San Diego State: Beyond the Box Score Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.  And if you just don't like or care about numbers, skip them -- I always attempt to explain what they might be telling us afterward.

Previewing early Mizzou opponents is a little odd, considering a) we wrote thousands of words about each team in the offseason, both as part of the 2010 Missouri Football Preview (still on sale if you have not yet made your purchase!) and in the summer BTBS previews, and b) there haven't exactly been many games played so far.  What's changed since the summer?  Probably not much.  What we're going to do to preview San Diego State, then, is revisit the preseason BTBS posts and react based on early-season results.  Sounds like a plan?  Sounds like a plan.

San Diego State: BTBS Offensive Preview
San Diego State: BTBS Defensive Preview

Without diving too deep into specifics, SDSU's season has started wonderfully.  They are 2-0 for the first time since 1994, and they are 2-0 with a road win for the first time since 1986.  Coach Brady Hoke's résumé is one of slow growth and steady progress, but two games into his second year as the Aztecs' leader, the fanbase appears to be buzzing and confident for the first time in ages.

Of course ... their two wins have come against potentially the weakest early schedule in FBS.  Thus far, they have defeated Nicholls State and New Mexico State.  For numbers purposes, I separate all FCS opponents into six tiers -- Nicholls State is a Tier 6, i.e. bottom tier, FCS team ... for all intents and purposes, they are SEMO.  Meanwhile, NMSU was projected 120th out of 120 FBS teams in our Football Outsiders preseason projections.  The wins have been great confidence builders for the Aztecs, but they should be taken with gigantic grains of salt.  Losing one of these games would have told us much more about San Diego State than their winning has.

Regardless, they have been confidence builders.  Whether or not they are capable of hanging with Mizzou for 60 minutes, they think they are, and that alone is something more than recent incarnations of San Diego State couldn't have said.  Confidence is a powerful drug, and Mizzou will have to take them very seriously on Saturday.  (By all accounts, they are.)

Below, we will walk through each SDSU unit, starting each with a quote from the summer BTBS previews.

Coaching

After the failed Chuck Long Experiment, Brady Hoke took over the reins as SDSU head coach last season, and the Aztecs showed demonstrable improvement in his first season.  Hoke, you'll recall, was at the helm at Ball State when the Cardinals went 12-1 in 2008.  He left for his sunny alma mater and set about improving what seems like it could be at least a mid-sized sleeping giant.  A sleeping mama bear, at the very least.

When Ball State took off, it was sudden -- the Cardinals won just 15 games in Hoke's first four years, then improved to 7-6 in 2007 and 12-1 in 2008.  He apparently needs to get his own recruits into the system before thriving, and SDSU is still in transition in this regard.

Hoke appears to have inherited a slightly more favorable situation in San Diego than he did in Muncie.  SDSU had a little bit of athleticism when he walked in the door, and he has been able to utilize the speed advantage in the opening two games of the 2010 season.

Bottom line: Hoke is a helluva coach.  The Aztecs are likely still a year or two away from becoming a rock solid overall program, but with two early wins in the bag, home games against Utah State, Colorado State and UNLV, and a road trip to lowly New Mexico, six wins is a distinct possibility for them this season, and even a simple New Mexico Bowl bid would be extreme progress for a program that hasn't been to a bowl since 1998 and has only two winning seasons since 1996.

Offense

I'm throwing you a slight curveball with the below rankings.  For those who follow the BTBS posts (or my FO writing), you know that the basis for most of my writing is the S&P+, an opponent-adjusted measure.  Two games into the season, we don't exactly have enough data to make good opponent adjustments.  The below numbers are raw and unadjusted.  Therefore SDSU's tremendously weak schedule has helped their ratings quite a bit.  Keep that in mind.

Overall Ranks

S&P: 18th
Success Rate: 35th
PPP: 9th

Standard Downs S&P: 21st
Passing Downs S&P: 10th

Redzone S&P: 49th

Q1 S&P: 87th
Q2 S&P: 14th
Q3 S&P: 21st
Q4 S&P: 7th

1st Down S&P: 14th
2nd Down S&P: 50th
3rd Down S&P: 9th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P: 17th
Rushing SR: 10th
Rushing PPP: 17th

Standard Downs: 16th
Passing Downs: 19th

Redzone: 19th

Adj. Line Yards: 18th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P: 32nd
Passing SR: 71st
Passing PPP: 19th

Standard Downs: 22nd
Passing Downs: 19th

Redzone: 86th

Sack Rate: 1st
SD Sack Rate: 1st
PD Sack Rate: 1st

The Aztecs weren't good at much in 2009.  They continuously put themselves in 2nd-and-long situations with one of the worst first down / standard downs offenses in the country.  Some solid play-making from quarterback Ryan Lindley allowed them to keep some drives going -- they ranked much higher on passing downs than standard downs -- but still ... a long way to go here.  If there is something to build on here, it's that Lindley returns, as do four starters from a line that protected Lindley quite well.  Now if they can just open some running lanes ...

Compared to where they were last season, SDSU's early numbers are extremely encouraging.  They were terrible on first downs last year, and against Nicholls State and NMSU, they have compiled the No. 14 first-down offense in the country.  They had no running game to speak of, and at the moment they rank 17th.  If these were opponent-adjusted numbers, this would be an incredible turnaround.  However, after they play Missouri, BYU and Air Force over the next month, we will have a much better idea for how much of this is a true turnaround, and how much is a small sample size based on awful opponents.  Early returns could not be better, however.

Three things worth noting about the Aztecs' early numbers:

1. They have an all-or-nothing passing game.  SDSU has taken quite a few chances early in the season, and they have paid off.  Ryan Lindley completed just 20 of 42 passes last week at New Mexico State (a rather awful 48% completion rate), but SDSU averaged 16 yards per completion.  They have gone downfield often, and with wonderful weapons in DeMarco Sampson (11 catches, 252 yards, 2 TDs thus far) and Vincent Brown (10 catches, 138 yards), it has paid off.  But the lack of efficiency will eventually bite them -- they rank 19th in Passing PPP (explosiveness), but only 71st in Passing Success Rate (efficiency).  We will see how their strategy changes against a defense that can better compete with them in the speed category.  Do they play more conservatively, or do they take just as many chances?  If incompletions lead to passing downs, will they go for the dump-offs and screens, or will they be trusting their offensive line to hold of Mizzou's four-end "Candy" formation long enough to find Brown or Sampson downfield?  If they do not go conservative, that Passing Success Rate rank will fall into the 100s when they start playing real opponents, and that is worrisome.

2. They have struggled in the redzone.  Against their weak schedule, any ranking below about 50th or so in the raw numbers above is a pretty bad sign.  They rank 49th in the redzone, 86th in redzone passing.  Like Missouri last year, it appears that they do not yet have a go-to set of plays in scoring situations, and if they do not have much of a short passing game, this ranking makes a bit of sense.

3. They are slow starters.  At the end of the first quarter in Las Cruces last week, New Mexico State led the Aztecs, 7-3.  It was only 13-7 SDSU at halftime.  Against Nicholls State, it was 0-0 after 15 minutes.  Mizzou pounced on McNeese State immediately last weekend, and they would do themselves a serious favor by doing the same this time around.  San Diego State improves as the game progresses, so the longer they can hang around, the better it will be for them.

Quarterback

One of the higher-ranked recruits from the Chuck Long Experiment, Ryan Lindley, from nearby Lakeside, CA, is easily the face of the SDSU offense.  His completion percentages is not quite high enough for him to be a top-flight quarterback just yet, but in two years of starting, under two different head coaches, he has amassed 5,704 passing yards and 39 touchdowns to 25 interceptions.  Considering how often he has to throw (because his team is usually losing, and SDSU has no running game), he has done quite well for himself.  With Mizzou's occasional struggles in defending the pass, a big game from Lindley is clearly the Aztecs' best ticket for an upset.

To date, completion percentage is still the primary thing holding Lindley back.  He has completed 54.4 percent of his passes this season, which is simply too low, especially considering how many favors the running game has done him so far.  You have to like the rest of his stat line -- 3 TDs to 0 INTs, 9.0 yards per pass -- but the one weakness is a glaring one.

Running Backs

Only Washington State and Duke were worse at running the ball than San Diego State was last year.  Brandon Sullivan assumes a fullback role this year after leading the team in rushing, but while Walter Kazee was semi-competent in his freshman season, the Aztecs' hopes are all pinned on freshman Ronnie Hillman.  A do-it-all back from La Habra, CA, Hillman was ruled ineligible for the 2009 fall semester, but he enrolled in the spring and won the starting job.  He is small but explosive and could be dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield.  Despite HIllman's presence, however, this is still a rather poor unit.  Kazee and Brown are relatively quick, but not explosive, and ... well, units don't go from 117th to good in one year.

Until I take opponent adjustments into account, SDSU's running game has gone from 117th to good in one year.  As expected Kazee and Hillman have been the primary reasons for that.  Kazee has rushed for 126 yards (7.9 per carry) so far, and Davon Brown has pitched in 115 of his own (7.7 per carry).  Hillman, meanwhile, has been a bit of a revelation.  He rushed for 150 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries against New Mexico State and has 215 yards (5.8 per carry) through two games.

I'll say this much: I worried earlier in the week that opponents would take advantage of Mizzou's over-aggressiveness and jailbreak screen them to death if they were unable to effectively read the situation and react quickly.  Well ... San Diego State is perfectly equipped to take advantage of this weakness if it is indeed a weakness.  The running backs have yet to be utilized in the passing game (they have combined for two catches), but if Hoke ever planned on breaking that into the gameplan, this is the week.  Hillman is quick enough to torch Mizzou on screens if they over-pursue -- we'll see if that is indeed what Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges attempt.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Lindley's two favorite targets return for their senior seasons in San Diego.  DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown, two decent-sized, big-play receivers, are back and might provide as interesting a challenge to the Mizzou secondary as anybody Illinois puts out there.  This is a nice non-conference test for Mizzou -- you want them to face opponents good enough to make them work, but not good enough to dominate them, and SDSU's passing game fits that bill.  They were decent last year, and they will likely improve ... and Kevin Rutland, Carl Gettis, and company better be up for the challenge.

There are some really interesting dynamics at work this week.  Mizzou's biggest defensive strength so far (defensive line and pass rush) might be countered effectively by San Diego State.  Meanwhile, SDSU's biggest strengths (speed and downfield passing) might be countered effectively by Mizzou.  Rutland, Gettis and a physical Mizzou secondary have been great so far, though they have obviously been assisted by the pass rush and hurried quarterbacks.  If Lindley does indeed attempt to go downfield repeatedly, it might work once or twice, but it will likely backfire quite a bit.  That said, Sampson and Brown really are solid -- Sampson might be the best mid-major conference receiver Mizzou has faced since Hank Baskett (ouch ... I just gave myself flashbacks), and if Mizzou's early success has also been the result of a weak early schedule, then we will find out in a rather painful way.

Offensive Line

It's always fun to see lines that rank as polar opposites in different categories.  The SDSU offensive line could not open a running lane to save their lives, ranking 115th in Adj. Line Yards.  But they protected the passer as well as anybody in the Mountain West, and their Adj. Sack Rates were the main impetus in them ranking 33rd overall in 2009.  They have four returning starters, three of whom are upper-classmen, and they signed beefy tackle Juan Bolanos this past signing period.  Loaded with experience, this unit should also provide a solid challenge for the Mizzou defensive line.

With better runners and weaker opponents, SDSU's overall line play thus far has been outstanding.  They rank 18th in run blocking (Line Yards) and first in pass protection (Sack Rates).  None of this means anything until they face a real opponent, but once again they present a rather interesting matchup for Mizzou.  The entire offense does, really.  As a Mizzou fan, I remain confident, but I maintain what we said this offseason: this appears to be a perfect test for Mizzou.  This is not a dominant offense -- at least it probably won't be when real opponents are involved -- but they have enough strengths to test Mizzou in a number of different ways.  If Mizzou is not who we think they are, or if they choose a bad time to have an off-week, they could pay.

Defense

Overall Ranks

S&P: 39th
Success Rate: 21st
PPP: 58th

Standard Downs S&P: 28th
Passing Downs S&P: 35th

Redzone S&P: 42nd

Q1 S&P: 57th
Q2 S&P: 15th
Q3 S&P: 66th
Q4 S&P: 5th

1st Down S&P: 48th
2nd Down S&P: 31st
3rd Down S&P: 8th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P: 26th
Rushing SR: 21st
Rushing PPP: 51st

Standard Downs: 10th
Passing Downs: 62nd

Redzone: 26th

Line Yards: 49th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P: 57th
Passing SR: 46th
Passing PPP: 69th

Standard Downs: 66th
Passing Downs: 33rd

Redzone: 65th

Sack Rate: 50th
SD Sack Rate: 39th
PD Sack Rate: 59th

Passing Downs are basically play-making downs.  The best quarterbacks make plays on passing downs, and the worst defenses give up plays on passing downs.  As we will see, San Diego State was well-coached and took nice strides defensively last year ... but they were still terrible on passing downs.  They just didn't yet have the talent and/or athleticism to make stops.  It is the last thing that comes around when you are rebuilding an offense or a defense, and it hasn't come around yet for the Aztecs.

Compared to the offense, the defense is still a work in progress.  Raw numbers suggest a solid defense on both standard (1st downs, 2nd-and-6 or less, 3rd-and-4 or less) and passing downs, but again, the opponent must be taken into account.  Here are three things to note about their BTBS numbers so far:

1. They give up big plays.  After facing Nicholls State and New Mexico State, you honestly have no excuse for ranking any lower than about 30th in PPP (explosiveness).  That SDSU ranks 58th (51st against the run, 69th against the pass) should be a huge concern for Aztec fans as they prepare to see Mizzou and BYU in coming weeks.  This, of course, provides us with yet another interesting contrast -- Mizzou has been mercilessly efficient in the passing game, but their big play ability has yet to be unveiled (or prove that it exists).  With SDSU's vulnerability, do they take a couple of early shots downfield?  Do they continue to use the quick, horizontal passes to set up a pump-fake deep ball?  I'm not sure of the answer to the first question, though I have to figure the answer to the second is an unequivocal yes.  The Mizzou offensive philosophy is what it is, and sideline passes are clearly a major component.  This is an interesting "relative strength versus relative strength, relative weakness versus relative weakness" matchup here.

2. They are not yet stout enough up front to truly take advantage of Rocky Long's 3-3-5 alignment.  Like the 3-4, the 3-3-5 attack that defensive coordinator Rocky Long has made (marginally) famous is an attempt to bring speed and disguised blitzes to the table in droves.  When it works, it confuses the daylights out of opposing offenses, and they begin to make mistakes. Case in point: they scored on a pick six against Chase Daniel and Mizzou in 2006, and they scored off of a fumble recovery and had two killer picks against Brad Smith and Mizzou in 2005.

If the defensive line is a pushover, however, the attack just simply isn't going to work to its utmost effectiveness.  So far, the Aztecs' line ratings are less than stellar (49th in Line Yards, 50th in Sack Rates).  It will be interesting to see how they hold up to Mizzou's run blocking.  The slow-developing Mizzou runs are quite effective when the offensive line swallows up the defenders, and SDSU must not let this happen if they want a chance to win.  If Mizzou is running and using the horizontal pass effectively, the Aztecs will be significantly vulnerable to the long ball whenever Dave Yost decides to pull the trigger.

3. They too are slow starters.  Like their offense, the SDSU D is at its worst in Q1.  Strike fast.  If it's still a game nearing halftime, Mizzou's got a fight on their hands.

(Of course, all of the conclusions above are based on a sample size of two games, so ... we'll see.)

Defensive Line

When Hoke came to town last season, he brought with him Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense.  The 3-4 and 3-3-5 are attacking defenses that tends to confuse people at the collegiate level, if for no other reason than teams just don't see it very much.  It's almost like playing an option team like Navy and Georgia Tech -- you can prepare for it, but you're not going to actually be used to it until you play the opponent two or three times, if ever.

When a coach installs a three-man front, the previous 4-3 personnel tends not to match up very well on the defensive line.  Obviously the secondary is roughly the same, but with a 3-4 or 3-3-5 you need bigger ends who can stand up to blocking a lot more than a smaller 4-3 end.  With that in mind, Hoke has moved returning starting tackle Ernie Lawson to end, creating a situation where three starters return, and only two will start.  Meanwhile, four-star signee Perry Jackson also gets added to the mix this fall.  He is possibly a bit light to be a 3-4 end (honestly, I could see someone with that height/weight ending up at LB), but he is SDSU's first four-star recruit since 2005.

The defensive tackle is the anchor of the three-man front, and since he moved Lawson to DE, I guess Hoke has a lot of confidence and/or hope in the performance of Jerome Long.  In a backup role, Long ended up making as many plays as almost anybody else on the line last year.  At worst, I'm assuming the line won't be any worse than it was last year, and with the experience and potential talent upgrade in Jackson, it will probably be a bit better.

Stats in a 3-4 or 3-3-5 are so funny compared to the 4-3.  We're used to Mizzou's defensive ends making a share of plays and taking the heat off the linebackers.  With San Diego State, the heat is directed to the linebackers.  SDSU's first- and second-string ends -- Ernie Lawson, B.J. Williams, Jacob Tauanuu and J.J. Autele (Perry Jackson is a third-stringer at the moment) -- have combined for 6.5 tackles, 0.5 for loss.  In comparison, Mizzou backup Brad Madison has 5.0 tackles and 3.0 for loss.  It is just a completely different philosophy.

If there has been a D-line star for the Aztecs so far, it has been plumped up tackle Jerome Long.  He is currently tied for second on the team in tackles with 6.5 (the love has been spread around so far, with nine players registering at least 4.5 tackles and only one registering more than 6.5) and two tackles for loss.  There is potential here, but quite honestly the ends to need to be making more plays than they are, even if they are not expected to make a ton.

Linebackers

In a 3-3-5, the defense rushes four men on every play just like a 4-3 does ... only, the fourth rusher could be anyone on the field.  The misdirection and confusion this brings about is often beneficial to the defense, especially if the offensive line is either undisciplined or inexperienced (or not very good).  As you see from the stats, the linemen didn't make a ton of plays, but quite a few different linebackers racked up tackles-for-loss last season.  The best (and biggest) of the bunch was Miles Burris, though both Andrew Preston and Marcus Yarbrough put up similar stats.  Despite only returning one starter, this unit should not rank any worse in 2010, partially because it's hard to get worse than 108th place, and partially because a lot of players got experience last year.

Preston and Eric Pinkins are listed at the "AZTEC" position on the defense.  While I assume Burris is the primary fourth rusher (a DE/OLB hybrid), it appears the AZTEC is the safety/LB hybrid we often see in 3-3-5, 3-4 and 4-4 systems.

Burris has been the star so far this season, racking up nine tackles, 1.5 for loss.  A ton of other linebackers -- Preston, Yarbrough, Rob Andrews, freshman Nick Tenhaeff -- litter the top of the tacklers list.  That's really all we can say about this unit so far -- they're making a lot of tackles, as designed.  How they hold up against a better offense, nobody knows.

Secondary

While the run defense improved quite a bit last season (it does not necessarily reflect in the unit rankings, but SDSU improved to 77th in Rushing S&P+), the pass defense was still a bit of a disaster, particularly on passing downs.  Simply by not being one of the 3-4 worst secondaries in the country, this was an improved unit last year, and it should improve again this time around with all four returning starters and potentially their most athletic/best player (Leon McFadden) heading into his sophomore season.

While they have broken up 10 passes, SDSU has yet to record an interception, and combined with iffy pass defense ratings, I'm calling this the weakness of the Aztec defense.  They are experienced and seemingly athletic, but either they haven't had many opportunities to make plays ... or they have had plenty of opportunities and simply haven't made them.  We'll see.  The 2010 Mizzou offense isn't 2007 Mizzou, but it isn't New Mexico State either.

Special Teams

Special Teams was not a strength of the Aztecs in 2009, though they do have an absolutely tremendous punter in Brian Stahovich.  Hopefully we'll get plenty of opportunities to see him ply his trade.  Bryan Shields takes over at place kicker, and I get the feeling that the kick- and punt-return positions will be an open battle this fall, as neither of the leading returnees did too much with their opportunities.  And if Jasper Simmons were ever to want to break a long kickoff return, SDSU might oblige.

First things first: Brian Stahovich is an absolute stud punter.  In five attempts so far this year, he is averaging 51.8 per kick (his long is 59, meaning there's not some ridiculous 85-yarder skewing the average), with two downed inside the 20.  Good stuff.  As I mentioned in the summer preview, hopefully he gets plenty of opportunities to show off his leg on Saturday.

Beyond Stahovich, the unit is very average.  Kicker Abel Perez has made just four of seven field goals so far (1-for-3 from 40+), and the kick/punt returns have been adequate.  They have been neither good nor bad in any of the return or coverage categories.

Summary

I love what Hoke did at Ball State, and I think he could eventually succeed at a decent level at San Diego State.  Obviously while in a conference with TCU, BYU and Boise State in the future, it might hard to finish better than fourth in the conference, but fourth place will likely get you to a bowl game ... somewhere SDSU has been only once since 1992.

In all, the 3-3-5 look will likely give Mizzou an opportunity to dust off their Texas Bowl offensive gameplan (sideline passes, cut-back runs, and more sideline passes) and see if they can execute it better this time around.  SDSU's defense will not be anywhere near the caliber of Navy's this season, so Mizzou should succeed.  The run defense should still provide a decent test for Mizzou, and like I said yesterday, you want at least a little bit of a challenge in these games.  But when pressed to pass, Mizzou should be able to do so with little problem, which will result in an easy Mizzou win unless Ryan Lindley passes for 550 yards.

First of all, whoops to the whole "in a conference with BYU" thing.  But I digress.

Through two games, my assessment of San Diego State has not changed.  Mizzou has been executing their "Texas Bowl gameplan" all season even when facing four-man lines, and it has been effective.  If Gabbert can whip the passes to the sidelines as quickly and accurately as he has been doing so far, and if Mizzou's offensive line opens up the running lanes they should be expected to open, then Mizzou will move the ball with ease.  It will be up to the Aztecs' offense to keep up with them.  Can they?  Can they remain patient and play conservatively when needed?  Can Ronnie Hillman and company slice through Mizzou's defense as well as they have against junior varsity competition?  I mentioned earlier that while the numbers suggest a 34-point Mizzou win, I don't see something that dominant.  This one has 38-17 written all over it for me, so that's what I'll predict.  If Mizzou doesn't pounce early, however, it could end up a lot closer.

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