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September 19, 2013

Preview: San Diego State

Oregon State wasn't the only major college football program on the West Coast to suffer an embarrassing defeat to a Division I-AA (FCS) opponent on the opening weekend of the season.

San Diego State's bitter setback to Eastern Illinois unfolded quite differently, however, compared to OSU's shootout loss to Eastern Washington. The Aztecs weren't just beaten, they were thrashed, 40-19, in front of a stunned home crowd of almost 43,000 fans at Qualcomm Stadium.

Unlike the Beavers, the Aztecs had to journey across the country seven days to Columbus, OH, where they were routed, 42-7, by Ohio State. SDSU fell behind by three touchdowns by the end of the first quarter and never recovered, scoring their lone points of the game late in the third quarter when the Buckeyes had their second and third team backups in the game.

Saddled with a disappointing 0-2 record and outscored by an outlandish 82-26 margin, where does San Diego State go from here? Even quotable (and brutally frank) head coach Rocky Long is befuddled and lacks proven solutions on pulling the Aztecs from the abyss with the Beavers heading to the second largest city in the state of California for a 4:30 p.m. PT kickoff on Saturday.

"I don't have any idea what to expect," Long lamented earlier this week. "I still believe in our players, I still think we have enough talent to be a decent and competitive football team. We have yet to prove that to anybody. We're hoping something good happens early in the game so we can regain our confidence and play to our athletic ability. Now, if that's good enough to stay with Oregon State is yet to be seen."

San Diego State players agreed the bye came at an optimum time considering how poorly the Aztecs fared in the opening two games of the season.

"This bye week was definitely helpful for us," defensive back Eric Pinkins said. "We're going into this game very optimistic. We expect to win every game with the preparation that we're doing and we're going to bring a lot more energy into practice this week and hopefully get a 'W' on Saturday."

Long, New Mexico head coach for a decade (1998-2008) and old school to the core, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards the bye week, though he is hopeful the week away from competition bears fruit for his team.

"I think it was (good), but it's yet to be seen," Long said. "It was good for our mentality as well as getting back to some fundamental things. Our team is practicing with a purpose and trying to get better. They know it's still early in the season and there are still a lot of games yet to be played. They want to try and they want to be good. But you never know for sure until you actually play a game."

Changing quarterbacks has given some San Diego State supporters reason for optimism. Adam Dingwell started the Eastern Illinois loss, which Long described as 'bad of a performance I've ever been around,' and threw for 318 yards on 27-of-63 passing, but four interceptions and four sacks soured the outing.

When Dingwell exited the Ohio State game early with a back injury, Quinn Kaehler, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound walk-on JUCO transfer, took the field and proceeded to complete 22-of-36 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown in his first career appearance against a BCS opponent, including 13-of-21 for 144 yards in the second half.

Kaehler, a mobile quarterback able to throw accurately on the run, was tabbed by Long as San Diego State's starting quarterback for the Oregon State game during the bye week.

"I thought in the second half (of the Ohio State game), it looked like he felt he was in control," Long said. "He seemed to throw the ball OK, he put it on target most of the time, and threw it to the right guys most of the time. I don't think he has quite the arm strength (Dingwell has) but he is a little more accurate with the football, so he has some positives and some negatives just like Adam has."

Accuracy has been a quandary for SDSU in the early going as the two signal callers have combined for a lowly 46.7 completion percentage.

Although the Aztecs have thrown for 534 yards in the first two games (267.0 yards per game), they've struggled running the ball. Even against Eastern Illinois, SDSU averaged just 3.5 yards per rush. A week later, they were stonewalled by the Buckeyes defense in totaling 64 rushing yards on 27 attempts.

Losing top running back Adam Muema to an injury damaged San Diego State's efforts to crank out some semblance of a ground game, but he is expected to return to the field on Saturday.

"We'd love to rely on the running game, but we haven't done it very well and we've gotten behind," Long said. "Plus Adam Muema has been hurt. But we'd love to rely on the running game and it obviously helps quarterbacks."

Colin Lockett is the leading receiver (14 receptions for 156 yards) and rusher (52 yards on two carries) for the Aztecs, outscored 28-10 in the second half of their first two games. Lockett is also San Diego State's main kickoff returner and has compiled 313 all-purpose yards in two games.

Defensively, a San Diego State unit allowing 489 yards per game must somehow figure out a way to contain red hot quarterback Sean Mannion and a Beavers offense firing on all cylinders throughout the first quarter of the season.

Long questioned if that was possible in today's offense-friendly college football climate.

"The days of people shutting good quarterbacks and good receivers down are long gone," said Long, considered one of the top defensive minds in the country. "All you have to do is watch any pro or college football game. When they have a good quarterback that throws the ball well, nobody is slowing anybody down. So, shutting people down is no longer (realistic) unless the quarterback is not very good, he doesn't throw it very well and they don't have receivers."

Eastern Illinois wide receiver Erik Lora caught 10 passes against the SDSU secondary three weeks ago. Will Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks (29 receptions for 498 yards and seven touchdowns in three games) enjoy the same amount of success against the Aztecs? Don't bet against it.

"He has all the things great receivers have. He's quick, he's fast, he can change directions and if the ball is close, he catches it," Long said. "He outruns people. He's very good at running patterns, so he gets open and the quarterback gets him the ball."


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