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SDSU’s Mitchell: Once Burned, Twice as Motivated for Air Force

Times Staff Writer

Last year, Mario Mitchell was touted on the back cover of the San Diego State football guide as an All-American candidate. This year, the pitch has moved to the inside pages, but the implication is the same: Mitchell is considered one of the best cornerbacks in college football.

Word out of Oklahoma City this week confirmed that belief when it was announced that for the second year in a row, Mitchell has been nominated for the Jim Thorpe Award, the annual honor for the best college defensive back.

The only problem is that lately, Mitchell hasn’t played like a Thorpe nominee. Even he will admit that much.

His performance in a 59-6 loss at UCLA Saturday night was nothing short of an embarrassment. He was twice victimized for touchdown passes by Bruin quarterback Troy Aikman, and he gave Aikman a break on his third touchdown pass when he missed the defensive call and failed to blitz as planned.

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“That was the worst game I’ve played since I’ve been at San Diego State,” said Mitchell, a 5-foot 10-inch, 185-pound fifth-year senior from Compton High School. “I was pumped for it. It just was one of those games.”

Mitchell’s troubles could not have come at a worse time for the Aztecs. After a season in which they allowed more points (428) than any team in school history, they were looking for a significant improvement this season. They were looking to Mitchell, one of only three returning starters from the 1987 opener, to help show them the way.

Instead he found himself the target of the Bruin offensive attack. There are few quicker ways to demoralize another team than by taking advantage of its best player. That’s what the Bruins did to Mitchell, not once, but twice. Both times came when the Aztecs were trying to apply pressure to Aikman with a blitz, leaving Mitchell to defend in man-to-man coverage.

The first touchdown was late in the first quarter when, on the first play of the Bruins’ second series, wide receiver Laurence Burkley got past Mitchell. Burkley caught Aikman’s pass on the run for a 43-yard touchdown play.

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“I stayed in my backpeddle too long,” Mitchell said. “I tried to challenge him. But I came out of my backpeddle too late, and I got beat.”

On UCLA’s next possession, Aikman completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Moore in front of a diving Mitchell.

“That time I broke on the ball, but Aikman made a great throw,” Mitchell said.

Aztec Coach Denny Stolz saw it about the same way.

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“It was one-on-one at the goal line, and he caught it,” Stolz said. “You’ve got to go for (the ball) there because if you let him catch it and tackle him, it’s a touchdown anyway. They made a great throw and a great catch.”

Mitchell found himself in trouble again on Aikman’s final touchdown pass--a 2-yard throw to fullback Mark Estwick that gave the Bruins a 28-0 lead with 3:47 left in the first half--but this time for a different reason. Mitchell was supposed to be blitzing, but he got his signals crossed and instead covered the tight end.

“I think I got the wrong call,” Mitchell said. “I made a mistake. I kind of screwed up.”

None of this sat well with the coaching staff. The inability of Mitchell and the rest of the secondary to play strong man-to-man coverage hurt the Aztecs’ game plan of blitzing the Bruins.

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“I found out one thing about our players: We are not a very good man-to-man team,” said Ed Schmidt, the defensive coordinator. “If we are going to continue to play man-to-man, we’re going to have to get a lot better at it. If our best cornerback gets beat two out of two times, that is not a good sign.”

None of which made for a pleasant game or Monday film session for Mitchell.

“I got hollered at,” Mitchell said. “They got on me. I’ve just got to look at that game as a nightmare that is over. Now, it’s time to look forward to the next game.”

That means Air Force in the Aztecs’ Western Athletic Conference opener Sunday night at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Not the easiest opponent for a team coming off its most lopsided loss since 1960. The Falcons, who won at Colorado State, 29-23, in its opener, have defeated the Aztecs seven years in a row. SDSU’s only victory in the series was in the first game between the two schools--13-10 in 1980. Last year, Air Force handed the Aztecs the worst loss in the series, 49-7, in Colorado Springs. The Falcon wishbone offense amassed 571 yards, including 492 on the ground.

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Mitchell remembers it well, not so much because he made a season highlight film hit on Air Force halfback Len Blanchard but because he sprained his knee on what he said was a clip that was not called.

The injury kept Mitchell out of the next game at Oregon and caused him to wear a brace for several other games. The injury and a sprained ankle four weeks later against Stanford, which caused him to miss another start, were two of the reasons Mitchell did not live up to the promise he showed in his sophomore season.

His best game that season might have been in the Holiday Bowl. He broke up two passes and intercepted another at the goal line to hold off a possible Iowa scoring drive. But the injuries, combined with his having reported at less than peak shape in the fall, led to a long, frustrating junior year.

“When you wear a knee brace like that, it’s not you on the field,” Mitchell said. “It’s an extra piece of equipment that you are not used to playing with. It was something I had to get used to, but it took three or four weeks.

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“Once I got into a game situation, I forgot I had it on. But then I’d try to cut back and I couldn’t get there as fast as I wanted. I had to drag my leg. It was like ‘Come on leg, let’s go.’ ”

Mitchell is looking to make amends for last season by getting off to a good start this year. The early results were not as he would have hoped. But the key could be Sunday.

“The test for Mario will be how he comes back,” said Jon Hoke, who coaches the secondary. “His teammates will be looking to see how he responds. They need and they want a leader. Mario has to show them something.”

Mitchell came to SDSU with plans of following in the school’s long, proud line of defensive backs, including Nate Wright, Willie Buchanon, Monte Jackson, Terry Jackson and Vernon Dean. Mitchell was redshirted his first season and in the four seasons since has missed only three starts. He realizes it is a position that has rewards and dangers. For every good game he plays in relative obscurity, there are games such as the one against UCLA.

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“It’s just like playing quarterback,” Mitchell said. “If the quarterback overthrows the receiver, he is the worst quarterback in the world. If the receiver catches the ball, then the cornerback is the worst cornerback in the world. You play a position like that, you’re going to get a lot of criticism or a lot of glory. I can take the bitter with the sweet. Whatever happens, I’m ready.”


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