‘Struggling’ Aztecs come to Mackay
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long isn’t about to allow a six-game winning streak cloud his judgment about his Aztecs.
“We’ve been very fortunate to win the games that we’ve won,” said Long, whose Aztecs (6-1, 3-0) will take on the Nevada Wolf Pack (4-4, 2-2) tonight (7:30 p.m., ESPNU) at Mackay Stadium.
The last five Aztec victories have all been by seven points or less. After going to Boise State and winning 19-13 on Oct. 6, the Aztecs have struggled the past two weeks to beat Air Force (21-17) and San Jose State (16-13) at home. San Diego State’s only victory this year by more than a touchdown was 28-14 over Division I-AA Sacramento State.
“We played an extraordinary game that day (at Boise State) and we haven’t been that good or that consistent except that one game,” Long said. “If you can tell me how to play that good again, I’ll pay you a lot of money.”
Injuries and a lack of experience have hurt the Aztecs this year. Starting quarterback Christian Chapman has been out with a knee injury since the second game of the season and starting running back Juwan Washington has been out since breaking his collarbone in Week Four. Washington, though, still leads the Aztecs in rushing with 513 yards.
“We played 24 freshmen or redshirt freshmen last week (against San Jose State),” Long said. “They are not used to playing this level of competition against this kind of size and speed and experience. It’s like being a freshman in high school and they are playing against the varsity. They are at a huge disadvantage physically.“
Long, whose Aztecs won the Mountain West championship in 2015 and 2016, said his young team might be wearing down. “They might have hit the wall a little bit,” he said.
The Aztecs, though, remain unbeaten in Mountain West play and in the race for the West Division title because of a stingy defense and a dependable field goal kicker. San Diego State is 19th in the nation in points allowed (18.4 a game) and is 14th in total defense (306.9 yards a game). Kicker John Baron has converted 13-of-15 field goals, 4-of-4 from 50 yards out or longer.
“We’ve won four games because we have a kicker that can make field goals when it counts,” Long said.
Baron has scored 31 of the Aztecs’ last 79 points over the past four games on eight field goals and seven extra points. He had three field goals against San Jose State, including the game-winner from 51 yards out. He also had three field goals against Eastern Michigan, including a 50-yarder with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter and a 38-yarder to win it in overtime.
“His ability to make big time kicks in pressure situations is probably better than anyone I’ve personally been around,” Long said.
When the Aztecs aren’t kicking field goals, they are usually running the ball. Air Force, with just 99 attempts, is the only team in the Mountain West that has thrown the ball fewer times than San Diego State (140 attempts). Ryan Agnew has taken over for Chapman and has completed just 59-of-114 passes for four touchdowns and four interceptions over the past five-plus games. Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi, by comparison, has completed 153-of-254 passes for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns in seven games.
Long, who was the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 1971 as a New Mexico quarterback, has been satisfied with Agnew’s play this year. “In critical times and in very close games, that’s all we play are close games, he’s made a lot of big plays to help us win the game,” Long said. “That’s a pretty good quarterback if you ask me.”
Long asked Agnew to attempt just 11 passes (completing seven for 86 yards) a week ago against San Jose State. In three conference games Agnew is just 24-of-51 for 412 yards, one touchdown and one interception combined. Gangi, in three league games, is 69-of-104 for 810 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
The loss of Washington, though, is the biggest difference between the Aztecs this year and in recent years. Long’s Aztecs teams (he’s 70-30 as head coach since getting the job in 2011) have always relied on a great defense and a talented, workhorse running back. Long’s Aztec teams have had backs like Ronnie Hillman, Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny, who all gained 1,600 or more yards in a season since 2011. Pumphrey had 2,133 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2016 and Penney had 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns last year. It was Penny who nearly beat the Wolf Pack all by himself last year at San Diego State, scoring on runs of 23 and 67 yards and on a punt return (70 yards) and kickoff return (100 yards) in a 42-23 Aztecs’ victory. Add in his 222 rushing yards and it was one of the best performances in NCAA history.
“I’m happy he’s not playing for them now, to be honest with you,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week.
Chase Jasmin leads the Aztecs with 460 rushing yards this year, followed by Jordan Byrd (96) and Chance Bell (81). Almost all of Byrd’s yards came on a 72-yard scoring run against Boise State.
“A bunch of running backs will get a chance,” Long said. “We’re looking for the hot hand. We’re a running back by committee right now.”
The Wolf Pack defense has played well against the run this year, allowing just 140 yards a game (44th in the nation). “You have to get your mindset strong when you play San Diego State,” Wolf Pack linebacker Gabe Sewell said. “They like to run the ball. It’s going to be a very physical game.”
“It’s fun,” Wolf Pack linebacker Lucas Weber said. “I like to go against a running team. You know what you are going to get.”
Long’s Aztecs teams haven’t always been so run heavy. His first quarterback at San Diego State, Ryan Lindley in 2011, passed for 3,153 yards and 23 touchdowns. Ryan Katz and Adam Dingwell combined for 2,287 yards and 21 touchdowns the following year. And Quinn Kaehler passed for 3,007 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013. It’s only been since 2014, though, that the Aztecs have been so dependent on the running game.
“I expect them (the Wolf Pack defense) to put a whole bunch of guys close to the line of scrimmage to try to make us throw it,” said Long, whose Aztecs average just 20.7 points a game (ranked 120 out of 129 teams in the nation). “That’s what everybody does. I don’t know why they would be different.”
The Wolf Pack’s running game has been just as effective as San Diego State’s ground game this year. The Pack is averaging 160 yards a game on the ground while San Diego State averages 177 on 10 more carries a game. Toa Taua leads the Pack in rushing with 575 yards, followed by Kelton Moore (248) and Devonte Lee (122).
“They’ve really improved their run game,” Long said. “Their backs are lot like the running backs we’ve had here in the past. They are not very tall but they are big. They have good quickness and they can break tackles.”
Long, whose New Mexico Lobos beat the Wolf Pack and freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick 23-0 in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl, is also impressed with Gangi. The Wolf Pack senior threw for 414 yards and three touchdowns against the Aztecs a year ago as the Wolf Pack almost completely abandoned its run game (just 34 yards n 18 carries).
“If you look at our game against them last year, they moved the ball really, really well,” Long said. “He (Gangi) was really good last year and he’s as good or better now.”
San Diego State, a slight favorite (two or three points) on Saturday, has won seven of its last eight games against Nevada and leads the series 7-3. The only Wolf Pack victory over the Aztecs since 1946 was in 2014 at Mackay Stadium (30-14), though two of the losses (2012, 2013) came in overtime. The last three games (all Aztec victories) have been decided by an average of 22 points.
“Nevada’s hot right now,” Long said. “It’s going to be a difficult situation going up there and having a chance to win.”
A victory by the Wolf Pack will give the program its first two-game winning streak in the Norvell era (the last two seasons).
“We’ve got a month left,” Norvell said. “We just want to see how far we can take this team.”