It would have been nice to have a preseason, fringe-Top 25 caliber squad on the schedule as the Bucks make a run for the Title in a down Big Ten, even if that squad was someone like Vanderbilt. Alas, the Commodores bailed at the last second, leaving Gene Smith and company little time to bring in a decent opponent to Ohio Stadium. They were able to move some things around and settle on San Diego State. Perhaps not the non-conference opponent Ohio State needs, but they're the one they deserve...or something.
Before we start to delve into all things Aztecs, the logistics:
ABC (channel 1006 on Time Warner Columbus) if you're in Ohio, likely ESPN2 if you aren't.
Q: So this school is in a beautiful part of the country, has a reputation for being more of a party school than an academic powerhouse, and sits in a recruiting hotbed. I bet San Diego State has a long and illustrious football history, right?
Actually, no! For reasons that boggle our minds, and some of the smartest minds in football, SDSU has mostly been pretty subpar at college football. Even though SDSU has been playing since the 1920s, they've only made 11 bowl games in their history, winning five. Only two of those bowls victories were over schools that still play FBS college football though, a 2010 victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, and a 1952 Pineapple Bowl victory over Hawaii. Those bowl wins over Montana State and Boston University ring a little hollow now. From the 1980s until just recently, the program has run the gamut from mediocre to nearly unwatchable.
That history isn't without bright spots though. Don Coryell, of "Air Corvell" NFL fame, established an exciting, pass-happy offense that gave the Aztecs success throughout the 1960s and early 1970s (Coryell's defensive assistant at SDSU during that time? Some guy named John Madden), and the team had the electrifying Marshall Faulk completely eviscerate defenses from 1991-1993, eventually finishing second in the Heisman voting. Other than that though, there wasn't much going on prior to the Brady Hoke era.
Q: Wait, Brady Hoke era? Did Californians have to sit through insufferable years of him calling Fresno State 'Fresno' or something like that?
I don't know about that, but Brady Hoke DID coach at San Diego State before bolting to becoming the uber-Michigan Man, and he did help bring the program to the competitive level it is today. Hoke was hired in December 2008, and immediately boosted the energy and talent level around the program. After a 4-8 season in 2009, Hoke led the Aztecs to 9-4 in 2010, with two of those losses coming in close games against highly ranked opponents. The Aztecs won their first bowl game since 1969 in convincing fashion, and Hoke left for Ann Arbor, leaving the program to defensive coordinator (and former New Mexico head man) Rocky Long. If this Michigan connection makes it easier for you to hate San Diego State during Week 2 of the regular season, I'm certainly not going to fault you.
Q: Were the Aztecs any good last season?
They weren't bad. They finished with a 9-4 record, losing 23-6 to BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl that would have been one of the most unwatchable bowl games of the season if it wasn't for BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy going supernova and basically winning the game by himself.
The Aztecs played a few quality teams very tough, losing a close opener at Washington, 21-12, and to a very good San Jose State squad, 38-34. After getting taken down by Fresno State 52-40 in the conference opener, the Aztecs found themselves at 2-3, and needing to make some significant adjustments with the big boys of the Mountain West still ahead on the schedule.
Thanks to a newfound commitment to defense, the Aztecs were able to right the proverbial ship and win the rest of their conference slate, even after losing starting QB Ryan Katz to an ankle injury in a thrilling 39-38 OT victory over Nevada. Perhaps the biggest win of the season, if not the biggest win in multiple seasons, was a 21-19 win at Boise State, on the strength of an opportunistic kickoff return for a score, and a blocked punt. While the Broncos weren't their typical dominant selves, the Blue Turf is a tough place to play, even under ideal circumstances. Beating a quality team on the road without your top personnel is a sign of program maturation and a great sign overall for San Diego State. Running back Adam Muema was the engine that could for the offense last season, rushing for a 1,458 yards last year and 16 TDs, and he's returning.
Oh and perhaps the other most interesting part of SDSU's 2012 season? The head coach, Rocky Long, stated before the season, he was considering no longer punting when his team faced fourth down around or past midfield. When push came to shove though, Long hedged, and wasn't quite as aggressive as statisticians nationally wanted him to be. SDSU finished the year having attempted 24 fourth down conversions, good for 33rd nationally (they'd convert 16, or 67% of them). That's fine and all, but nationally leader Air Force went for it almost twice as often, going for it on fourth down 43 times, and the national runner up, Army, went it for 41 times.
I think the takeaway is that we can safely conclude the following (as we so often can in other walks of life): our nation's armed forces don't mess around.
Q: Outside of the aforementioned Brady Hoke stint, are there any other SDSU connections with Ohio State?
The Buckeyes and Aztecs have played three times, in 2001, 2003 and 2005, with all three games being closer than expected Buckeye victories. SDSU very nearly beat Ohio State in 2003, losing just 16-13, and certainly gave the Bucks some trouble in 2005, in an uglier than expected 27-6 Ohio State win (SDSU actually *lead* in Ohio Stadium, 6-0, after Kevin O'Connell hit Brett Swain on an 80 yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage).
Aztec head coach Rocky Long as previously mentioned once ran New Mexico, where he had some run-ins with Urban Meyer when he coached Utah. Urban has this to say about the Rocky Long Defensive Experience:
He took the show to Utah in 2003, "and it even got sillier. Teams would sit in their base defense, and we’d get after it," he said. Well, except for when they played New Mexico. Under coach Rocky Long, the Lobos deployed an odd-numbered defensive front, a 3-3 stack, "and they confused the hell out of us," Meyer said, recalling a 47-35 loss. "From that point, teams started seeing the odd defense as an answer for the spread, and Saban took it to a new level at Alabama." Long is now coach at San Diego State, which plays at Ohio State on Sept. 7
Q: Any other neat SDSU facts you think I should know?
Despite not having much of a history with football success, the Aztecs do boast some prominent football alumni. In addition to Coryell and Madden, the Aztecs can claim NFL Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, Herman Edwards, John Fox, Sean Payton, Tom Cable and Brian Billick as former players or assistant coaches. That may not quite be Miami University "Cradle of Coaches" level, but it's not far off.
The school's original colors were actually purple and gold, but they had to change them when the school realized that a local high school had the same color scheme, and people couldn't tell the letterman's jackets apart.
The team has a rivalry with Fresno State where they play for something called the Old Oil Can, proving that stupid rivalry trophies are not the exclusive domain of the Big Ten.
Q: What can we expect from this year's SDSU squad?
Last season's starting QB, Ryan Katz, is gone, but his backup, Adam Dingwell, played for most of last year. His statline was only okay, at 939 yards with a 57.6% completion rate, 8 TDs against 7 INTs. New offensive coordinator Bob Toledo (former Tulane and UCLA head coach) is known for wanting a more downfield passing attack, so the Aztecs may try to throw the ball around more. Their returning personnel indicates this is likely to be a run-first team, though.
Luckily, they have a very good running back in Adam Muema, who carried the team offensively for 1,458 yards and 16 TDs on 237 rushes. He'll either be spelled by Chase Price (114 yards on 29 carries) or Dwayne Garrett (7 rushes for 30 yards). Garrett was the more acclaimed recruit of out high school, but Price has a little more experience and production.
SDSU loses two all-conference offensive linemen, and only have three on the o-line with more than a single career start, so they will need to rely on younger players to help with the push. LT Bryce Quigley, at 25 starts, is the most experienced of the bunch, and a potential 3rd team All-MWC, according to Phil Steele. Last year's line was effective at rush blocking but struggled a little in pass blocking situations. Combined with bit of a dearth of pass-catching options, that led to the Aztecs taking 35 sacks between Katz and Dingwell. That's a number they'll want to improve.
The Aztec's top two pass catching options are gone. The remaining leaders, Colin Lockett (20 catches, 293 yards) and Ezell Ruffin (17 catches, 319 yards), boasted substantially lower pass catching rates, but had higher yards per catch than the incumbent Gavin Escobar and Brice Butler. Given Bob Toledo's system, that could potentially lead to a more explosive passing attack. If the line struggles in pass protection and other options don't step up, it could also lead to a much lower efficiency outfit. Look for running backs, or some of SDSU's converted tight ends (like former defensive lineman Robert Craighead) to play a role in the passing game as well.
Q: What about defensively? What can we expect there?
During the home stretch of last season, San Diego State won their games with their defense, particularly their front six (they run a 3-3-5 defensive scheme). The bad news for Buckeye fans is that nearly that entire unit is returning this season, led by potential all-conference defensive tackle Sam Meredith, with 28.5 tackles. Football Outsiders had SDSU has a Top 40 defense, ahead of big names like Clemson and UCLA, which is particularly impressive given how the team was winning via shootout at the beginning of the season.
The Aztecs may have one of the best non-BCS league linebacking corps, led by MLB junior Jake Fely, who had 79 tackles and 7 sacks last season. He's flanked by OLB Derek Largent (49.5 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 picks) and Nick Tenhaeff (45 tackles, 3 sacks), all of which could contend for an all-MWC spot. San Diego State's front six is not especially large, so they may be able to be bullied in power, short yardage situations, but they were able to generate pressure on the QB and slow down rushing plays before they hit the line of scrimmage fairly well last year.
The potential trouble spot is with the secondary, particularly at cornerback. The Aztecs graduate two solid options at corner in Leon McFadden and Josh Wade, who combined for over 80 tackles last year, and don't have a ton of experienced talent behind them. Outside of King Holder, a 5'10", former 2-star, the rest of the returning corners contribute just 14 tackles, without a lot of meaningful game experience between them. Eric Pinkins had 3 interceptions last year at safety, tops on the team.
Q: What will the key matchups be heading into this game?
San Diego State looks like it may struggle with three facets of the game against Ohio State. They don't have a strong record of pass protection, they may be vulnerable and young in the secondary, and their offensive is not particularly explosive. All three of these should play right into Ohio State's hands, as their front seven, while young, is highly regarded and should be able to get pressure (this is your time to shine, Noah Spence). Braxton Miller should be able to showcase his newfound accuracy and speedy new toys by picking on SDSU's corners, staking the Buckeyes out to an early lead that the Aztecs will be ill-equipped to come back from. Devin Smith, Corey Brown, Chris Fields, maybe even James Clark or Jalin Marshall, could all get a chance to work some serious magic.
Q: Are the Buckeyes going to win?
In a GIF: