SALT LAKE CITY — Brady Hoke has created change at San Diego State. Since becoming head coach last season, the Aztecs have undergone a makeover.
"All through the years they've had good skill people, great skill people some years. That hasn't changed," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said before identifying a very noticeable alteration.
The Aztecs, he explained, are now different in terms of physicality and toughness.
"They're very good," Whittingham said. "They are absolutely the most improved team in the league. That's without a doubt."
San Diego State enters Saturday's game against Utah at Qualcomm Stadium with a 7-3 record. The Aztecs, who are bowl eligible for the first time since 1988, have come oh-so-close to perfection. Their losses, all of which have been on the road this season, have come by a combined total of 11 points — Missouri (27-24), BYU (24-21) and TCU (40-35).
"This year we've become closer as a team and play for each other more," said SDSU senior defensive back Andrew Preston. "We've been playing a lot better together."
The Aztecs are getting it done on both sides of the ball.
On offense, junior quarterback Ryan Lindley has thrown for 2,688 yards this season with 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Senior receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson are his top targets. They have 48 and 47 catches, respectively, and a combined 1,822 yards receiving.
Freshman running back Ronnie Hillman headlines the ground attack with 1,098 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
"They've got a lot of weapons on offense and that presents a challenge," Whittingham said.
SDSU's defense will also present a test. In last week's scare of TCU, they held the Horned Frogs scoreless over their final seven drives. The Aztecs forced six three-and-out series in the game.
Preston tops the team with 60 tackles, while junior linebacker Miles Burris has 15 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks.
With former New Mexico coach Rocky Long running the defense, SDSU has adopted his "high risk, high reward" philosophy.
"Our offense playing a Rocky Long defense is much like our defense playing Air Force's offense," Whittingham said. "It's a lot of looks that you don't see any other week of the year."
As such, he explained, the Utes have got to be patient. Film study is huge and the blocking scheme needs to be modified a little bit.
"The Aztecs are the most improved team in the conference and they are playing with a lot of confidence," Whittingham said. "As is always the case, they are a fast and athletic team and this will be another difficult road test for us."
Utes on the air
No. 23 Utah (8-2, 5-1) at San Diego State (7-3, 4-2)
Saturday, 8 p.m. (MT)
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
TV: The mtn. Radio: 700 AM
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company