The San Diego State football team almost accomplished something Saturday night it had not done since 1984. The Aztecs came within two minutes of recording a shutout.
The score was 35-7. But before anyone gets overly excited, consider the opposition.
The victim was the Pacific Tigers, winners once in eight games this year and possessors of 12 consecutive losing seasons. This was not a team of destiny the Aztecs stopped, rather it was one of the weaker teams in the Big West Conference, the successor to the league the Aztecs abandoned in 1976 to join the Western Athletic Conference.
But for a program that has had little reason to praise its defense in recent years, the near shutout was at least something for the crowd of 21,120, the smallest for homecoming since 1984 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, to cheer about.
The victory was the third in four games for SDSU (3-3-1).
“I felt like this game was a crossroads for us because we have come so close to domination, but we have been short,” SDSU Coach Al Luginbill said. “We had to make a statement in our program, someway, somehow.”
The shutout was spoiled when wide receiver Bryan Baldwin ran 26 yards for a touchdown on a reverse with 1:45 to play. But it was a touchdown the Tigers probably should never have had a chance to score.
The Aztecs caused their own trouble when they gave the Tigers a chance to keep their drive alive after they were called for too many men on the field on a Pacific punt from the Pacific 38.
“I feel badly,” Luginbill said. “There were 13 men on the field and that is my responsibility. That is the first time that has happened this year and I feel very badly because it ended up costing us a touchdown.”
Instead of losing possession, the penalty gave the Tigers a first down at the SDSU 47. Seven plays later, the Aztecs’ shutout hopes were lost.
The shutout would have been the Aztecs’ first since a 21-0 victory over Wyoming on Oct. 6, 1984, a span of 50 games. Even against the Tigers, that would have been an accomplisment, considering the Aztecs entered the game allowing an average of 34.2 points per game.
“The shutout always matters,” Luginbill said. “How many times in this day and age do you see a shutout?”
That it almost came against a team the Aztecs defeated for the 14th consecutive time and one that has not beaten them since 1958 did not seem to matter to Luginbill.
The Aztecs started slowly, leading only 7-0 at the half, but they scored 28 points in the second half. The wealth was well distributed.
Senior running back Ron Slack scored three touchdowns and gained 81 yards on 20 carries. He had a touchdown run of eight yards in the first half and scored twice on runs of three yards in the second half.
Redshirt freshman running back Darrin Wagner, returning after a one-game disciplinary suspension, rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries.
Junior wide receiver Jimmy Raye caught touchdown passes of 22 and 19 yards in the second half from quarterback Dan McGwire. The touchdowns were Raye’s first of the season. Raye finished with a career-high eight catches for 117 yards.
And McGwire, after completing seven of 14 attempts for 79 yards with one interception in the first half, came back to finish with 18 of 28 for a season-low 227 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
The Aztecs took control after Slack scored twice on three-yard touchdown runs in a 32-second span midway through the third quarter.
SDSU went ahead 14-0 when Slack ran three yards at the end of a 13-play, 75-yard drive with 9:27 left in the quarter.
The Aztecs regained possession 21 seconds later when defensive tackle Eric Duncan intercepted a pass by Pacific quarterback Troy Kopp that was tipped by linebacker Sai Niu. A 15-yard personal foul penalty against SDSU on the interception gave the Aztecs possession at the Pacific 21.
Wagner rushed 18 yards to the Tiger three-yard line from where Slack carried over on the next play. That gave SDSU a 21-0 lead with 8:55 left in the quarter.
McGwire then teamed with Raye for two fourth-quarter touchdown passes before Baldwin scored to ruin the shutout.
“We’ve taken a lot of criticism during the last seven weeks about our inability to put people away,” Luginbill said. “At least now, we know what it feels like. it seems this football team has to experience things before we put it in our repertoire.”
The strong second half erased some of the sting from what was another troublesome first half for the Aztecs.
The first half was a repetition of the kind of sloppy, uninspired play that Luginbill has railed against all year. Apparently, his week-long disciplinary crack down had little effect on his team’s play.
The only positive for the Aztecs was their 7-0 lead, the first time this season they led at the half. Most of the rest of the half was, quite simply, a mess.
There were penalties, touchdowns recalled, fumbles, an interception and a missed field goal.
Adding to the Aztecs’ woes was the temporary loss of senior wide receiver Monty Gilbreath, their leading receiver, with a groin pull in the second quarter.
The injury to Gilbreath, combined with an aggravation of Dennis Arey’s four-week- old hamstring pull, forced the Aztecs to press Toby Weymiller, a sophomore walk-on from Federal Way, Wash., into service at wide receiver.
But the loss of Gilbreath was not the heart of SDSU’s first-half problems.
A selective sampling of first-half statistics provided the evidence to support sloppy results.
The teams combined for 10 penalties for 88 yards, and each had a touchdown called back because of one.
There were three turnovers, two by the Aztecs on Slack’s fumble and McGwire’s intercepted pass.
SDSU freshman kicker Andy Trakas, who had made three field goals in a row after missing six of his first 10 attempts, reverted to his old ways---missing on a 37-yarder in the second quarter.
The sloppy tone was set in the first minute. SDSU end Steve Matuscewicz forced Pacific running back Andrew Thomas to fumble on the second play and safety Larry Maxey recovered at the Pacific 16.
The Aztecs tried to strike quickly. McGwire lofted a perfect pass to wide receiver Robert Claiborne in the left corner of the end zone and Claiborne outleaped cornerback Louis Greggs for an apparent touchdown. But the play was called back because of an illegal player downfield.
But that was only the beginning of the Aztecs’ troubles. Two plays later, after they moved to the Pacific 16, Slack fumbled and tackle Andy Hoodward recovered.
Slack did come back on the next Aztec series to score his first touchdown on an eight-yard run with 11:22 left in the first quarter. But that short highlight could not block out what otherwise was a first half that must have had Luginbill wondering what he must do to turn his team around.
One particularly frustrating moment for Luginbill came on the Aztecs’ final possession of the half. They turned what had the feel of a scoring drive into another punt.
Their misadventures began after a first down at the Pacific 26. Wagner slipped for a two-yard loss. A holding penalty cost the Aztecs 10 yards. McGwire was sacked for a 10-yard loss. That led to a third-and-32 and, after an incomplete pass, the Aztecs were forced to punt.
Sai Niu started at outside linebacker for San Diego State in place of injured freshman Eric Thompson (bruised right shoulder). . . . SDSU reserve center Zae Perrin injured his neck in a minor automobile accident near campus Tuesday and likely will be out at least another week. . . . The Aztecs play their first Western Athletic Conference game in three weeks Saturday when travel to Texas El Paso (2-6, 1-3).