Sunday, October 27, 2013

It’s Obvious Now: Aztecs Play to Level of Opposition

Last night’s heartbreaking loss to Fresno State in OT pretty much underscored the fact that this year’s Aztec team does play to the level of their opponents. Upper echelon, ranked teams, sure, we’ll play you tough. Bottom feeders, heck, we can play that way, too.

Think Oregon State and Fresno State. Without going into an endless list of stats, the Aztecs made top-level teams and stars look vulnerable. Then look at the bottom of the barrel, New Mexico State. In every poll or ranking, they are close to the last rung on the ladder. (Sagarin has them dead-last among FBS teams.) But remember how tough it was to win our game in Las Cruces?

Favorite moments from last night: Chad Young bursting straight up the middle for a game-tying 27-yard TD. Adam Muema proving he’s back to good health by piling up 111 net yards and two TDs. Ezell Ruffin continuing to make sensational catches and piling up 181 yards on 10 catches. Seeing one of all-time effective onside kicks at a crucial time, (Reminded me of the time Doug Scovil/Gary Zauner opened the 1981 game against 12th ranked Iowa State with a successful onside kick and went on to an upset win, 52-31.)

Adam Muema scores the first of his two rushing TDs (Photo by Ken Ables)
Least favorite moment: after a great Kaehler to Ruffin pass to the Fresno 22, the officials called it a fumble and, after hesitating, Fresno ran it 78 yards for a TD. The bright side: the Aztecs came back and tied the game!

Next game: New Mexico here in Aztec Warrior Stadium next Saturday, 5 o’clock kick-off, despite what U-T showed in this morning’s sports section. Be there to see at which level our Aztecs will play!


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tonight, Aztecs’ Oldest Rival Here for 53rd Game

How old is the San Diego State-Fresno State rivalry? In 1923, the first time the two schools met on the gridiron, we weren’t yet the Aztecs, the school colors were not Scarlet and Black, and the campus was in University Heights, not Montezuma Mesa. But we did win, 12-2.
The 1923 San Diego State football team beat Fresno State 12-2.
No team has played the Aztecs more than the Bulldogs – 52 times, with the Aztecs leading the series 27-21-4. Most amazing, the point totals: Aztecs, 1,092; Bulldogs, 1,091.

There have been too many gaps for two schools that have so much in common. The Bulldogs pride themselves on what they claim to be their “anybody, anywhere” scheduling policy. Apparently, “anywhere” did not include San Diego (at least until 2011).

Although the rivalry spans 10 decades, it had never been a trophy game until 2011, when the teams played the inaugural “Battle for the Oil Can,” which the Aztecs won 35-28.

Aztecs victorious in the inaugural Battle for the Oil Can in 2011 (Photo by Ernie Anderson)
Many great games, many great plays. Like Brian Sipe’s 92-yard TD pass to Robert West at Fresno’s old Ratcliffe Stadium in 1971. The Tim Gutierrez to Marshall Faulk 87-yard TD pass (once he caught it, good luck catching him!) in 1993. The Jesse Thompson to Art Preston 50-yard TD on the final play of the game in 1950. Rushing? Kern Carson scored on an 88-yard TD in 1963. George Jones scored five TDs and rushed for 270 yards in 1995. Great defensive plays? How about Leon McFadden’s 96-yard interception/TD in 2012. We’ve held the Bulldogs scoreless six times, most recently 10-0 in 1998.
Jesse Thompson (right) outruns the Bulldog D
For many fans, the two “Fog Bowl” games at Aztec Bowl – in 1962 (Aztecs won, 29-26) and 1966 (another Aztec win, 34-13) – are two of the most memorable. The fog was literally so thick you couldn’t see the field.

Another interesting note: The final games for Bulldog head coaches Jim Sweeney and Pat Hill were losses to the Aztecs: Sweeney in 1996 (31-21) and Hill in 2011 (35-28).

Tonight, a lot is at stake for both teams. You’d better be there!

Go Aztecs!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Historic Aztec Victory, One Year Ago Tonight

Exactly one year ago tonight, the Aztecs came away with a 39-38 overtime upset win at Nevada. Argue if you will, but considering all the circumstances, to me this was No. 1 of them all. I've heard people argue for their choice, and there have been a lot of great ones. But none ever had all the elements of this one. Consider the factors…

The Wolf Pack a solid favorite. Undefeated in Mountain West play. Almost unbeatable at home. A sellout crowd. Elevation, 4,400 feet – not Laramie, but high enough to be a factor for visitors.

First quarter, QB Ryan Katz broke his ankle. Suddenly Adam Dingwell, with minimal experience, took over. He was cool and steady; kept Aztecs in the game.
Adam Dingwell and the Aztec Offense (photo by Ernie Anderson)
But, led by nation's No. 1 running back, Stefphon Jefferson, Wolf Pack led, 31-21, with only a few minutes left. Led by Dingwell's passing and Adam Muema's running, Aztecs completed a 75-yard drive with a TD; and PAT made it 31-28.

All Nevada had to do was run out the clock. Then came two crucial plays and a great call by Rocky Long. Nevada, driving in Aztec territory, was called for holding. Rather than take the 10-yard penalty, Rocky chose to decline the penalty, convinced time was more important than the 10 yards. Then, on third down, the Aztecs stopped Jefferson short of a first down, forcing Nevada to punt into the end zone.

With the ball on their own 20, and only 50 seconds left, the Aztecs quickly moved into Nevada territory and, with three seconds left, Chance Marden kicked a 35-yard FG to tie the game at 31-31, sending it into OT.

The Aztecs won the toss; elected to play defense first. The Wolf Pack scored quickly, converted the extra point and led 38-31.

That’s where it got very interesting. After a short gain on first down, Dingwell threw a pass in the left flat to Gavin Escobar, who proceeded to bull his way through two defenders and then hurdle over a third into the end zone for a TD. Now the Aztecs were within one point, 38-37. So it was down to a question of win, lose or go on to a second overtime. What would Rocky the Gambler do? After all, we were in Nevada!

The Aztecs lined-up in a two-tight-end set, with Adam Roberts joining Escobar. Running a pattern similar to the one Escobar just scored on, Roberts ended up all alone in the left corner of the end zone and Dingwell made a perfect Adam-to-Adam pass for two points and the Aztecs win, 39-38.
Chance Marden (#43) kicked a FG to tie the game at the end of regulation (photo by Ernie Anderson); Adam Roberts catching the game-winning 2-point conversion

You may disagree, but I cannot recall any Aztec game with as many special challenges to be overcome, right down to the overtime finish, And we came out with a win – the win that really triggered our run to the Mountain West championship.

Friday, October 11, 2013

To Me, “Ugly” Is a Loss!

When I see and hear the word “ugly” tossed around loosely after an Aztec victory, it stops me cold. To me “ugly,” if ever used about football, means a LOSS!

Granted, our 27-20 win at Air Force last night was not a Rembrandt in some respects. But it had several very impressive results — especially the W that makes us start 2-0 in the MWC, and now 3-3 overall, after an 0-3 start. Consider just a few of the many bright spots…

A 21-0 outburst in the 4th quarter, capped by Donnel “DJ” Pumphrey’s brilliant 10-yard TD run, and a vital 2-point conversion pass from Quinn Kaehler to Tim Vizzi. And remember, Pumphrey is a true freshman.

This 3-TD production wiped out an Air Force 14-point lead.

Eric Judge, another freshman (and fellow San Diego High alum), made a classic catch-and-run for a 44-yard TD.

Pumphrey’ s whole game was impressive. A total of 117 net yards — his third straight 100-yard game. A 6.9-yard average per carry. Another long run added to his list — this one going for 47 yards.

Ezell Ruffin had another big night with 6 catches for 108 yards, the longest going 62 yards.

Ezell Ruffin on his 62-yard TD reception (Photo by Ernie Anderson)
On the defensive side of the ball, the Aztecs virtually shut down the Falcons’ storied running game. One of the top rushing teams in the country, averaging nearly 300 yards a game going into this game, they totaled only 169 yards, while the Aztecs ran for 214.

Another hallmark of the Falcons’ game always has been dominating time of possession. Again, the Aztecs turned the tables. We had the ball for 33:18 minutes; AFA, only 26.42.

Also remember that visiting teams seldom come back late in the game when playing there at almost 7,000 feet. Their longtime coach Fisher deBerry always claimed “never,” even though the Aztecs have done it before.

So… A perfect game? No. But definitely NOT “ugly”?

A nice added touch to the evening was Ronnie Hillman coming to add his support. He had been the key factor in the Aztecs’ big win there two years ago. It was fun to watch him being warmly greeted by old friends and teammates. I have to believe his appearance at halftime gave a productive lift to the team.

I'm fortunate to stand between two Aztec legends: RB Ronnie Hillman (2010-11) and QB Don Horn (1965-66) at the Air Force game (Photo by Ernie Anderson)
Go Aztecs!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Greetings from Colorado Springs!

The Aztecs' last game at Air Force was also on a Thursday. Ronnie Hillman ran for 172 yards and 2 TDs in the 41-27 win in 2011.
Ronnie Hillman vs. Air Force, 2011 (photo by Ernie Anderson)
I still remember that game when, at halftime, I resisted the temptation to order their colonel to give me the Commander in Chief trophy, which he had just accepted, because we had beaten ALL THREE of the academies! And since then, we've beaten Air Force twice and Army once. Let's make it 7 in a row tonight!

Go Aztecs!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Frustrating. Encouraging. Puzzling. Promising. Heart. Tantalizing. Baffling.

You pick the word; one of these or your own. It’s hard to describe this year’s Aztec football team accurately, with one word or a whole paragraph. After last night’s 51-44 OT win over Nevada, the “half-empty” naysayers are ready to see it all bleak. Being on the “half-full” side, I see some real promise, with a mix of baffling.

OK, so blowing a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter won’t get you ranked in the top 25. But when you consider all the good things the Aztecs accomplished, maybe it’s a stand-off, just as the score was at the end of regulation. Good things? You bet. Two RBs, both running for more than 100 yards, totaling 246. Best of all, Adam Muema is beginning to look like last year again. DJ Pumphrey, a true Freshman, proved last week’s performance was not a one-shot episode. And QB Quinn Kaehler threw for 286 yards and 3 TDs, with no INTs, and a pass efficiency rating of 177.89.

Adam Muema scores the first of his two TDs vs. Nevada (Photo by ken Ables)
Keep in mind, the Aztecs came in without two of their key players, one on each side of the ball – WR Colin Lockett and MLB Jake Fely. Even the coaches didn’t know Colin wouldn’t be ready to go, so no extra reps for back-ups. But Redshirt Freshman Eric Judge caught 6 passes, with 2 for TDs; TE Adam Roberts caught 4 for 80 yards; and Dylan Denso made a vital TD catch. Also, Ezell Ruffin’s one-hand catch in a crucial drive was a thing of beauty.

On the defensive side, all Josh Gavert did was lead the team with10 total tackles and returned a fumble 42 yards, setting up a TD. Derek Largent, not 100% yet, came in with 9 tackles, including the forced fumble Gavert returned.

Josh Gavert (#48) and the Aztec Defense (Photo by Ken Ables)
Enough stats. It was a gut-check win, topped off with their impressive 4-play shutdown of Nevada in OT. Now, with a short “week” to prepare for the always puzzling Air Force, the Aztecs have to be ready to keep their MWC slate clean.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Tonight’s Aztec Opponent Hard to Figure

The Aztec series with the Nevada Wolfpack began 58 years ago, but there have not been many games played – just five, with the Aztecs winning the last three.

Nevada won the first game in Reno, 44-6, in 1945, the year before I began my stretch. The next year, in Balboa Stadium, I saw us lose, 26-0. There was not much after that: two Aztec wins, in 1995 and 2004.

Then came last year’s fantastic Aztec victory. Road game. Underdogs. Lost our QB in first quarter. Adam Dingwell, with almost no experience, calmly took over. We came from two scores down late in the game. Chance Marden tied the game at 31 at end of regulation. Down 38-31 in OT, Gavin Escobar barreled through two defenders and over a third for six points. Without hesitation, Rocky called for two-point conversion, and Dingwell hit Adam Roberts to win the game, 39-38.

While the Aztec bench celebrates Chance Marden's FG at the end of regulation, Rocky Long plots his overtime strategy (Photo by Ernie Anderson)
Tonight’s game is a puzzler. Betting lines say Aztecs by 4 or 5. But Nevada has powerful offense, led by veteran QB Cody Fajardo, They are 3-2, having lost to UCLA and Florida State, and they already have two conference wins. They average about 28 points a game. However, their defense has been suspect. They have given up an average of about 36 points a game.

Question is: Which Aztec team will show up. Let’s hope it’s the one that played the first 3+ quarters of the Oregon State game and the one that played the final 3 quarters of the NM Sate game. And they play all four quarters. 

Be there to find out! Kick-off is at 6 tonight.

The Aztecs celebrate with fans who made the trip to Reno last year (Photo by Ernie Anderson)