Cal had little trouble walloping Grambling in the season opener, but on Saturday against San Diego State the Bears face a considerably more difficult challenge.
The Aztecs (1-0) are picked to win the West Division of the Mountain West Conference. That might not be the most glamorous affiliation, but the MWC is 2-0 against the Pac-12 this year. Rocky Long is in his fourth year as head coach at San Diego State after two years as defensive coordinator there. He was head coach at New Mexico from 1998-2008, and took the Lobos to bowl games five of his last seven years. Led by one of the nation's better defenses, which Long continues to co-ordinate, SDS has four straight postseason appearances.
"The thing that stands out about them is the consistency in the program," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said this week. "Rocky's done a nice job. I think he's a very good football coach. He did a remarkable job at New Mexico, building that program. … Probably the best compliment you can give a coach is that his teams play hard, and his teams always play hard. He gets everything he can get out of his players. They're always very well prepared. It will be a big challenge for us."
Much like the Bears last week, San Diego State had its way with an overmatched opponent. The Aztecs beat University of San Diego, 37-3. While SDS' defense lived up to its billing, the Aztecs struggled on offense against a team that offers no athletic scholarships. That said, not much offense was needed, and the Aztecs stayed conservative.
"They were pretty vanilla," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I'm sure that was intentional. They got ahead and didn't show much on offense."
Three of their four touchdowns were on returns – two interceptions, one kickoff – and they passed for just 139 yards.
For one of the rare times this year, the Bears will not be facing a spread offense. Long's teams run most plays out of what used to be a normal offensive formation with two wide receivers, a tight end, a fullback and a running back. Although capable of throwing the ball downfield, the Aztecs, in contrast to teams like Cal, are not a quick-strike offense.
"Our offense is kind of built for games like this," Long said at his press conference this week. "If we can run the ball and get first downs, their offense has a hard time scoring when they're sitting on the bench. If our offense can control the ball and keep it away from 'em, it allows us to get a little rest on defense and they won't get as many snaps."
Although they don't see its like all that often, Dykes believes his defense is equipped to deal with an approach like the Aztecs'.
"We play with four defensive linemen, so we're going to be a little bit bigger in there than some teams that play with a three-man front," Dykes said. "We have three linebackers, and we can play with seven big bodies in the box. When you play a team like this, you have to stop the run."
Given San Diego State's desire to hog the ball, Dykes said the Bears can't afford to be cavalier with their own possessions. "You have to be very precise on offense," he said. "If you turn the ball over a couple of times and drop a couple of passes here and there, all of sudden you look up and you haven't scored many points. We are really going to have to execute well. Turnovers are always important, but especially against this type of team."
The star of the San Diego State offensive is supposed to be Donnel (D.J.) Pumphrey, who rushed for a school record 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns a year ago. He had just 71 yards on 19 carries, and caught two passes for 14 more yards against USD. Dykes said that the Bears should not be deceived by that relative lack of production, Pumphrey can be a load.
"He runs very physical, great balance, keeps his pads low, finishes runs, has good quickness," Dykes said. "The thing that is most impressive about him is that he is consistent, makes good decisions. When they hand him the ball, he's patient, sets up blocks. Then he's a very good receiver. They try to get him the ball a lot of ways and they are very creative in how they do it."
'You saw just a very small part of our offense in the first game, but you did see some ideas we have on offense for getting D.J. the ball more often in the open field," Long said. "You put him in the slot and they have to make a choice which should help us in other parts of the game. If they put a linebacker out there and want to go one on one with a linebacker, that's a mistake. If they have to bring a safety out from the middle of the field to cover him that puts less guys in the box.
"If they don't want to pay attention to him out there, we can throw the ball out there and maybe he can make some people miss. If they want to pay attention to him and then somebody in the backfield might have a chance to run the ball a little bit better too."
Quarterback Maxwell Smith, a graduate transfer from Kentucky, struggled in his first start at SDS, going 9-for-21 on his passes for 100 yards with one interception.
"His technique was fine, the pre-snap reads weren't as good as they should have been," Long said. "He was inaccurate with the football at times. Mathew made some really pro-type throws and then he missed some wide-open guys by five yards. Inconsistency. I thought it would be better in the second half; it should be better the second game."
Dykes said he expects Smith will be better. "He is more of a pro style quarterback. Big, big arm, good athlete," Dykes said. "He moves around pretty well." Smith had a 27-yard scramble Saturday, the Aztecs' longest run of the day.
Mikah Holder and Chase Favreau, a pair of sophomores are the wide receivers, junior Daniel Brunskill the tight end. The huge offensive line is anchored by right tackle Pearce Slater (6-7, 335).
Long was disappointed in the performance of his offensive line." Our offensive line tried extremely hard and they were very physical at the point of attack," Long said. "I'm hoping that it was because they were so excited about playing against somebody else that their fundamentals and techniques went right out the window. They were leading with the wrong foot, stepping at the wrong angle, they were putting their hands in the wrong place, and that did not show up in the last two weeks of practice. …They are talented enough to get it done, they just have to do it right."
The SDS defense has been doing it right for quite awhile. Since Oct. 3, 2014 the Aztecs have played ten games and have ranked sixth nationally in both total defense (298.2 ypg) and scoring defense (17.8 ppg). Eight starters from last year's unit are still around.
"They are going to play a very aggressive, blitzing defensive system," Dykes said. "Typically defenses like this give up a lot of big plays,, but they don't. They tackle well on the back end. They help each other. Their spacing and all the things that help make a defense good, they're very good at those things."
Linebacker Calvin Munson was the National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance on Saturday. He returned two of the Aztecs five pass interceptions for touchdowns, covering 19 and 67 yards respectively. He also was credited with a team-high 11 tackles.
"He is just very active, typical of a lot of their players defensively," Dykes said. "He plays really hard and always around the ball. He has good instincts. When he has the opportunity to make plays he makes them. (He is) a guy that just shows up play after play. He reminds me a lot of (Arizona All-American) Scooby Wright. Same type of player."
Cornerback Damontae Kazee had the other three picks.
San Diego State has a weapon on special teams in sophomore Rashaad Penny, who returned the second half kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. He also caught a couple of passes and Long said he might see some time on offense despite his being listed third on the depth chart.
- This is the seventh meeting between the two schools and the series is tied, 3-3. Each team is 3-0 at home.
- They last met in 1996, with the Bears winning 42-37.
- SDSU has played in five consecutive bowl games. The only other school in California with a similar streak is Stanford.
- Pumphrey was only one of two players last season to rank in the top ten nationally in rushing yards per game, all-purpose yards per game, rushing touchdowns and rushing yards per carry. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon was the other. Interestingly Gordon, who is with the San Diego Chargers, and Pumphrey now play their home games in the same place, Qualcomm Stadium.
- SDSU's defense, although statistically impressive, was not good inside its own 20 yard line last year The Aztecs allowed touchdowns on 60.7 per cent of the opponents' red zone possessions, and 20 of the 24 TDs were on the ground.
- San Diego State has given up just 41 points in its last four games and has held ten consecutive opponents to fewer than 400 yards of total offense.
- Aztec long-snapper Jeff Overbaugh has received preseason All-American mention.