A year ago, this would have been a game made for the San Diego State football team--perfect Saturday afternoon conditions to play a high-scoring Utah team that had about as much success playing defense as the Aztecs did.
It was football with a basketball mentality. It didn’t matter how much the other guy scored as long as your team had the ball last.
What a difference a year makes. The Utes are still their high-scoring selves, but the Aztecs are no longer up to the task. The result Saturday was a 41-20 Utah victory in a Western Athletic Conference game played in front of a homecoming crowd of 22,453 at Rice Stadium.
Afterward, Denny Stolz made the kind of admission that hasn’t been heard too often from Aztec coaches since the early 1960s, when Don Coryell first earned the school its offensive reputation.
“We can’t get in a scoring contest with them,” Stolz said. “We can’t retaliate touchdown for touchdown.”
The Aztecs did fine for much of the first half, mixing just enough offense with some of their better defense of the season for a 10-10 tie. But when the Utes (3-5, 2-4 in WAC) finally got untracked behind quarterback Scott Mitchell, there was no stopping them.
Utah scored on its first 5 possessions of the second half, breaking away from a 17-17 tie midway through the third quarter with a 24-3 scoring streak.
Mitchell, who 2 weeks ago against Air Force passed for an NCAA-record 631 yards, opened the game by completing his first 9 passes for 116 yards. He finished 31 of 43 for 383 yards and a touchdown. That gave him 3,260 yards passing for the season, breaking the WAC record for passing yardage by a sophomore (2,877 by SDSU’s Todd Santos in 1985).
“They make no bones about it,” Stolz said. “They are going to throw it, throw it and throw it. You have got to get to him. The people who have beaten them have done that.”
Against the Aztecs (1-7, 1-4), Mitchell was sacked but twice and seldom found himself under much of a rush. SDSU was not helped by having to play without one of its best pass rushers--junior Brad Burton, who was out with an inflamed right ankle--and the fact that end Bob Graff was not at his best because of the flu.
That left SDSU to play much of the game with Eric Duncan, a walk-on freshman, and Mark Hyatt, a freshman who had never played in a game, on the defensive line.
“We just couldn’t put any pressure on that quarterback in the second half unless we blitzed, and when we blitzed, they picked it up, and they beat the coverage,” Stolz said. “The young linemen weren’t good enough to put pressure on him like we did the first half. I guess we just tired out.”
After gaining 195 yards in the first half (13 rushing), the Utes picked up 344 (143 on the ground) in the second and finished with 539 yards in offense.
Running back Eddie Johnson, after being held to minus 6 yards on 2 first-half carries, rushed 14 times for 91 yards and 2 touchdowns in the second half and scored on runs of 5 and 1 yards. It was a special reward for Johnson, who underwent reconstructive knee surgery after being hurt in a 52-34 loss to the Aztecs last year.
“I wasn’t really looking for revenge,” Johnson said. “What I really wanted was a big, big win.”
But as much as Mitchell and Johnson hurt the Aztecs, it was an unexpected appearance by fullback Bryan Bero at quarterback that stung them for 2 touchdowns and set up a third. Bero, who started at quarterback 3 seasons ago in Coach Jim Fassel’s first 2 games, replaced Mitchell when the Utes went to an option attack 3 times deep in SDSU territory in the second half.
Bero rushed for touchdowns of 4 and 3 yards and also set up Johnson’s 1-yard scoring run out of the option.
“It’s not like we haven’t seen the option, but we didn’t expect that to tell you the truth,” said Casey Copeland, SDSU’s strong safety. “We thought they would just try to power it in. We figured it was just their goal-line offense.”
The Utes had used the formation twice against New Mexico 3 weeks ago, and Bero had scored a touchdown from it. But Ed Schmidt, SDSU’s defensive coordinator, said he had not seen the Utes use it before.
“They caught us the first time,” he said.
In other years, the Aztecs might be able to afford such mistakes by coming back with their own high-powered offense, but not this time.
Scott Barrick, a redshirt freshman from Fallbrook High School, played admirably in his first start, completing 21 of 34 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. His passes were intercepted on the Aztecs’ last 2 drives, but that was when the game was out of reach.
More damaging than the interceptions was a mistake by usually reliable Paul Hewitt in the second quarter. Hewitt was at the Ute 4 and appeared headed for a sure touchdown when he fumbled out of bounds without being touched. After a 5-yard loss on a Hewitt run and 2 penalties pushed the Aztecs back to the Utah 28, Tyler Ackerson missed a 45-yard field goal try wide right.
The bobble overshadowed Hewitt’s third 100-yard game of the season--109 yards on 29 carries, including a 29-yard touchdown run.
“It just slipped out of my hands,” Hewitt said. “I knew it was 6.”
With the offense trying to find its way, it was left to the defense to try and hold the Utes. But in the second half, they simply were outmatched.
Schmidt likened the second half to the Aztecs’ loss at Wyomimg last year, when they trailed, 17-10, at the half and lost, 52-10.
“I’m really disappointed because the fire went out (in the second half),” Schmidt said. “We need to look at it very closely and see why it went out. The last few weeks . . . it has been easy to see the mind-set of the players. It has always been good. But in the second half of this one, I saw a lot of blank stares like I did in Wyoming last year. That is going to have to be dealt with.”
The loss was the sixth in a row for the Aztecs and gave them their worst start since the 1980 team opened 1-8 on the way to a 4-8 season. With their next 2 games at home Saturday against Brigham Young and on the road Nov. 12 at Texas El Paso, the Aztecs face the reasonable possibility of ending the season Nov. 19 playing at New Mexico for last place.
The Aztecs have not won since defeating Air Force, 39-36, on Sept. 11.
“It has been a long time since we won a game, and the psychology of winning is very difficult for young kids,” Stolz said. “It’s difficult for them to play hard, practice hard, do the best they can and not be good enough to beat the opposition. It’s tough for them, real tough for them.”
This game and last week’s 13-7 loss at previously winless Colorado State were 2 games the struggling Aztecs had hoped to use to set them on a better course. Those opportunities are lost, and the team is having to regroup.
“It’s on us,” linebacker Morey Paul said. “We can’t blame anyone else but ourselves. I don’t think they are great a team. Just look at their record.”