Monday, September 29, 2014

Bright Spots and Questions in Win Over UNLV

A win is a win, especially when it’s a conference game. And there were lots of reasons to smile, along with some nagging concerns, after the Aztecs whipped UNLV, 34-17, to open the MW Conference schedule successfully. From all of the many positives, one thing stands out in my mind.

Sitting on a 21-7 lead, the Aztecs forced the Rebels to punt and took over the ball at their own 15 with only 43 seconds left in the first half. So, what do you do? Run a couple of ground plays and head for the dressing room? Not our Aztecs. Quinn Kaehler completed a 24-yard pass to Larry Clark and a 15-yard pass to Mikah Holder to put them in Rebel territory. Then Lloyd Mills made a spectacular catch for a 45-yard gain to the one-yard line. After an incomplete and unscripted pass by Donnel Pumphrey, he ran the ball in for his fourth TD of the game, making it 28-7.

Remembering that we were without our two top receivers – Ezell Ruffin with a broken collar bone, and Eric Judge with a knee injury – it makes that drive even more impressive.

There were lots of other positives. No turnovers by the Aztecs. Two interceptions by the Aztecs. Scored in 5 of 5 Red Zone chances. Pumphrey ran for 167 yards. Improved tackling. But pass defense still leaves us concerned.

A quick look ahead – With his injured shoulder keeping Quinn Kaehler out of action this week, Nick Bawden, a true Freshman, will start at QB. From what I’ve seen of him, don’t be surprised if he really takes charge in Friday’s key game with Fresno State!

Lloyd Mills makes a 45-yard reception to set-up the Aztecs’ fourth TD of the first half;
Donnel Pumphrey scored 4 rushing TDs (photos by Ken Ables)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

UNLV – A Series with Some Puzzlers

No matter what you think will be the outcome tonight in the Aztecs’ Mountain West opener against UNLV, you’d better be sure to be there to see what actually happens.

The series dates back only to 1977, so this isn’t ancient history. The Aztecs won that first game, 31-7, and lead 14-9 in games played. We’ve been especially efficient at home, with a commanding 9-3 record. But don’t relax.

You probably remember last year’s shocker at Vegas. The Aztecs had won 7 of their last 8 games, and jumped off to a fast 7-0 lead just 41 seconds into the game. A laugher, eh? Wrong! From there it was virtually all Rebels in a 45-19 shellacking. Most of their damage was through the air.

You may not remember quite so vividly the huge upset in 1996. This was a very good Aztec team. They went to Vegas with a 6-2 record, including an impressive 51-31 win over the Oklahoma Sooners. By contrast, the Rebels were 0-10. But they came away with a 44-42 upset victory for their only win of that season.

Enough warning? That said, I am a firm believer in the 2014 Aztecs! Be there tonight to help me cheer the Aztecs on to a 1-0 start in the MW race.

Walter Kazee goes up and over for 6 vs. UNLV at the Q in 2012. Aztecs won 24-13
(photo by Ken Ables)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Great Start! But No Finish.

The opening drive at Oregon State was a work of art. Aztecs, 7-0. Looked like we were in for a fun night of football. And when our defense took over, they looked strong, too. In fact, right until the end of the first half, things looked promising. The dreaded INT already had raised its ugly head once, but we looked capable of winning.

From there, it all went downhill. I don’t know when I have seen our offense look so flat. And the defense lost some of its edge, although they did do a good job of putting pressure on the Beavers’ QB, Sean Mannion, only to have him get off passes that our DBs failed to cover well.

In the end, it was a disappointing 28-7 loss. And a long ride home for the team. I don’t envy them getting home about 5 in the morning and then start prepping for Saturday’s home game with UNLV. It’s the MW Conference opener, so it has extra meaning. Better be ready to play a full game this week! And, remembering last season, do not take UNLV for granted!

Lloyd Mills gained 36 yards on the first play of the game. (Photo by Ernie Anderson)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Target: A Road Win Against Pac 12

OK, with the game at Oregon State coming up tonight, you’ve heard all the talk about how the Aztecs have to beat a Power 5 team, or “getting revenge” for last year’s loss to the Beavers. But I buy into Rocky’s idea that we simply need to win tonight’s game, period.

Oregon State is a very good Pac 12 team. They have one of the best quarterbacks in college football. They have a lot of returning veterans. They are 10-point favorites tonight. It’s a road game. So it’s no easy assignment. But I am very impressed with the attitude of this year’s Aztecs. They are tough – mentally and physically.

This will be the fifth game ever against the Beavers. Historically, it’s an even 2-2. In 1972, the Aztecs won at home, 17-8, and in 1975 we played in Multnomah Stadium in Portland and came home with a 25-0 win. We didn’t play again until 2000 when the Beavers won handily, 35-3, at Reser Stadium. And we all remember last year’s disappointing 34-30 loss, when OSU came from behind in the fourth quarter.

TV rules the sports world, so tonight’s game has a late 7:30 kick-off. Do not miss this game -- it will be on Fox Sports 1.

Oregon State QB was tackled for 23 yards lost in last year's game at the Q (photo by Ken Ables)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Aztecs Suffer Heart-Breaking Loss to UNC

Call it what you will – a woulda-coulda-shoulda game — the Aztec 31-27 loss to 21st-ranked North Carolina was a heartbreaker. So many good things: 509 yards total offense; good defense most of the way; a great kicking game, with 49- and 40-yard field goals and some long punts. Yet, the mistakes made the difference. Three INTs, including the crucial one at the end of the game, offset an otherwise potent passing game, good for 341 yards.

There always will be the second-guessers, who know in their minds what should or should not have been done, but I look at the overall work and saw much to be excited about for the rest of this season. To me, the biggest loss in the game was the broken collar bone suffered by Ezell Ruffin after an impressive catch and run play. Still, I believe we have some young receivers who will step in to pair with the talented play of Eric Judge.

A bye this week probably comes at a good time, and the Aztecs will be ready for the Sept. 20 game at Oregon State.

Ezell Ruffin and Eric Judge combined for 5 receptions, 158 yards and 1 TD vs. North Carolina
(photos by Ernie Anderson)
Go Aztecs!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Aztecs Will Be Tested by Ranked Tar Heels

Whenever I think of North Carolina and football I can still feel the grit in my teeth from that windy nightmare, the Las Vegas Bowl in 1998. Ted Tollner’s Aztecs outgained the Tar Heels 295-196, had a 20-8 edge in first downs, but lost, 20-13. The score was disappointing enough, but the 50 mph winds blew sand into everyone’s face to make it even less enjoyable.

But that’s ancient history now, and it was the only time we’ve ever played UNC in football. Tonight, in 63,000-seat Kenan Stadium, the Aztecs will face a much tougher challenge than last Saturday’s home opener. The Tar Heels are now a nationally ranked team - 21, 22 or 23, depending on which poll you follow.

They have a well-balanced offense, with two excellent QBs, and strong running backs. Their defense is experienced and tough. Early in the 56-29 win over Liberty in their home opener, they were a little sloppy on both sides of the ball. But Coach Larry Fedora, now in his third season at UNC, made the adjustments needed and they went on to the big-margin score.

As Rocky has said, the Aztecs showed a lot of room for improvement on both sides of the ball. Sloppy tackling hurt the defense, especially during the third quarter letdown. And the passing game was a mix of good and bad, with some great catches along with too many drops and bad passes. The brightest part of the game was special teams.

With a chance to learn from their mistakes, the Aztecs should be much improved in this second game. But the opponent is much more challenging. The betting line is something like 15 points. An Aztec win would mark a giant step forward.

Aztec WR Lonny Mitchell recovered a fumble and returned it 60 yards for
the first score in the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl vs. North Carolina (AP photo)