Monday, October 26, 2015

After Stellar Performance, Tough Road Test

Rolling up 336 yards rushing against any opponent is impressive, but when you run up that yardage against the No. 6 rush defense in the country in a crucial conference game, that’s really impressive.

When you crush any conference opponent, 48-14, that’s quite an accomplishment, but when you do it to a team just a week after they had bulldozed a nationally ranked team, 52-26, now that is worthy of praise.

And those are the things the Aztecs did Friday night in their big win over Utah State. The Aggies, who had not lost a MW conference game, came in as definite favorites. They went home, in their own word, “embarrassed.”

On the offensive side, DJ Pumphrey had another big game with 181 yards (no losses) for an average of 7.9, and 2 TDs. Not a one-man show, because Chase Price had 97 net yards. And Maxwell Smith had another smooth performance, completing 6-10 with one for a 34-yard TD, and he ran the ball in for another TD. He’s now thrown 121 passes in 5 games with no INTs. You might not mistake him for Billy Blanton, who was inducted into the Aztec Hall of Fame that day, but he is getting to be a very smooth, winning QB!

Defensively, the Aztecs were at their best – very aggressive and looking even swifter than a team touted for its speed. We set the tone in the first quarter, when the Aggies totaled minus 11 yard rushing and 6 passing for a net loss of 6 yards, while the Aztecs rang up 17 points. Forcing 4 turnovers played a big part in the domination.

Maybe with a clue from Utah State’s experience, the Aztecs had better be careful this week, playing at Colorado State. The Rams’ 3-4 record may not look impressive, but they are a good team. Two of their losses, by a total of only 6 points, were to teams from the Big 10 and the Pac12. They lost to Minnesota 23-20, and Colorado 27-24.

The Rams have a new coach - Mike Bobo, who was the Offensive Coordinator for Georgia the last 8 years, after starring as the Bulldogs’ QB. They lost Coach Jim McElwain, who left to resurrect Florida, but they will be a tough test for our Aztecs. Their last game, before a helpful bye, was a 38-23 win over Air Force. So be ready.

One last thought: this game will be played on Halloween, and the Aztecs are scary for opponents on that date. In the eight Halloween games I’ve seen through the years, we have a 5-2-1 record, including a 20-13 win at Colorado State in 1992. We have not lost on Halloween since 1981. So, trick or treat!

Alex Barrett caused the Utah State QB to fumble to set up Maxwell Smith’s 1-yard TD run (photos by Ken Ables)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Significant Win; Now Big Challenge

The 30-7 win over San Jose State was very important. Aztecs are firmly in first place in the MW West at 3-0, and now face their biggest challenge here Friday night against Utah State, who just upset Boise State, 52-26; it was 45-10 at the half!

Our win was a clear message delivered to a much-improved SJSU. They came into the game averaging more than 27 points a game, led by RB Tyler Ervin. He was right there running 1, 2 or 3 in rushing categories nationally.

The Aztec defense delivered the message emphatically on the Spartans’ first series, First down: Ervin dumped for a 4-yard loss. Second down: QB sacked for another 4-yard loss. The pattern was set. Rushing, SJ had only 4 net yards in the first quarter; 28 in the second; 21 in the third; and minus 18 in the fourth! Just 35 yards for the whole game. Passing didn’t make up for it; only 113 yards for a total offense of 148 yards. The Aztecs repeated their message at the start of the second half, intercepting passes on the first two SJ series, which led to a FG and a TD. The first INT was Damontae Kazee’s fifth of the season.

Our offense continued to get sharper. Opening with a 28-yard pass, we let San Jose know we do more than run the ball. And Maxwell Smith kept his record sharp with 10 of 14 for 148 yards; one, a 38-yard TD to DJ Pumphrey. And no INTS in his last 100 passes. DJ was again the DJ we expect. (Maybe it took a high ankle sprain to really get him in full gear this season.) Anyway, he ran for 152 yards and caught two passes for another 55 and a total of 207 yards. We kept our Red Zone record perfect until taking a knee at the San Jose goal line as time ran out.

On the worrisome side, the Aztecs reverted to their habit of costly penalties, which played a role in the one TD they gave up. For the game, there were 9 penalties for 72 yards.

Of the 16 games I have seen in Spartan Stadium, this was one of the best ever. Of course, I doubt anything ever will match that 25-0 upset win in 1966.

Now we face a huge test, Friday night at 7:30 in Aztec Warrior Stadium. The Utah State Aggies just clobbered highly ranked Boise State, 52-26, after crushing Fresno State, 56-24. They had expected to be good but then lost their ace QB Chuckie Keeton to a season ending injury. But Kent Myers stepped in and has been even better. Two good RBs share the running game and have rolled up 575 yards. They average about 31 points a game. And their defense has held six opponents (including Utah and Washington) to only 90 yards a game rushing. This is a game no one would want to miss!

Maxwell Smith, Damontae Kazee (photos by Ernie Anderson)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Aztecs Undefeated in MW, Face Tough Foe

The Aztecs’ 28-14 win at Hawaii had some reassuring facts and at least one huge surprise. The surprise, of course, was the performance by DJ Pumphrey. Downed by a high ankle sprain in the Fresno State game, he was expected to miss 2 to 4 weeks. Even when it appeared he was healing fast and was making the trip, there was a big question if he was ready to play at all, and if he did, it might be a minor role, just to help get him back in form.

But who would have expected him to start, to carry the ball 30 times for 148 yards and a 4.9 average, to catch two passes for another 49 yards, to score three TDs, and to be named the MW Offensive Player of the Week?

Overall, our offense rolled up 402 yards, with 154 yards passing on Maxwell Smith’s 11-15 effort, including a beautifully executed deep pass to Eric Judge for a 58-yard TD. While you still hear people worrying about our QB position, Smith has been running the offense smoother and smoother. And, importantly, he has thrown his last 86 passes without an INT, one of only 7 QBs nationally to do that.

Another important improvement has been the Aztecs’ efficiency in the Red Zone. You probably remember last year’s frustrations. Well, this year we are 10 for 10, one of only five teams to do that; and 7 of the scores have been TDs. Guess OC Jeff Horton has a solid approach to that.

Oh, yes, the win was Number 100 for Rocky. Of 128 FBS teams, only 30 have a head coach with 100 or more victories.

This week, it’s another road game, this one against a greatly improved, explosive San Jose State. They are 3-3 overall, 2-1 in MW, losing to Air Force early. They are averaging just over 30 points a game. They scored 49 on Fresno to give you a comparison with a common foe.

The betting line shows SJSU a 2-point favorite. So what should we expect? If the Aztecs continue to play tight defense and show continued improvement, I see an important victory for us, with a key MW game at home against Utah State the next Friday.

DJ Pumphrey gains some of his 148 rushing yards; Christian Heyward had a 3 solo tackles, a QB sack, a forced fumble and fumble recovery (photos by Ernie Anderson)