Boise State Football

‘The atmosphere is definitely different’: Broncos, Aztecs ready for rare battle

Boise State wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes dives for a first down in the fourth quarter against San Diego State on Nov. 15, 2014, at Albertsons Stadium in the teams’ last meeting.
Boise State wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes dives for a first down in the fourth quarter against San Diego State on Nov. 15, 2014, at Albertsons Stadium in the teams’ last meeting. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

When San Diego State senior running back Rashaad Penny got back to his locker following Saturday’s win at UNLV, a game in which he rushed for 170 yards, he had a text from his predecessor.

Donnel Pumphrey, who finished his Aztecs career last season as the No. 1 rusher in FBS history, told Penny two things.

“He said ‘good game,’ then ‘it’s a big week,’ ” Penny said.

Pumphrey always had a thing or two to say about facing Boise State. For example, in February, he said he was “(ticked) that Boise State is on the schedule when I’m no longer playing,” noting that with running back Jeremy McNichols leaving early, “that’s a (win) for us.”

“It meant so much to him,” Penny said, adding that Pumphrey plans to be at Saturday’s game. “Last time we played them, we lost. Even though most of our guys weren’t playing then, we’re going to play with an edge, because we didn’t forget.”

The Broncos and Aztecs have played four times, going 2-2. Boise State erased a 20-0 deficit on Nov. 15, 2014, in the last meeting and won 38-29. San Diego State coach Rocky Long said “that’s a long way from being a rivalry” since the teams don’t play every year.

But make no mistake, with both being the preseason favorite in their divisions, and both being among the best Group of Five teams in recent years, Saturday’s game is a big deal.

“I think it’s exciting, because it’s been so long since we’ve played them,” Boise State senior linebacker Gabe Perez said. “Last couple years they’ve been at the top, we haven’t won the Mountain West championship, so it’s exciting to see where we’re at compared to them.”

San Diego State has won the last two Mountain West titles. For the Aztecs, they know what is at stake — a chance to further establish themselves as the conference’s best and also show they should be the favorites to be the Group of Five representative in a New Year’s Six bowl.

“The atmosphere is definitely different this week,” Penny said. “When you have that chance to play Boise and you’re San Diego State, it’s like a Super Bowl. They’re going to be hungry.

“We’re that team in the Group of Five that’s right there. In the past few years, even when we’ve been good, they were picking Boise. It’s our time to prove it now.”

So, some consider it a rivalry, and some have said it’s just another game. But based on the tied series, the close games, the teams’ status as the best of the conference, and even some choice words, it’s not like any other week.

Take the last matchup, after Long said there’s no longer a “mystique” around Albertsons Stadium. Three years before that, he said the blue turf should be removed because it’s “unfair.” After the 2014 win, Boise State coach Bryan Harsin’s first matchup with San Diego State, he made a comment about the Aztecs not even having their own stadium, and said, “We don’t ... like to be talked about that way.”

“It’s kind of been beaten up,” Harsin said Monday. “Just some silly things that have been said.”

Harsin joked this week that “I wouldn’t say Rocky and I hang out,” but said he admires Long’s ability to coach winners and be a defensive innovator. Long said this week that Boise State “is a very good football team” and that had the Broncos upset Washington State, he thought they would’ve been ranked ahead of San Diego State.

But he’s not backing off anything he said in years past.

“I said that a couple years back because I was making sure everybody knew,” Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Honestly, in our league, I don’t think anybody sees that anymore.”

FORMER BRONCO A HALL OF FAMER

Kimo von Oelhoffen, a defensive lineman for Boise State in 1992 and 1993, was named one of five inductees into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday.

A Hawaii native, von Oelhoffen played 14 NFL seasons with four teams. The induction ceremony will take place in January in Hawaii for the hall of fame, which was co-founded in 2013 by ex-NFL defensive lineman Ma’a Tanuvasa. His son, of the same name, is a walk-on redshirt freshman safety at Boise State.

A FAMILIAR FACE HELPING AZTECS

Brandon Heicklen spent just a few months at Boise State, but his time with the Broncos wasn’t that long ago.

San Diego State’s starting punter, Heicklen joined the Broncos as a walk-on in January and was on the team through spring practices. However, a medical issue in which his mother received a kidney transplant from his father brought him back closer to home.

A sophomore, Heicklen is averaging 38.8 yards per punt on 30 attempts.

EVEN ROCKY LIKES O-LINE’S PLAY

Long was asked Tuesday about Boise State’s offensive line, which has seen five different starting combinations this season. The Aztecs were in a similar situation this season, returning just one starter.

Against BYU, the Broncos did not allow a sack and found some consistency in the run game.

“The whole O-line crew did a phenomenal job,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “... It definitely showed on film. There were a lot of those BYU bodies on the ground, so it was fun watching film the next day.”

Long took notice, too.

“Our offensive line is getting better and so is theirs,” Long said. “I thought their offensive line played well against BYU and BYU has some big guys up front — a big, strong front seven — and they did a nice job against them.”

TRYING TO BUCK THE TRENDS

Boise State junior receiver Sean Modster put it simply: “It would definitely be big to get a win over San Diego State.”

But the Broncos will have to fight some recent history to do it. They’re 2-10 all-time against ranked opponents on the road while unranked. The last such win was in 2008 at Oregon.

The Aztecs are 27-3 in their last 30 games and their plus-44 turnover margin is the best in the nation since 2015, by 12. They’re 22-3 in their last 25 home games, which is also the same mark Boise State has in that span. A key for the Broncos: If they hold the Aztecs to less than 200 yards rushing, it could equal a win. The Aztecs have won 35 straight games when hitting that mark.

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn

Boise State at No. 19 San Diego State

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: SDCCU Stadium (54,000, grass), San Diego

TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)

Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)

Records: BSU 3-2, 1-0 (beat BYU 24-7); San Diego State 6-0, 2-0 (beat UNLV 41-10)

Series: Tied 2-2 (Boise State won 38-29 on Nov. 15, 2014, in last meeting)

Vegas line: San Diego State by 7

Kickoff weather: High 60s, clear

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