BOISE, Idaho – San Diego State coach Rocky Long is taking a realistic approach to the fact his team heads into Boise State with a chance to take a big step toward the school's first conference title in 14 years.
Long is also being careful to play down the expectations building for Saturday's showdown with the No. 19 Broncos.
The second-year coach bluntly dismissed any speculation this week on where an upset of the heavily favored Broncos would rank among victories in school history, or what a win would mean to the future of a program facing a competitive upgrade next year as a member of the Big East.
"I don't want to talk about that," Long said. "If we don't play our best this week, it could be embarrassing."
He could be right.
Boise State (7-1, 4-0 Mountain West) is on a roll — again.
The Broncos have won seven straight since losing in the opener at Michigan State and own a one-game lead atop the conference ahead of the Aztecs (6-3, 4-1), Fresno State and Air Force. The Broncos, behind the development of quarterback Joe Southwick and a top-ranked defense, have also nudged their way back into the BCS bowl conversation.
Despite a weak strength of schedule, if the Broncos win their final four games they could get into the final top 16, be ranked higher than a champion from an automatic qualifying conference and in position to play in a BCS bowl. Boise State is No. 19 in the BCS standings, trailing Texas Tech, Southern California and Texas A&M.
In other words, there is plenty at stake for both teams in the Saturday night matchup.
"I think our team feels good about being in ... position this late in the year, that we still have a chance to play for a championship because that's the No. 1 goal in this program," said Long, whose team's last conference title came in 1998 when the Aztecs shared the crown as members of the Western Athletic Conference.
San Diego State also feels good about playing in big games on the road.
Confidence grew two weeks ago when the Aztecs rallied late in Nevada, coming back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter and ultimately winning 38-37 in overtime. That comeback and a victory last week over UNLV came with the Aztecs playing with backup quarterback Adam Dingwell.
Dingwell replaced starter Ryan Katz, who injured an ankle against Nevada, and is 29 of 55 passing for 436 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in the last two games.
But the redshirt sophomore is also getting help from the running game. Adam Muema and Walter Kazee each rushed for more than 100 yards last week, and this season the Aztecs are averaging 233 yards per game on the ground, 18th in the nation.
"On offense, they're a powerful football team, a very physical football team," said Boise State coach Chris Petersen.
Still, the Broncos may be the best defense San Diego State will face all season.
The Broncos rank in the top 10 nationally in points allowed, passing yards allowed and pass efficiency defense. Their 23 turnovers are tied for fourth most in the nation. Last week when Wyoming scored a touchdown early in the second quarter, it was the first points allowed by the defense in the first half in five games.
The Boise State defense will have to adjust to the loss of two key players in the secondary. Bryan Douglas, the No. 3 cornerback, is out for the year with a torn ACL, and sophomore safety Lee Hightower will miss his second straight game after being suspended for violating team rules.
But Long said it doesn't really matter who plays or sits for Boise State. Instead, he wants his young quarterback and offense to focus only on executing, limiting mistakes and taking advantage of every opportunity.
"You don't worry about Boise State. You worry about yourself," said Long, whose team is bowl eligible for the third straight season. "You worry about your team being as prepared as they can be."
While the defense accounted for much of Boise State's success early this season, the offense is starting to click and put up points in bigger bunches. The Broncos have outscored opponents 77-21 in the last two games as Southwick has grown more comfortable in the pocket and made better decisions.
In those two games, Southwick is 42 of 57 passing for 441 yards. While those aren't the kind of prolific numbers posted by his predecessor, Kellen Moore, Southwick knows his role at this point in his career is to be smart and to be effective on third downs and in the red zone.
He and the rest of the offense have done just that in the last two games. The Broncos have converted on 19 of 28 third downs and put up points on nine of 10 trips inside the red zone.
"I think he's got a really good command of what we're trying to get done," Petersen said of Southwick's growth as a first-year starter. "He's got a firm grasp of what defenses are doing and what ... certain players need to do on our side."