Head to Head: Army vs. San Diego State

The Army Black Knights travel across the country to face the San Diego State Aztecs. Last year SDSU beat Army 23-20 at Michie Stadium. The Black Knights rushed for 403 yards against the Aztecs but killed themselves with eight fumbles while turning over the ball three times. San Diego State isn't as talented as last year with the graduation of the best passer they ever had in Ryan Lindley.

They also have replaced star running back Ronnie Hillman who left for the NFL and retooled their offensive and defensive lines. San Diego lost their opener against Washington, 21-12.

Army's rushing offense
San Diego State's rushing defense
Edge: Army
The Black Knights led the nation in rushing as they ran for school record 4,158 yards in 2011. Army quarterback Trent Steelman rushed for a career high 157 yards and three touchdowns against the Aztecs last year. Fullback Larry Dixon had a terrific freshman year. He won the starting job in the second half of the season. Dixon finished the year with 542 yards, (6.2 avg.) and scored five touchdowns. Raymond Maples was the Black Knights' best offensive threat last fall running for 1,066 yards, averaging 7.3 yards per carry and scoring four touchdowns. Maples became only the third sophomore and just the 12th player in Army's history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season. Remington watch list center Ryan Powis is out with a hand injury and is expected to be replaced by Will Wilson.

San Diego State's rush defense finished 78th nationally in 2011. Army ran for 402 yards against them last year. SDSU's rushing defense uses an innovative 3-3-5 defense that relies on speed and athleticism. The Aztecs enter this season needing to rebuild their defensive line. Their best returning linebacker is sophomore middle linebacker Jake Fely who made 58 tackles and forced three fumbles last year. In the opener against Washington the Aztecs allowed up just 328 yards of total offense and limited the Huskies to just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. San Diego State had 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Army's passing offense
San Diego State's  pass defense
Edge: San Diego State
Quarterback Trent Steelman will open his fourth season as Army's starter. Steelman completed 24-of-45 (53.3 %) of his passes for 424 yards with three touchdown passes and two interceptions last season. The offense hasn't had a pass receiving threat since the world 's tallest wide receiver Ali Villenueva graduated two years ago. In an attempt to improve the weakest area of the team the coaches moved the often injured Malcolm Brown from running back to wide receiver.  Brown, however, will miss the opener with a hamstring injury and will not make the trip. In last year's game against the Aztecs at Michie Steelman Steelman and Max Jenkins completed  just 2 of 7 passes for 43 yards but had a number of good throws dropped. Receivers dropping passes has been a chronic problem of the Army wide receivers and was one of the reasons for moving Brown.

San Diego State allowed Washington to pass for 222 yards in their opener. Unfortunately Army doesn't possess the Huskies passing attack. Senior Leon McFadden is the best player  on the San Diego defense. McFadden has five career interceptions and is on both the Nagurski & Thorpe watch lists. Nat Berhe earned Mountain West . Honorable as he made 67 tackles and intercepted two passes. San Diego young defensive generated three sacks in the opener against Washington.

San Diego State's  rushing offense
Army rushing defense
Edge: San Diego Stat
San Diego State lost its star running back Ronnie Hillman to the NFL. His replacement Adam Muema. rushed for 119 yards and  scored two touchdowns against Boise State in 2011.  Muema scored a touchdown in the opener against Washington. Last year at Michie Stadium San Diego State ran for 146 yards, scored two touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Army's  best ally at times last year was San Diego's offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, Last year Ludwig finally realized on the last two series, that he should  just  hand off the ball to Hillman and Walter Kazee.  Hillman produced a touchdown and on the next drive the Aztecs hit the  game winning field goal. Kazee ran for a team high 86 yards in the loss to the Huskies. He had knee surgery last year and looks fully recovered. New quarterback Ryan Katz  is very mobile and ran for 77 yards against the Huskies last week. The Aztecs offensive line averages 297 pounds and is anchored by Remington Watch list center Alec Johnson.

This will be the initial test of Army's rebuilt defensive line. The defensive front is bigger than last season but the Black Knights are still not going to scare anyone coming off the bus. The entire interior of the defensive line has either very limited or no playing time entering this year. The linebacker play should be better with Geoffrey Bacon (60 tackles, 1 interception returned for a 70-yard TD) and Justin Trimble benefiting from their playing experience last year. In last year's game against the Aztecs, Army struggled getting off blocks up front. It will be interesting to see junior Bobby Kough in his first game.  Kough battled back from a lot of adversity to win the starting job.  Mike Ugenyi , the brother of former Army tackle Victor Ugenyi, won the starting defensive tackle job this summer.

San Diego State's  passing offense
Army's  passing defense
Edge: San Diego State

With the graduation of long time quarterback Ryan Lindley the Aztecs new signal caller is Ryan Katz.  Katz is a senior transfer from Oregon State. He started 14 consecutive games for the Beavers, including all 12 games of the 2010 campaign. Among his highlights, was a 17-for-24, two touchdown performance in an upset victory over USC during his sophomore campaign. Against Washington in their opener, Katz completed 10 of 19 passes for 128 yards, threw one touchdown with an interception and a fumble. Speedy junior Colin Lockett caught 58 passes for 970 yards, with 8 touchdowns last season.  In last year's game Lockett badly burned Army for a 68-yard touchdown.  Lockett later beat Army cornerback  Josh Jackson deep but dropped a sure touchdown pass. San Diego State has one of the best tight ends in college football in Gavin Escobar (51 receptions, 780 yards, 7 TDs).  Wide receiver Tim Vizzi had an easy 47-yard touchdown catch when Washington's defense inexplicably left him uncovered in the opener.  Also at wide receiver are junior Dylan Denso (49 catches, 634 yards and 3 TDs in 2011) and USC transfer Brice Butler (41 catches, 554 yards and 3 TDs at USC). The Aztecs rebuilt offensive line features three new starters who allowed four sacks in the opener against Washington.

Army received bad news recently when it was announced that team captain and quick end Jarrett Mackey will not play against San Diego State. Mackey was thought to have been held out only for precautionary reasons this summer. It later became obvious he still needs more time to rehab his surgically repaired knee. Last year former San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley, who is now in the NFL, with Arizona, badly burned plebe cornerback LJ Harris on his first throw for a 68 yard touchdown in 2011.  Lindley then completed just 7 of 17 passes for 78 yards the rest of the game. Army's staff did an excellent job mixing the looks up front to create pressure and upset Lindley's rhythm. Zac Watts   had the only sack for the defense.  This is the debut of Tyler Dickson at boundary cornerback. He will be tested in this game against a crew of athletic receivers. Last season strong safety Hayden Pierce had an excellent Michie stadium debut last year against the Aztecs. Pierce made four tackles and made a terrific open field tackle in the flat on Ronnie Hillman for a 4-yard loss that forced a punt. My concern is that no one in Army's backfield can run with San Diego State's Colin Lockett. San Diego State has been traditionally very good at pass blocking but struggled in the opener. The new inexperienced offensive line may have difficulty with the Black Knights' double eagle flex front's myriad use of twist and stunts to create pressure.

Special Teams
Edge: Army

San Diego head coach Rocky Long has no confidence in his kicking game. He entered last plans to try two point conversions whenever possible. Both attempts failed in the opener against Washington. New kicker Wes Feer has yet to attempt a field goal or an extra point. The Aztecs have a new punter in Joel Alessi.  Alessi averaged 49 yards on two punts in the opener. Rocky Long had Katz quick punt once.  San Diego has dangerous return men. Colin Lockett had a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last year. Brandon Wright had a 51-yard kickoff return versus the Huskies last Saturday. The new punt returner Tim Vizzi didn't have the opportunity to return any punts in the opener.

Army special teams will have a new field goal kicker. The question as we go to print is who will win the job?  Senior Eric Osteen and plebe Dan Grochowski are still in a battle for the starting job. Osteen will once again handle the kickoffs. He had 10 touchbacks last year. Kickoffs have been moved from the 30 to the 35 with touchbacks brought back to the 25-yard line. Chris Boldt was the Black Knights' main punter during the 2011 season. He punted 31 times and averaged 39.8 yards per punt. He can drive the ball at times. Chris had four punts over 50 yards including a season long effort of  72 yards. He did a solid job limiting opponent punt returns and placed ten kicks inside the 20-yard line. Josh Jackson will handle punts for the third straight season. Army will have new kick returners this season with Jon Crucutti and Stephen Fraser expected to handle them.

Edge: Even

Rich Ellerson and his staff did a great job in preparing for San Diego State last year. Coming off a blowout loss in the opener Army limited possessions and dominated the time of possession 42:11 to 17:49. Offensive coordinator Ian Shields used both his wishbone and half bone sets during the game and called a great game. Co-defensive coordinators Chris Smeland and Payaam Saadat put together a tremendous game play and did a great job mixing their fronts and creating pressure. The ridiculous amount of drive killing fumbles was the difference in the game.
Rocky Long first season as San Diego State's head coach was a success with an 8-5 record. They lost the New Orleans bowl to Louisiana-Lafayette in a very exciting game.
Long served as the Aztecs defensive coordinator for two years under Brady Hoke. Before joining the Aztecs he served as New Mexico's head coach. He's an outstanding defensive mind and serves as his own defensive coordinator.

Edge:   San Diego State
Rocky Long's defense is familiar with the option. The Aztecs face Air Force's option attack in the Mountain West conference every year. That experience takes away one of Army's usual advantages in that teams rarely play against the triple option. Long's defense often performs better against option attacks after they become more familiar with them. Rich Ellerson and most of his staff had San Diego State's number when they coach at Division 1-AA Cal Poly. The Mustangs, under Ellerson, defeated San Diego State in 2006 and 2008. Army has suffered a number of nagging injuries and Ryan Powis is expected to miss the game with an injured finger on his left hand.   

PREDICTION:  San Diego State, 30-24. I'm looking forward to this match-up to see where the Army defense is right now. I believe Army will move the ball on the ground. Even with Powis is out; remember they rushed for 403 yards last year with his replacement Will Wilson at center. If Army can avoid having to pass against the San Diego State secondary, avoid fumbling the ball and maintain possession like last year they can win. The Aztecs have the speed and athletes to put pressure on the Army secondary. If Katz can get his receivers the ball and the San Diego State offensive line give him enough time they have a real speed advantage over the Black Knights. Since Army is traveling about three thousand miles, have a few players hurt and the Azrecs have already played I think San Diego State's wins at home.

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