San Diego State Preview

San Diego State (3-1) comes to the Rose Bowl Saturday pretty pumped up, sporting the #2-ranked defense in the country. Can the Bruins get their offense on track and make this week against the Aztecs the turning point in the season so far?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- The San Diego State Aztecs come to the Rose Bowl with a record of 3-1, with wins over Eastern Washington, UTEP and Samford. Their loss was at the hands of Ohio State.  Eastern Washington and Samford are both I-AA schools. 

-- UCLA has never lost to San Diego State, with the series dating back to 1922.  UCLA is 17-0-1 against the Aztecs, including a 43-7 win last season at San Diego State.  The tie came in 1924.  UCLA is scheduled to return to the Aztecs' home stadium, Qualcomm Stadium, in 2005.

-- San Diego State's head coach is Tom Craft, who is in his second season at the helm of the Aztec program and owns a 7-10 record overall there.  After starting 0-5 last season, in his last 12 games Craft is 7-5. 

-- UCLA Head Coach Karl Dorrell grew up in the San Diego area, attending San Diego Helix High.  Dorrell verbally committed to the Aztecs out of high school, but when UCLA offered, he then de-committed and committed to UCLA.  He interviewed for the Aztec head coaching position two years ago when Craft was hired.

-- The coaching staffs at UCLA and San Diego State have a variety of connections. The biggest is probably that of San Diego State quarterbacks coach Brian Stark, who worked with Dorrell at both Colorado and Washington. He also worked with Bruin assistant Jon Embree at Colorado and UCLA offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Steve Axman when they were both on the Husky staff.  UCLA offensive line coach Mark Weber coached Aztecs tight end coach Matt Irvin when he was an offensive lineman at Oregon State.

-- San Diego State has started a season 3-1 for the first time since 1996 and for just the second time since 1987. 

-- The word is that San Diego State's players are pumped up for their matchup against UCLA. Many of the players on its roster are from Southern California, weren't recruited seriously by UCLA and consider this somewhat of a vendetta game.

-- San Diego State is a very young team, with 12 first-year starters in the lineup.  Of SDSU's 44 players in its two-deep, only 12 of them are seniors. 

-- The game will be televised on Fox Sports West 2 at 7:05.

SAN DIEGO STATE'S OFFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Talk about youthful glow. San Diego State's offense is a beacon of youth and inexperience. When it takes the field Saturday night against UCLA it will have first-year starters at quarterback, all of its receiving positions, running back and tight end.

No matter how talented, that's a great deal of youth and inexperience to overcome. 

With their skill positions being filled by inexperience, San Diego State went from the spread-it-out, pass-happy team of a season ago to one that now emphasizes a run game, and has been pretty balanced in its first three games between the run and the pass.  Last week against Samford, the Aztecs ran the ball 47 times and amassed almost 300 yards on the ground total. 

Matt Dlugolecki (AP).

Amassing most of those yards is freshman tailback Lynell Hamilton (6-1, 215), who UCLA fans are pretty familiar with since the Bruins recruited him pretty seriously last year.  Last week Hamilton carried the ball 31 times for 220 yards, and became just the second freshman in SDSU history to run for more than 200 yards in a game, the other being Marshall Faulk in 1991.  Hamilton, so far on the season, has rushed for 509 yards in four games, averaging 127.2 yards a game and 5.5 a carry.  His per-yards-per-game average gets him ranked ninth nationally, and he's the only freshman to be ranked among the top 25 rushers in the country.  He's big and strong, and while he runs a bit upright, he is very hard to bring down.  With SDSU's true starting quarterback, Adam Hall, out after being injured against EWU, Hamilton has become the focal point of the Aztec offense.

Any experience you might find on the offense mostly would be found on the offensive line, which has been good at opening holes for Hamilton.  Three seniors are their leaders, tackle Brendan Darby (6-7, 295), and guards Shawn Dicke (6-5, 310) and Gerald Sykes (6-1, 320). 

A huge factor to consider, though, is that SDSU has established this running game against two Division I-AA schools and UTEP.  Against a real D-1 defense, that of Ohio State, the Aztecs ran for 28 yards on 26 carries overall (net yards after sacks). Hamilton had 69 yards on 17 carries.  So, even though its running game has been successful it's really unproven against good D-1 competition, and you'd have to say that UCLA's defense fits into that category.  In fact, UCLA's rushing defense is 19th in the country, allowing only an average of 88 yards per game.  UCLA's rushing defense has been the best aspect of the team through its first three games.  It's getting production from the usual suspects, defensive tackle Rodney Leisle and end Dave Ball, but also from unsung twin Mat Ball has been stepping up this season at the other defensive end position and getting some spotlight.  He was injured for most of the Oklahoma game, but had a big impact on the Colorado and Illinois games.  He's reportedly recovered from his injury and will start against SDSU.

UCLA's linebackers, after the defensive line, could be the next most effective unit on the team.  Brandon Chillar has come out of the box on fire this season, putting up Pac-10-first-team-worthy numbers so far, leading the Pac-10 in tackles with 13.3 per game. He has been all over the field, in both run and pass defense, with great quickness and sure tackling. 

Mat Ball (Getty Images).

The loss of Hall for SDSU is a big one. Hall led the Mountain West in total offense, passing yards and passing efficiency a year ago.  With him out, San Diego State has turned over the reins of its offense to another player UCLA fans should be familiar with, sophomore quarterback Matt Dlugolecki (6-4, 215). Dlugolecki, you might all remember, verbally committed to UCLA, but then took an official visit to Illinois, which violated an agreement he had with the previous UCLA coaching staff.  Perhaps one of the most humorous recruiting stories in recent memory were other recruits on the trip to Illinois that weekend saying a quarterback named "Dlugolecki" was also visiting officially, but the youngster denied he had taken the official visit (as if there the possibility of more than one quarterback recruit named Dlugolecki in the world).   He later conceded he had taken the visit and UCLA pulled its scholarship offer.  He did go to Illinois, left after a season and transferred to San Diego State.

The passing game under Dlugolecki hasn't been stellar, but it hasn't necessarily been really poor either. Dlugolecki has shown some inexperience at times, holding the ball too long, not being able to find an open receiver and throwing into coverage. He's thrown four touchdowns, but also four interceptions.  He's big and a drop-back passer without much mobility, with just a decent arm. 

Dlugolecki, though, hasn't had the receivers that San Diego State did last season. If you remember when UCLA faced them in San Diego last year, the Aztecs had, at the time, the most productive 1-2 receiver punch in the country with J.R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood.  With both of them departing, San Diego State hasn't had two receivers who have stepped in and picked up the slack. Its starting wideouts are sophomore Jeff Webb (6-2, 200) and junior Devin Pitts (6-3, 195). They've both done solid jobs but haven't been spectacular.  Pitts is probably more of the big-play guy and is coming off his best game ever against Samford, going for 81 yards on four catches and a touchdown.  Last year Tolver and Osgood caught just about every ball the Aztecs threw, but this year their offense is spreading it around to compensate, with 14 different players having caught a pass so far this season. 

UCLA's defensive backfield should be able to handle the Aztec passing game.  Again, the best comparison is how San Diego State did against Ohio State. In that game in early September, the Aztecs threw for 188 yards, and Dlugolecki was 23 of 39 with two interceptions.  The Aztecs, even though they've gotten better since that game, still haven't faced a defense and defensive secondary like that of UCLA. Its young receivers will have a challenge ahead of them facing UCLA's talented DBs.

Advantage: UCLA.  With Craft, who is considered somewhat of an offensive matermind, San Diego State will still line up in its spread scheme, but probably try to establish a running game against UCLA's defense, which could be tough sledding.  San Diego State's offense has been productive, especially last week when it gained 528 total yards, but it's almost irrelevant since it was against I-AA Samford.  Against Ohio State, again the best barometer for this game, the Aztecs gained 216 total yards and scored 13 points.  UCLA's defense will try to put a great amount of pressure on Dlugolecki and force him to make mistakes. Watch for the Balls, Leisle and Ryan Boschetti to spend some time in the SDSU backfield.  UCLA's defense is good for probably at least two turnovers and at least 10 points in this one. 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. SAN DIEGO STATE'S DEFENSE

This is the matchup where the playing field is a little more even, but it really shouldn't be.  The reason this is even close is that UCLA's vastly more talented offense hasn't gotten on track yet and is a bit of a mess.  San Diego State's defense is currently ranked #2 in the country, but that ranking is misleading: The Aztecs have faced far inferior competition - and the one legitimate foe it's faced, Ohio State, has an offense that's remarkable similar to UCLA's in his ineffectiveness. 

Kirk Morrison on the tackle (AP).

San Diego's defense is led by junior middle linebacker Kirk Morrison (6-2, 240), who is probably the best football player on the team.  He has been their Brandon Chillar so far this season, leading the Mountain West Conference in tackles (36) and tackles for loss (7).  He has good size and quickness, and a great natural knack for being around the ball. 

There is some talent in the secondary, too.  Senior cornerback Jeff Shoate (5-11, 175) is a solid cover corner and playmaker.  The other corner, starting this year for the first time, Jacob Elimimian (5-11, 175), has had a nose for the ball, with six interceptions so far this season.  He ran one back 85 yards for a touchdown against UTEP. 

The Aztecs also have some decent talent on their defensive line, led by defensive end Ryan Iata (6-5, 275), who was granted a sixth year of eligibility this season.  One player that is worth checking out is freshman defensive tackle Jonathan Bailes who is 6-1 and 325 and quite a load. 

But overall, compared to the defenses UCLA has seen so far this season, this is an extreme drop-off in talent.  While they've made a bit of a rep by playing soft, inferior competition and then showing well against Ohio State on national television, San Diego State's defense just plainly isn't as good as the hype.

UCLA's offense, though, has struggled, to put it mildly.  It's been inept in its passing game, with quarterback Drew Olson, filling in for the injured Matt Moore, unable to get in a good groove so far this season. His receivers have dropped balls and killed drives.  With the passing game sputtering, defenses have stacked the box and tried to shut down UCLA's running game, which has been moderately successful. 

OG Eyoseph Efseaff (Getty).

The UCLA offense, if you measure it in terms of talent, should roll over San Diego State's defense.  From just a personnel standpoint, the Aztecs just don't have the manpower to stay with UCLA's playmakers.  If the Aztecs try to shut down Craig Bragg, which they really don't have the talent to do, they're opening themselves up to the chance that Marcedes Lewis is going to burn them.  If they try to stack the box and shut down Manuel White, which they don't have the talent to do (but will attempt), they don't have the pass rush to pressure UCLA quarterback Drew Olson, which will give him the time to get comfortable and find Bragg or Lewis. UCLA's offensive line, too, has played solidly so far this season, and they're far superior to San Diego State's front seven. 

But this is how it would pan out if you were just considering UCLA's talent in comparison to that on the talent balance sheet of San Diego State. You also, have to though, compensate for how inept UCLA's offense has been at executing its new scheme under this new coaching staff.  That factor, more than anything else, evens the playing field in the matchup of UCLA's offense versus the San Diego State defense.

Advantage: UCLA.  There's just too much talent against a San Diego State unit that just doesn't have it.  No matter how much the UCLA players have struggled in their new scheme, there comes a time when the talent is going to take over and start to make plays, despite what many believe is a conservative offensive scheme and play-calling.  You just can't hold down Bragg, White and Lewis for long.  This looks to be the week that the UCLA offense gets on track.  The San Diego State defense doesn't do a great job of pressuring the quarterback. It could be just the right situation to give Olson enough time to "execute."  Watch for UCLA to open up its passing game and call plays where Olson throws the ball down the field to try to take advantage of their talent edge in the receiver/defensive back matchup.  After weeks of the receivers killing drives because of dropped passes, going against the San Diego State defense, at home, in the Rose Bowl, this is the week that the receivers hang on to the ball. And if you factor in that the receivers actually hang on to the ball, and Olson has time to throw, the stage seems set for UCLA's offense to turn the corner this week. 

PREDICTION:  San Diego State, particulary its defense, is over-rated.  It owns a very bad quality 3-1 record. UCLA, on the other hand, is anxious to get its offense on track after three weeks of struggling, and while the weekly mantras of "We have to get better" and "When the offense starts clicking" are pretty annoying, this Saturday looks like the week when those seeming excuses become reality. The San Diego State defense seems like the perfect remedy - just enough hype to make UCLA take it seriously and play hard, but not talented enough to hold down the Bruins, especially if they're really focused on "getting better" and "clicking."  While every week a new "issue" has arisen for UCLA, and you'd have to anticipate this week will have some, too, it would be mind-blowing if the punt coverage issue for UCLA isn't a non-issue this week.  UCLA, in fact, should win the special teams battle, with better athletes and more focus on those squads.  So, we'll maybe give San Diego State's defense credit for keeping the score fairly low, but look for this game to be the one where UCLA's offense finds a groove. It's hard to say just how effective and productive the groove will be, but a groove nonetheless, especially compared to the non-groove it's been in for three weeks.

UCLA 37
San Diego State 16


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