5 Things to Watch: No. 19 Aztecs vs. Utah State for Mountain West championship – The San Diego Union-Tribune

There was a time when bowl officials attended an important late-season contest, made their way down to the field following the final whistle and invited the winner to come to their game.

Officials for the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl are expected to be in attendance for Saturday’s Mountain West championship game between No. 19 San Diego State and Utah State.

But there will be no invitation accompanying the trophy presentation. That will have to wait a day.

The LA Bowl gets first crack at the Mountain West champion, though it has not committed to taking the team that wins the title.

The most LA Bowl Executive Director Jason Gannon would say in a one-paragraph statement earlier this week was: “Our team is working with the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences to deliver the best matchup possible. We will announce the teams this upcoming Selection Sunday.”

These days, with ESPN controlling nearly half of the 42 bowl games, the announcement is a made-for-TV event.

Matchups are closely guarded — Twitter rumors aside — in order to build drama.

ESPN will announce the final College Football Playoff rankings at 9 a.m. Sunday, kicking off a four-hour show that will unveil matchups for all 42 bowls.

The Aztecs (11-1) are 5 1/2-point favorites against Utah State (9-3) in a game that kicks off at noon (Fox).

Here are five things to watch:

1. QB or not QB

With Lucas Johnson potentially limited by a right knee injury suffered against Boise State, SDSU head coach Brady Hoke is expected to start backup quarterback Jordon Brookshire against the Aggies.

Brookshire rallied SDSU to a 27-16 win over the Broncos, directing four scoring drives after entering the game with the Aztecs trailing 16-3 late in the second quarter.

Utah State coach Blake Anderson said the Aggies would prepare for both QBs, but is more concerned with the Aztecs’ offensive philosophy than the player directing the offense.

“Brady’s pretty clear and very up front about what he wants to do on offense,” Anderson said. “He wants to run the ball right at you, find out if you’re physical enough to stop it. Throw the vertical ball or the back shoulder ball to some big, physical wideouts.

“Regardless which quarterback is playing, you’ve got to be able to hold up to those things, or you have no chance.

“I’m not sure it makes a tremendous difference which (quarterback) we see in this particular game because they’re going to come at you the same way. They’ve done it all year and they’ve been really, really good at it.

“That, to me, presents a way bigger challenge than what quarterback we’re going to see.”

2. COVID concerns

SDSU is expected to be short-handed because of COVID-19 issues within the program.

How many players are missing from the lineup remains to be seen since SDSU officials have made no public statements (as has been their policy throughout the coronavirus pandemic) and did not return several calls and messages from the Union-Tribune seeking comment.

True freshman quarterback Will Haskell, who had been the backup to Johnson the past two months, and holder Jack Browning missed last week’s game against Boise State.

Multiple sources speaking on condition of anonymity said both players were under COVID protocols.

Several sources this week said the team’s tight ends now were impacted by COVID as well, though specific players were not mentioned.

Haskell’s absence would mean playing Johnson, if he is able, behind Brookshire. Sophomore Jalen Mayden, a transfer from Mississippi State who has not played a snap this season, would be third in line.

Backup kicker David Delgado is expected to hold again in Browning’s absence.

The biggest impact could be to what extent SDSU’s tight ends are sidelined. The position is used extensively for blocking in the run game.

Offensively, senior Daniel Bellinger (29 catches, 344 yards, 3 TDs) ranks second on the team in receptions and TDs.

Sophomore Jay Rudolph (1 catch, 2 yards, TD) is the only other tight end with a reception.

SDSU wide receiver Tyrell Shavers and offensive lineman Desmond Bessent also missed practice time this week, but a reason for their absences has not been provided and their availability won’t be obvious until sometime before kickoff.

3. Rush and cover

SDSU has faced a standout quarterback-wide receiver combo virtually each week the second half of the season.

This week it’s Utah State junior quarterback Logan Bonner and senior wide receiver Deven Thompkins.

Bonner’s 3,242 passing yards rank 16th in the NCAA. His 32 touchdown passes — five of them last week against New Mexico — tied Jordan Love’s school record.

“He’s accurate, (and) he does a good job of extending plays,” Hoke said. “He has been hit a lot. The one thing about him is he’s smart. He’ll take the hit. He’ll stand there, take it. He’s tough. He’ll get right back up and go back at it.

“I’m really impressed with him. The way he runs the offense. No huddle. Does a great job.”

Thompkins leads the nation in receiving yards with a school-record 1,543 yards. His 87 receptions include nine touchdowns.

“He’s got a great feel for getting open,” Hoke said. “I think he’s got really good change-of-direction speed, is really disciplined in routes and has very good hands.”

4. Rally cry

In six of its nine victories, Utah State has rallied from double-digits deficits to win.

Four of those rallies were on the road, where the Aggies are a school-record 6-0 this season.

The most impressive comeback was in a 49-45 win at Air Force. Utah State trailed four times by double digits, taking brief leads twice before falling behind 45-34. The Aggies then scored 15 unanswered points over the final 10 minutes for the victory.

That, ultimately, was the difference in reaching the title game. Utah State and Air Force tied at 6-2 in the Mountain Division, but the Aggies won the head-to-head tiebreaker.

SDSU counters the rally mentality with a defense that last week shut out Boise State in the second half. The Aztecs limited high-powered Fresno State and Nevada offenses to 10 and 14 points, respectively, in the second half.

Don’t know what it means, if anything, but Utah State is playing on grass for the first time since a 23-17 victory over the Aztecs on Sept. 19, 2019, at SDCCU Stadium.

5. Where to go from here

An SDSU victory should — should — bring with it an LA Bowl invitation.

The game is Dec. 18 and the opponent is expected to be either Washington State (7-5) or Oregon State (7-5), which shared second place behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North Division.

There were some projections that Fresno State would get the Mountain West’s invite.

Of course, that was before Bulldogs head coach Kalen DeBoer was hired at Washington and quarterback Jake Haener went into the transfer portal.

Snubbing the Mountain West champion in its inaugural season probably would be considered poor form for the LA Bowl.

An Aztecs team sporting a school-record 12 victories is impressive to bowl officials, even if the team’s offensive inconsistency and poor fan attendance in bowls leaves something to be desired.

If SDSU loses Saturday, the Aztecs’ bowl destination is more difficult to predict.

The Mountain West has tie-ins with the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl (Dec. 31), Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Dec. 21), Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24), New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 18) and one of the ESPN Events bowls located in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.

Hawaii is already slated for the Hawaii Bowl. SDSU would prefer not to go to the Arizona Bowl because of issues with the title sponsor.

The other bowls wouldn’t normally attract an 11-win team, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson work out a deal with ESPN to find a matchup for SDSU outside of the primary conference tie-ins.