Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Are the Aztecs Ready for MW Basketball Season?

The Conference schedule gets underway New Year’s Eve at 2:00 in the afternoon in Viejas Arena. The opponent: Air Force. Are the Aztecs ready?

After one of the toughest non-conference schedules ever, they are 10-3. Or “only 10-3” as some of the grumblers say. Wins over Utah, BYU, Pitt and a tight game with Arizona, sure, but not quite what people expected. Highly ranked but now sliding. OK, let’s consider the facts…

We lost the two primary keys from last season’s 31-5 Over Achievers – Xavier Thames and Josh Davis. Still, we had the most highly touted recruiting class ever coming in. Four ranked Freshmen. One, Zylan Cheatham, has yet to play a second thanks to injuries, and I believe he will redshirt. Malik Pope, who had not played since his Junior year in high school thanks to injuries, is finally getting some playing time and showing his obvious skills but not yet his best game. The other two have done well — Trey Kell starts at point guard and Kevin Zabo gets good playing time.

Injuries to the newcomers have hurt, but consider the ones that have hit returning regulars, Matt Shrigley took a terrible fall thanks to a flagrant foul and missed several games. Aqeel Quinn broke his hand and had a painful hip pointer. Angelo Chol suffered a knee injury that’s not healed yet. And now Dwayne Polee had that frightening episode in the middle of a game and we don’t know if he will be back at all.

Add all these up and it does pose problems. However, l don’t hear Steve Fisher complaining. He is convinced the players he has are dedicated and will win. The MW may prove to be a tougher challenge than expected, yet I sure am not giving up on our Aztecs.

So, be there to get your New Year’s Eve started in the right way. As Steve always emphasizes, our crowds, headed by The Show, have played a big role in Aztec successes. “We need you at Viejas,” Coach says. Be there Wednesday afternoon at 2:00!

The 2014-15 Aztecs are led by Seniors Aqeel Quinn, JJ O’Brien and Dwayne Polee (photos by Ernie Anderson)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Heartbreaking Bowl Loss to Navy, 17-16

It was another of those woulda-coulda-shoulda games that have marked the Aztecs’ 2014 football season, from the second game to the Poinsettia Bowl.

The second game of the season, at then-ranked North Carolina, had a big WIN written all over it till that INT in the end zone at the very end. And the Poinsettia Bowl, with all its ups and downs, looked like a win after an impressive drive, but ended with a near-miss FG.

Think about it. If we win those two, we go 9-4. That’s a very successful season. Instead we wind up just 7-6, a discouraging step backward from last year’s 8-5, topped off with a big bowl win.

I try not to be a critic of players or coaches but there were some things that at least caused questions. I know coaches always defend what they do, but this game did leave me puzzled (and a lot of Aztec fans grumbling) on a few occasions. And while Quinn Kaehler has taken some shots for this game, our receivers were far from their best, partly because Ezell Ruffin hurt the mix by being benched for missing a practice.

DJ Pumphrey set a single-season rushing record, and netted 112 yards. But he had a costly fumble.

On the other side of the ball, our defense played well enough to win almost any game. They held the Middies to a total of only 271 yards, far less than their average of 429 a game. Their QB, who had averaged 112 yards a game rushing, ran for only 9 yards net.

So we hold our breath until next season, buoyed by the fact that we had a lot of good young players who should be even better next year. My 757th Aztec football game was not one I will treasure, but I do look forward to 758th when we face a yet-to-be named opponent on Saturday, September 5.

DJ Pumphrey’s 112 rushing yards in the Poinsettia Bowl gave him 1,867 for the year, breaking George Jones’ 19-year-old Aztec record of 1,842. DJ is tied with Norm Nygaard (1952-54) for 7th best with 2,619 career rushing yards. DJ, RT Pearce Slater (#71), FB Dakota Gordon (#46) and three other starting OL all return in 2015. (Photo by Ernie Anderson)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Aztecs Favored Over Navy, But Should Be Close Game

Check the betting lines, our Aztecs are favored by 2 to 3 points. It’s the Aztecs’ home town and home stadium; but, with San Diego being a Navy town, the Middies will have lots of vocal support, too. So the Poinsettia Bowl should be a good, close game.

Looking at comparative scores against two common opponents, you could project a more comfortable Aztec win. Navy lost to Air Force, 30-21. SDSU beat the Falcons, 30-14, with a dominating defense that held them to about half their rushing average. Navy beat San Jose State, 41-31. We manhandled the Spartans, 38-7, and had them shut out until very late in the game.

Then you can look at Navy’s impressive game against Notre Dame, losing just 49-39 in a high-scoring exchange. Obviously, the only way to find out who is best is to play the game! (You will want to be there to see for yourself!)

Another way to analyze it is to look at key performers. Aztec fans are well versed on the talent and big numbers chalked up by Donnel Pumphrey. We know, too, how a shoulder injury hampered Quinn Kaehler most of the year, and the receivers were not always at their best – except for Ezell Ruffin, but he was sidelined with a broken collar bone.

Navy? An option team heavy on the run. QB Keenan Reynolds averaged 5.1 yards a carry in rolling up 1,182 yards rushing, including 21 TDs. They don’t pass a lot, and Reynolds completed only 47.1% of his passes for 82.6 yards a game. As a team, they averaged 345.1 yards a game rushing, with an amazing average of 6.2 yards a carry! So, look out.

I’m confident our Aztecs will win, probably by a fairly narrow margin. But, hey, a W is a W, and rolling up another 8-5 season, topped off with our fifth straight bowl game is not bad.

Will it be déjà vu all over again? Ronnie Hillman, with help from Nik Embernate (#68) and the Aztec OL, rushed for 228 yards and scored four TDs (3 rush, 1 rec.) in the Aztecs’ 35-14 victory over Navy in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl (photo by Ernie Anderson).
DJ Pumphrey needs just 88 yards in the Poinsettia Bowl to break George Jones’ Aztec single-season rushing record (photo by Ken Ables)
An Aztec victory would make Quinn Kaehler the first Aztec QB to win two bowl games; Ezell Ruffin has been a steadying influence on the young Aztec receiving corps
(photos by Ken Ables)