Aztecs Take Step Forward With Long Yardage to Go : Season Wrapup: San Diego State had its first winning football season in three years, but must turn it up a notch to beat the elite teams.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego State's first season under Coach Al Luginbill ended the way it began--with a one-sided loss to one of the Aztecs' most heated Western Athletic Conference rivals.

The defeat that started the season Sept. 2 was 52-36 at Air Force. The loss that ended it Saturday night was 48-27 to conference-champion Brigham Young.

In between, there were enough victories to give SDSU a 6-5-1 record, its first winning season in three years. In that accomplishment, the Aztecs took some pride.

But it was those bookend losses that might say the most about where the Aztec program stands one year after Luginbill succeeded the fired Denny Stolz.

The losses demonstrated why the Aztecs were more than a notch away from becoming serious WAC contenders. It was a lesson that made Luginbill think hard about how far his program remains from reaching that level.

"I'm not putting any timetable on it," Luginbill said after the BYU game. "We took a step backward last week (a 42-6 loss at Miami) and (against BYU)."

Or maybe they merely settled into their rightful place. Because despite the team's more lofty goals, their pattern of victories dropped the Aztecs into a definable niche: They were merely a middle-division conference team.

They beat the four teams they played that finished below them in the standings and lost to the three that finished ahead of them. That is not the results Luginbill sought, but that is the reality of how his team played and a possible indicator of where his program stands.

Luginbill wanted this season to demonstrate that the Aztecs had "turned the corner" in their efforts to return the team to its Holiday Bowl form of 1986. But what he might be left with instead is the lesser satisfaction of knowning that the two-year slide that followed that Holiday Bowl loss to Iowa has been stemmed.

For the demanding Luginbill, that might not seem like much consolation. But it could be a start.

The Aztecs, with quarterback Dan McGwire and All-WAC wide receiver Monty Gilbreath leading the way, reestablished their offensive-minded reputation. They scored 368 points (an average of 30.7 per game) and averaged 467.5 yards per game. Their 5,610 yards in total offense broke the school record of 5,322, established in an 11-game season in 1969.

This success followed a 1988 season in which they scored 204 points, their lowest total since 1980.

The best news here is that much of the offense is back. At the starting skill positions, only Gilbreath, tight end Mitch Burton and running back Ron Slack are seniors. And only two starting linemen--guard Damon Baldwin and tackle Roman Fortin--are seniors.

The Aztecs also return kicker Andy Trakas, a freshman from Patrick Henry High School who, after only one season, is a threat to break every school kicking record. Trakas came back after missing six of his first 10 field-goal attempts to make 12 of his last 13, including the last nine in a row. Better yet, he showed a range that makes him a serious threat from 50 yards. He also has a streak of 37 consecutive extra points.

But Luginbill's efforts to build a more credible defense were not as successful.

The Aztecs did allow fewer points (378) than they have in three seasons, but that is comparing their progress against the teams that allowed more points than any two teams in school history. And the 442.8 yards per game they allowed were 11 above last year's gaudy average.

That was more than enough to again rank them among the worst defensive teams in the nation.

And if not for the play of senior nickel back John Wesselman, who knows how the Aztecs might have fared defensively. Wesselman led the team in tackles (124) and interceptions (six). When they needed a big play or a saving stop, chances are it was Wesselman who came through.

Replacing his leadership and skill might be the toughest task facing the Aztecs next season.

The first year under Luginbill was not without its hardships. Not all agreed with the changes Luginbill wrought . In the year since Luginbill took over, 23 scholarship players quit, were suspended, left for medical reasons or were dismissed for disciplinary or academic reasons.

Luginbill accepts most of the departures as inevitable and a willing price to pay to bring about the changes he said are needed to turn the program into a consistent winner.

The most celebrated of these departures was the suspension of running back Darrin Wagner for the final four games.

Wagner, a redshirt freshman from Lincoln High School, was the team's leading rusher and scorer at the time. But when--for the third time in three months--he missed practices without permission, Luginbill suspended him.

Whether Wagner will ever play for the Aztecs again has not been determined. Luginbill said he has left the door open for his return, but that the next step is up to Wagner.

Also unresolved is the status of running back Tommy Booker, the one-time Parade All-American from Vista High School. He sat out the season for personal reasons and must decide shortly whether he wants to return next year. .

But whether Booker or Wagner return, Luginbill has said he is confident he has built a program that will only improve with time. He has pointed with pride to a freshman class that he said will contribute significantly to his team next season.

Most of those players were redshirted this season as Luginbill tried to build for the future.

But so far, the roots of this planned revival have gone relatively unnoticed in San Diego, at least judging from attendance at home games. The Aztecs drew an average of 20,462 to their seven home games at 60,409-seat San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. That average was the lowest since 1985 and the fourth lowest in the 23 seasons since the Aztecs began playing in the stadium in 1967. This despite the presence of UCLA and BYU, two traditionally strong draws, on the home schedule. The BYU game Saturday drew just 26,868.

School officials estimate the football team likely fell about $250,000 short in revenue from football ticket sales. The shortfall threatens to add considerably to the department's overall $512,000 deficit and force the department to make severe cuts in its sports programs.

But to best understand where the Aztecs are one year into Luginbill's tenure, throw out the statistics, forget about the scores, ignore the intangibles and look at the schedule.

The 12-game schedule had a pronounced beginning, middle and end. It was two tough bookends, sandwiched around a soft core. The Aztecs struggled at the start and finish, and beat up on the teams in between.

The five-game beginning featured contests with Air Force, UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, Utah and Hawaii. The Aztecs went 1-3-1 in that stretch, winning only at Utah (38-27) and tying Fullerton, 41-41.

The two-game finish featured games at Miami and against BYU. Both were one-side losses.

In the middle was a five-game winning streak, the longest by an Aztec team since 1979. The victories came against Cal State Long Beach, Pacific, Texas El Paso, New Mexico and Wyoming, teams that finished a combined 19-52.

The Aztecs played four teams that went to bowls and lost to all of them. Only one of these games was close--a 31-24 loss at Aloha Bowl-bound Hawaii.

The Aztecs played five teams with winning records and in them managed only a 41-41 tie with Fullerton, the Big West Conference runner-up.

Their six victories came against teams with losing records. There is no shame in that, but it does give one reason to pause before proclaiming that the Aztec program is back in force.

The Aztecs proved that they could defeat the teams they expected to beat; now the challenge is to beat the more successful ones.

SEASON AT A GLANCE SDSU game-by-game results for 1989

(* Home team in bold)

SDSU 36, Air Force* 52

SDSU* 25, UCLA 28

SDSU* 41, Cal State Fullerton 41

SDSU 38, Utah* 27

SDSU 24, Hawaii* 31

SDSU* 30, Cal State Long Beach 26

SDSU* 35, Pacific 7

SDSU 34, Texas El Paso* 31

SDSU* 45, New Mexico 28

SDSU* 27, Wyoming 17

SDSU 6, Miami* 42

SDSU* 27, Brigham Young 48

FINAL STATISTICS

TEAM SDSU OPP First downs 292 257 Rushes-yards 502-1913 454-2171 Yards passing 3,697 3,143 Passes 262-449 211-412 Int.-yd. ret. 21-252 20-229 Plays-net yd. 951-5,610 866-5,314 Punts-average 55-39.8 58-39.0 Punts ret.-yd. 25-6.9 25-7.9 Kickoffs ret.-yd. 49-18.7 65-22.2 Fumbles-lost 24-12 22-9 Penalties-yards 90-831 76-665

INDIVIDUAL

Rushing TCB NYG Avg. TD Slack 220 914 4.1 13 Wagner 134 721 5.4 10 Butts 70 379 5.4 4 Wesselman 2 82 41.0 1 Gilbreath 6 29 4.8 0 Claiborne 1 18 18.0 0 Jennings 2 4 2.0 0 M. Burton 1 1 1.0 0 Santos 1 -4 -4.0 0 Lowery 1 -5 -5.0 0 McGwire 64 -228 -3.5 2 Totals 502 1,913 3.8 30 Opp. 454 2,171 4.7 26

Passing PA PC PI Yd. TD McGwire 440 258 19 3,651 16 Lowery 9 4 1 46 0 Totals 449 262 20 3,697 16 Opp. 412 211 19 3,143 20

Receiving No. Yd. TD Gilbreath 80 903 4 Claiborne 55 938 5 Raye 45 745 4 Arey 24 439 1 Slack 20 230 0 Wagner 9 123 1 Nettles 8 137 0 M.Burton 7 71 0 R.Rowe 6 74 0 Butts 4 17 0 Hanawalt 3 12 0 Weymiller 1 8 0 Totals 262 3,697 16 Opp. 211 3,143 20

OTHER LEADERS: PUNTING--Santos, 55-2,190 39.8 avg. PUNT RETURNS--Gilbreath, 25-173, 6.9 avg. KICKOFF RETURNS--Claiborne, 18-284, 15.7; Wagner, 13-295, 22.7 avg. INTERCEPTIONS--Wesselman, 6, Moses, 4. SCORING--Trakas, 83, Slack, 78 points; Wagner, 66 points. TD--Slack, 13; Wagner, 11. FG--Trakas, 16-23. TACKLES--Wesselman, 124. SACKS--Wilson, 7.

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