Game Preview: San Diego State Aztecs

osuHelmetOne could say that college football fans in San Diego and Columbus have had similar experiences with respect to their favorite teams. Both San Diego State and Ohio State football teams started the season with high hopes, returning teams that were the best in their respective conferences in 2012, introducing new schemes and excitement yet ultimately finding disappointment in their 2013 openers. Both teams had clearly expected that their overmatched opponents would be mere practice squads that would help in the dress rehearsal for more serious encounters to follow—starting this Saturday with each other. The differences were that Ohio State started at a much higher perceived position, suffered a much less significant game one disappointment—having to settle for a mere 20 point win over a nearly 35 point underdog Buffalo while San Diego State watched FCS Eastern Illinois reel off the last 21 points to win 40-19—and had an opening quarter of football that was as exhilaratingly successful as anyone in Columbus might have imagined.

Now both teams are looking for “rebounds” against an opponent who feels it has much to prove after its opener. One wonders then, if Ohio State does enjoy a bounce back, how impossibly high must the Aztecs improve to keep pace with the Buckeyes? That is a neat little question—on paper that is. The fact that it can be asked with such clarity is exactly why one can and should be concerned—is there a trap awaiting the Buckeyes? Is there anything we can deduce from last week’s carnage?


If you listen to the post mortem coming out of San Diego, you hear a few different reasons for the Aztec meltdown. On defense, there is a feeling—and this relates to using Eastern Illinois as a training foil—that the team on the field was given too much discretion. That is, defensive captains, in a very experienced returning unit, were free to call their own schemes to a certain extent based on clearly visible offensive sets. The view after watching the tape is that freedom was a mistake—at least as to the number of options available. Coach Rocky Long has indicated that for the time being, less will be more, so that the coaches will take a more authoritative role is defensive schemes against the Buckeyes.

It is interesting to note that Coach Long is one coach who dealt Urban Meyer one of his 23 collegiate losses when Meyer was at Utah and Long was at New Mexico. Urban expressed his respect for Long, saying “he has a very creative, disruptive style of defense and that hasn’t changed.” (Btw, many on the current SDSU roster were recruited by former coach, Barbecue Brady Hoke, a coach whose teams have never beaten an Urban Meyer coached team. Even back then, Hoke would not wear the Aztec red shirts–Aztec colors are red and black–no doubt fearing he might be mistaken for an uncooked roast and thrown on the spit).

San Diego’s defensive secondary was also strafed by Eastern Illinois’ passing attack. Much of this can be placed on the lack of pressure—SDSU failed to register a single sack against an FCS program. But the Aztecs are also coping with the adjustment of past success. Although the defense is experienced and senior laden, it did send high draft choice corner back Leon McFadden to the Cleveland Browns this past spring. The corner play was singled out by Coach Long as especially troubling. In this particular instance though, Coach Long is not backing down. As he gets ready to contend for a conference championship he indicated the corners will have the rest of the non-conference schedule to see if they can handle man to man coverage—his trial by fire approach is certainly going to be tested by Ohio State’s experienced and talented receiving corps.

Paging Leon McFadden: SDSU corners were strafed by FCS Eastern Illinois

Paging Leon McFadden: SDSU corners were strafed by FCS Eastern Illinois

And as if things were not discouraging enough, the Aztecs appear to have lost rising star linebacker Derek Largent for a few weeks due to a knee injury suffered in Saturday’s debacle.

Thus, after digesting Ohio State’s remarkable high octane 23 point first quarter outburst in week one, San Diego State has a lot to figure out and fix as it prepares for the Bucks.

Will a healthy Adam Muema help the hapless Aztecs?

Will a healthy Adam Muema help the hapless Aztecs?

San Diego State does not lack for offensive potential. The Aztecs survived a brief scare when they learned a few days ago that running back sensation Adam Muema had not suffered a high ankle sprain against Eastern Illinois and likely will see action against the Buckeyes. Muema exited the Eastern Illinois game in the first half and did not return. Although the Aztecs got inside the Eastern Illinois redzone four times without scoring a touchdown, much of that could be attributed to Muema’s absence. Despite the fact that fellow Adam, quarterback Adam Dingwell threw four interceptions, Coach Long and SDSU quarterback coach and Cleveland Browns icon Brian Sipe insist they have confidence in Dingwell. While Dingwell only completed 43% of his passes, he was victimized by several big receiver drops. Colin Lockett hauled in eight passes for 98 yards but also contributed several drops of his own.

Not a great start for SDSU and Adam Dingwell

Not a great start for SDSU and Adam Dingwell

From the Ohio State perspective, anyone who watched the first quarter realized these are not your father’s Buckeyes. Three effortless touchdowns, three split set extra points, two of them going for two points, a 23 point lead and then, nothing. Or nothing much at least. During that first quarter, fans saw a crisp running game, the participation of numerous receivers over a number of different sets, the flashy potential of freshman Dontre Wilson, accurate and delicate passing from Braxton Miller and a dominant offensive line—all according to the preferred script.

But then the collision of a seemingly planned removal of the foot from the pedal and a few mistakes paved the way for a frustrating last three quarters of the game. As I wrote earlier, the Buckeye offensive line has the potential to be something special, especially on the left side and through center Corey Linsley. But Linsley has been nursing a chronic foot problem that required insertion of a screw to help stabilize the foot. The plan from the outset was to play Linsley only 17 to 18 plays and that is what happened—and coaches have indicated Linsley will be similarly limited against SDSU. While Jacoby Boren played well enough, the disruption of the cadence and schemes and the insertion of an inexperienced replacement¬—combined with the fact that Taylor Decker, as an inexperienced newbie himself, was having his own adjustment fits—led to an inconsistent and at times porous front.

As uncomfortable as those factors made the viewing for fans—one could readily see the pressure star Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack put on the right side where Taylor Decker was getting on the job training in a hurry—the biggest offensive line error of the game might have been stalwart Jack Mewhort’s missed assignment that led to Mack sitting in an open passing lane. A surprised Miller reflexively tossed a pass into the zone which was happily pocketed by Mack and returned for a score. This just seconds after the Bulls covered a short field for a score after Wilson was stood up for a preventable fumble.

One had the feeling however, that having demonstrated to themselves that the Buckeyes had the wherewithal the execute the high powered, quick paced offense as advertised, the decision was made to close the playbook and keep certain wrinkles under wraps for future use. The game slowly reverted to one where the principle weapons became the tried and true legs of Miller and leading rusher Jordan Hall. And super-sub Kenny Guiton. Cramps in the hot weather seemed to punish the Buckeyes especially and Braxton Miller in particular. Guiton came in and calmly marched the Buckeyes downfield before throwing a touchdown strike to Chris Fields—his second of the day.

For SDSU one can expect a continued evolution of the quick strike offense with an expansion of the playbook and a growing cohesion of the offensive line, including tighter play from both Boren and Decker. It doesn’t hurt that SDSU lacks a force like Mack and that Largent is out. Also look for more Dontre Wilson in a receiving role and a boost to the power running game as Rod Smith emerges from his one game suspension. Also, as the season progresses, I expect Evan Spencer to use his experience, speed and great hands to become the quick hit threat that Dane Sanzenbacher was through his Buckeye career (although Evan might have been charged with a drop in the Buffalo game, that was due more to a failure to get set up properly for a slightly off target desperation bullet from Miller).

On defense the truth was a lot prettier than how the play appeared. For one thing, the Buckeyes were replacing almost everyone but Ryan Shazier from last year, especially since their best defensive back Bradley Roby was serving a one game suspension for his inability to just say no in an Indiana bar and C.J. Barnett’s late injury scratch. Not only that, but in order to get play time in for a number of new faces and to avoid heat exhaustion problems, the Buckeyes were constantly running in substitutions, which had to hurt continuity in the early going. Still, the defense gave up only 250 yards and made a late game goal line stop from a first and goal at the three. Not bad numbers at all. One touchdown came on a short field after Wilson’s fumble.

True, the Buckeyes did not exert much pressure on the quarterback (and when they did, the success was negated by Curits Grant’s enthusiasm for continuing a play without his helmet—resulting in a 15 yard penalty). But the true cause was Buffalo’s decision to rely on short underneath passes which really left little opportunity for attacking the quarterback.

Buffalo was able to abuse Armani Reeves, but with the return of Roby and Barnett, one would expect there to be a major upgrade in the secondary play. The play of Curtis Grant was interesting to watch. He was certainly a bundle of energy and found a way to make himself felt on more than his share of plays. He does still seem to have a problem recognizing passing plays—one touchdown catch occurred right in front of him as he appeared to recognize the danger too late. But the Buffalo game seemed a big step forward for a guy whose potential is still very high. If he continues to grow the Buckeyes will have taken a big step to solidifying one of the big questions going into this year.

Finally, there are the special teams. A 42 net punt average is certainly not bad, but if one were expecting booming punts that have rained down in Ohio Stadium for years—well this is something different. Special teams play was the one brighter spot for SDSU in its opener—it will be interesting to see how those two forces will match up against each other. As for the Ohio State receiving end, as Coach Coombs expressed it, on kickoffs, what is the other team to do—kick to the explosive Wilson on one side or Hall on the other? Or kick to up man Jeff Heuerman and watch him take it past the 35?

What does this all mean? From the San Diego State perspective, one gets the impression that they view Ohio State not as a game they are concerned about winning so much as they are about righting a ship that listed so inexplicably badly. One senses the danger posed by the power of Ohio State is just the medicine they are searching for to battle harden their unit for the real goal of contending as they look to conference play. To borrow from another sports analogy, like a golf swing, they hope to just focus on themselves and swing without concern about how far the ball goes. And as any golfer knows, when you do that, often times you end up with your best drive. Will their strike be far enough down the fairway to outdrive the Buckeyes? Not if the Buckeyes do the same and progress from their own disappointments last Saturday but one should not be surprised if the outcome is more competitive than one would expect from the way week one went. If the Buckeyes also keep their head down and swing easy, Holy Tiger, watch out.

If Ohio State hits on all cylinders, Tiger may replace that Ohio State tee bag with a full Ohio State golf bag

If Ohio State hits on all cylinders, Tiger may replace that Ohio State tee bag with a full Ohio State golf bag

Comments

  1. I think the biggest problem with last week’s strategy of “taking the foot off the gas” was that we didn’t have a back to eat up carries and clock. I love Hall as much as the next guy, but he’s not someone that can take it between the tackles on a regular basis. Had Hyde or Smith been available, I think we might be thinking differently about that post-first-quarter-outburst offense differently.

    Good look at the rest of the game, especially with respect to the O-line. I think we’ll see a more cohesive performance, as well. And I think the success they have will translate to more confidence down the road.

  2. Yes, no doubt. I thought Bri’onte Dunn brought a little bit of that but they did not stick with him or go to him much. Having Rod Smith back will provide a reliable boost they did not really have, or at least use, last week.

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