SAN DIEGO — If ever there were an inappropriate time for San Diego State to be looking ahead, it's now.
Next week, SDSU will play Brigham Young in a game that may decide the Western Athletic Conference football championship.
But before the Aztecs become concerned with BYU, they first must say aloha to Hawaii, tonight's opponent in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
"If we don't beat Hawaii, we won't be doing ourselves any favors," halfback Chris Hardy said. "I think everybody would turn in their BYU tickets then."
If the Aztecs win tonight and next Saturday, they will win the WAC championship. If they lose tonight, they would still win the WAC title if they beat BYU next week and BYU beats Air Force on Dec. 6.
All week, Coach Denny Stolz has emphasized not looking past Hawaii.
"There's always a chance for a letdown in any game, but I don't believe that will happen," Stolz said. "We're in a championship race."
Though Hawaii has been eliminated from the race with three conference losses, it has the WAC's top-ranked defense. The Rainbow Warriors are allowing an average of 93.8 yards rushing, 153 yards passing and 17.1 points.
Hawaii's defense is ranked third nationally among 105 Division I schools.
"It's unusual for a defensive team in our conference to be ranked that high nationally," Stolz said. "After you've played eight or nine games, statistics are a pretty accurate indication whether you have a good defense or offense. Hawaii will certainly be the best defense we have played to date."
The Rainbow Warriors' top defensive player is junior left tackle Al Noga, known as The Samoan Sack Man. Noga, an all-WAC first-team player last year, has set a school record this year with 16 sacks.
"He's the best defensive player we've ever had," Hawaii Coach Dick Tomey said. "I've been at UCLA, Kansas and here for 10 years, and I've never been around a defensive player so instrumental in helping a team be effective."
Noga will be lined up against Dave DesRochers, SDSU's junior right offensive tackle. DesRochers will be making his second start in place of Mike Ariey, who is out for the season following knee ligament surgery.
Before Ariey was sidelined, he and left guard Doug Aronson were considered SDSU's top two offensive linemen.
"DesRochers has played well up front and is aware (Noga) is there," Stolz said. "We'll keep a close eye on him. The value of a Mike Ariey comes out in games like this."
Hawaii is coming off an impressive 24-13 victory over Fresno State. Kevin Sweeney, Fresno State's quarterback, passed for 131 yards against Hawaii, leaving him 173 yards short of Doug Flutie's NCAA Division I record.
Jim Sweeney, Fresno State coach and Kevin's father, said afterwards that Hawaii had the most physical defense his team has played.
"I take a lot of stock in what coaches say," Stolz said. "Jim Sweeney seems to have only lost about two games in 50 years, so I listen to him."
Hawaii's offense has been quiet this year, averaging a WAC-low 20.8 points.
Quarterback Gregg Tipton, Hawaii's second-leading all-time passer, set nine school records last season but has been ineffective this season. Tipton is seventh in the WAC in passing efficiency.
"I was more impressed with him last year than this year," Aztec linebacker Randy Kirk said. "We don't want to underestimate him because we know he's good."
Hawaii, 3-3 in the WAC, has come close to winning two more conference games. Though the Rainbow Warriors were soundly defeated by Colorado State (31-7), they played well in losses to traditional WAC powers Air Force (24-17) and BYU (10-3).
Against Air Force, a poor fourth-quarter punt led to the game-winning drive. Against BYU, Hawaii had first and goal on the eight in the final minute but could not score. The Rainbow Warriors held BYU to 48 yards total offense in the second half and 206 yards overall.
"We obviously are frustrated with our conference standing at this point," Tomey said. "We hoped to be in the race at this point. Colorado State kicked our butts, but we had legitimate chances against BYU and Air Force. We are frustrated with that, but we're mindful that our 6-3 record is as good as anybody in the league."