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Problems Galore as Aztecs Suffer 59-6 Loss to UCLA

Times Staff Writer

Before the season began, San Diego State Coach Denny Stolz joked that the first question after the first game would be: How did the quarterback do?

If only Stolz were so lucky. Because after his football team opened its season Saturday night with a 59-6 loss to No. 5 UCLA in front of a crowd of 46,487 at the Rose Bowl, quarterback was the least of his worries.

No, the questions for Stolz were more numerous, and maybe more troubling.

“We have to prove a lot next week,” Stolz said. “I’m glad we’re playing at home, and I’m glad it’s Air Force, and I’m glad it’s on TV.”

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Let’s take the questions one at a time, starting with the special teams, because that’s where the game began and ended.

Simply put, the Aztec kicking game was a mess. Darryl Henley returned Bill Kushner’s first college punt 89 yards for a touchdown to give the Bruins a 7-0 lead, and it did not get much better from there.

Two short Kushner punts from inside his own end zone led to 10 more first-half UCLA points. Another first-half Bruin touchdown was set up by a blocked field goal, and the Aztecs had their only extra-point attempt blocked.

Of the Bruins’ 31 first-half points, 24 were set up by problems with the Aztec special teams.

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“The punting we were worried about was fine,” Stolz said. “The part we didn’t worry about (return coverage) really hurt us.”

If that sounds as if the lopsided final score was misleading and that maybe the Aztec defense is significantly improved from last year, listen again. The defense had another one of its statistical embarrassments.

SDSU allowed 538 total yards, 24 more than it gave up in a 47-14 loss here to open last season.

“We played a little better on offense than I anticipated against them,” UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. “San Diego State is still a ways away open defense.”

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Troy Aikman, UCLA’s senior quarterback, made easy work of the Aztecs and started his Heisman Trophy campaign with a rousing opener. He completed 13 of 17 passes for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns in two quarters plus one series of work.

So in control were the Bruins that Aikman was replaced by Ron Caragher after they took a 38-0 lead with 10:28 left in the third quarter. And Caragher was followed by three more UCLA quarterbacks, the last of which was Andy Miller, a walk-on and the backup long snapper.

The Aztecs were not much better defending the run. They gave up 316 yards on the ground, much of it to senior tailback Eric Ball. Ball, who has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, gained 122 yards on 17 carries.

And when the Aztecs weren’t handing the Bruins great field position or letting them rip through what territory they did control, they were only making more trouble for themselves with penalties.

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That SDSU was penalized 9 times for 46 yards might seem bad enough. But it was where and when that hurt so much.

One was a pass interference call that turned a third-and-14 for UCLA at the SDSU 18 into a first-and-goal at the six. Two plays later, Caragher threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Corwin Anthony for a 45-0 lead.

But most damaging was when the Aztec offense was penalized three times inside its own 10-yard line--twice for delay of game.

“The tempo has to pick up,” said Stolz. “There were about seven snaps at zero seconds.”

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That only pushed Kushner even deeper into the end zone. The result were punts of 36 and 28 yards that gave the Bruins great field position.

Not that they always needed it.

It was the most lopsided Aztec loss since 1960, when they where beaten, 60-0, by Fresno State, and it was the most points they had allowed since a 63-14 loss to Brigham Young in 1979.

That left Stolz with a different question: Should the Aztecs continue to play UCLA? “No, they’re just too good,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s they’re first team or their fifth. They just keep coming at you.”

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It can be of little comfort, then, that this game is just the fifth of a planned 10-game renewal of the series.

In light of the Aztecs’ other concerns, quarterback Brad Platt’s debut was at least encouraging.

Platt, a junior transfer from Southwestern College and Hilltop High School, showed he did not lose much of his touch by spending last season as a redshirt.

“Platt played well, I’m very happy,” Stolz said. “There were some first game problems, but those can be solved. He had good poise and good confidence, and he threw well.”

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He completed 16 of 31 passes for 197 yards before he was replaced by freshman Scott Barrick with 7:58 to play. More important, he did not throw an interception even though he frequently was under a strong rush. He was sacked five times, but a couple of times was able to avoid the rush for an impressive completion. The best of which might have been when he scrambled away from two Bruin tacklers to complete a 25-yarder to tight end Kerry Reed-Martin midway through the second quarter.

Later in that series, he fought off a Bruin blitz for a 23-yard completion to tailback Ron Slack, giving the Aztecs a first down at the UCLA 5. But after three rushes netted two yards, the Aztecs’ best chance to try to make a game of it ended when Platt was sacked on fourth down for an 8-yard loss.

The Bruins then responded with a 12-play, 89-yard drive that ended with Aikman’s third touchdown pass--a 2-yard toss to fullback Mark Estwick that gave UCLA a 28-0 lead with 3:42 left in the first half.

The Aztecs did at least avoid their first shutout since a 28-0 loss at Brigham Young in 1985 with a fourth-quarter touchdown. Sophomore tailback Tommy Booker, who had a 65-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty in his debut here last season, finally got to score on the Bruins. He bounced off the center of the line and bounded over the right side for a 13-yard score with 10 minutes left in the game.

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The Bruins won the toss but elected to kick off to start. They must have known something.

The Aztecs advanced from their own 20 to the 43 but were then stopped. Henley fielded Kushner’s 46-yard punt at his 11, cut right, avoided a tackle, turned back up toward the middle of the field and ran 89 yards for the touchdown. It was the second year in a row Henley had returned a punt for a score against SDSU; in last year’s rout, the distance was 74 yards.

It only got tougher for Kushner, a freshman from Fallbrook High School, and his punt coverage team.

The Bruins scored their second touchdown on the first play after his 36-yard punt helped them to strong field position. Aikman found flanker Laurence Burkley open on a play-action pass for a 43-yard touchdown completion.

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UCLA took advantage of a special teams breakdown on the next Aztec series, breaking through to block Tyler Ackerson’s 39-yard field goal try. They recovered at their own 47 and five plays later had a 21-0 lead on Aikman’s 15-yard pass to Reggie Moore.

After Aikman’s third touchdown pass made it 28-0, the Bruins used another short Kushner punt to set up a score. This time, a 28-yarder started them at the Aztec 36, and the result was a 32-yard field goal by Alfredo Velasco and 31-0 halftime lead.

Aztec Notes

Emmanuel Onwutuebe replaced Jim Wahler (ankle) as starting nose guard for UCLA. Running back Brian Brown (hamstring) was scratched for the Bruins. The Aztecs played their expected starting lineup. . . . San Diego State opens its Western Athletic Conference season next Sunday against Air Force at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. to accommodate an ESPN telecast. UCLA plays host Nebraska Saturday at the Rose Bowl. . . . The last time the Aztecs won in a season opener on the road was in 1981 at Colorado State, 30-14. Overall, the Aztecs are 11-19 when they have opened the season on the road and 36-27-3 in season openers. . . . UCLA has won 11 of the 12 games in the series, with a 13-13 tie in 1924. The game marked the halfway point in a 10-game renewal of the series.

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