odds to make it this far, but the Aztecs and Aggies still have plenty left for which to play.
On the one hand, how can Utah State write one more blockbuster chapter in what has been one of college football’s best stories? On the other, what can the Aztecs do to prove they are unquestionably the class of the conference? With that in mind, a few key statistics could play an outsized role in determining the winner of the game. Here are the numbers worth knowing:
Putting together scoring drives against the San Diego State defense has proven to be an arduous affair all season long, which is why the Aztecs allow just 17.3 point per game. That puts them in a tie for ninth among all FBS teams but, in filtering out garbage time and narrowing the focus, they’ve been even better: In allowing only 1.2 points per drive, San Diego State ranks behind only Georgia, Oklahoma State, and Clemson.
That makes Utah State’s ability to get anything out of their opportunities all the more critical. Five Aztecs opponents have done better than that 1.2 PPD but only one, Fresno State, managed to crack two points per drive. If the Aggies have solved their issue with slow starts for good, as evidenced by their most recent games against Wyoming and New Mexico, that could bode very well for their chances to upset the Aztecs.
Utah State has an adequate running game, but it’s probably no secret that their chances of winning will depend a lot on keeping quarterback Logan Bonner on his feet so he can attack the San Diego State secondary. Though the Aggies have allowed an above-average 5.6% sack rate that ranks 51st nationally, Bonner also tends to take a lot of hits regardless.
That’s where the Aztecs and their 7% sack rate (54th among FBS defenses) could derail Utah State’s best-laid plans in a hurry. Cameron Thomas’s 10.5 sacks have done most of the heavy lifting in this regard, but we just saw last week that defensive tackle Jonah Tavai is more than capable of blowing things up on the interior; Pro Football Focus gave Tavai a pass-rushing grade of 85.1 for the season, second among Mountain West interior defenders. Keshawn Banks is no slouch, either, so Alfred Edwards and the rest of the Aggies offensive line will need to bring their A-game to Carson.
If they can, then it’s also worth noting that just three teams averaged seven yards per attempt against the Aztecs this year: Fresno State, Nevada, and UNLV. Conversely, Utah State has failed to average seven yards per attempt on offense in just four games, including all three of their losses.
For as maligned as Utah State’s defense has been this season, a closer look at the statistical evidence shows a lot of improvement across the board. They allow just 2.06 points per drive (51st nationally) and have been surprisingly stingy in the red zone: Only Boise State has allowed a lower percentage of touchdowns when opponents reach the 20-yard line than the Aggies, who’ve done so on just 21-of-43 opportunities, or 48.84%.
This is where San Diego State quarterback Jordon Brookshire could have a monumental impact, though he has plenty to prove considering he’s completed just 1-of-7, or 14.3%, of his red zone throws this season. Small sample size caveats apply here, but the only quarterback in the Mountain West who has been even remotely as ineffective in the red zone is Hawaii’s freshman backup, Brayden Schager. He’ll have to tread carefully, though, because Utah State also leads the conference with four red zone interceptions.
This number happens to reflect the quality of run defense between San Diego State and Utah State when it comes to containing explosive plays. The Aztecs have allowed four runs of 20 or more yards this season, while the Aggies have allowed 20, the fewest and most in the Mountain West, respectively.
Granted, San Diego State has seen six fewer rushing attempts per game on average (though this isn’t adjusted for sacks), so there’s a little bit of important context of which to be aware. However, there’s a narrative where someone like Jordan Byrd breaks into the open field for a big gain, giving the Aztecs just enough breathing room to play their game and keep the Aggies at arm’s length.
No, we’re not talking about the meaning of life here. It’s much more straightforward than that: Utah State can’t afford to lose the field position game for too long if it wants to survive against an Aztecs team that’s happy to play in a war of attrition.
This is where available yards percentage earned could be very important. In a nutshell, if a team starts at its own 25-yard line and drives to the opponent’s 25-yard line before stalling, they earned 50 of 75, or 66.7%, of the yards available to them.
So why is this important? Utah State failed to clear 42% of available yards earned in three games this year. If you haven’t guessed by now, those were the three games that the Aggies lost to Boise State (39.7%), BYU (41.2%), and Wyoming (41.8%). That’s a big ask against an Aztecs defense that gives up just 32.7% of available yards on average, the fifth-best figure in the country, but Utah State’s bevy of pass-catchers might be uniquely suited to test them.
San Diego State is never going to be a team that will drop back and throw the ball 30 times unless something has gone wrong, but in the second half of the season Lucan Johnson and Jordon Brookshire have been as efficient as offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski surely hoped they would be. In the last six games, dating back to San Diego State’s road win over Air Force, the Aztecs have completed 99-of-162, or 61.1%, of their passes.
The one game in that stretch where San Diego State’s passing game sputtered, unsurprisingly, was the loss to Fresno State. Last week, a battered Johnson wasn’t great before being replaced, but Brookshire had a 73.3% completion rate in relief to keep Boise State at bay. In other words, Utah State has a subtle but important task on its hand in keeping the Aztecs unbalanced.
One remarkable thing about the Aztecs’ run to the West division crown is that, by and large, they did it without much of a homefield advantage, drawing an average of just 10,279 fans per game in seven contests at Dignity Health Sports Park. To the fans’ credit, though, that attendance number has improved in each of the Aztecs’ last five home games, topping out at 11,886 last Friday morning against Boise State.
Considering last week’s unusual circumstances, that’s a pretty good showing, but will they show up one more time to help put the home team over the top? We’ll have to wait and find out.