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Luginbill Has His Eyes Focused on the Big Picture : Program Is Breakthrough Victory Away From Its Goal, Coach Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Framed pictures of last fall’s San Diego State-Miami game hang in the lobby of Coach Al Luginbill’s office like so many mounted deer heads after a successful hunt.

They still talk about this game at SDSU. The Aztecs would like to use it as a reference point in the years to come.

Dec. 1, 1990: The day we finally showed we can play with the big boys.

Look at the walls. The Aztecs are celebrating in the end zone after a touchdown. The SDSU defense is delivering a bone-rattling hit. Nary an empty seat was in the background on this glorious, sun-splashed day.

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Of course, one thing is wrong with these pictures. The Aztecs lost to then-No. 3 Miami, 30-28.

And that is a key as they prepare to kick off the 1991 season Sunday night against Cal State Long Beach. Luginbill thinks he is close to putting together a consistent challenger for the Western Athletic Conference title and a team that deserves national recognition. But he still is looking for that breakthrough victory.

For the first time since 1981-1982, the Aztecs have posted consecutive winning seasons. They were 6-5-1 in 1989, Luginbill’s first year, and 6-5 in 1990. But the victories have not all come at the right times--in those two years, SDSU is a combined 0-3 vs. the Pac 10, 0-2 vs. Miami and 0-2 vs. Brigham Young.

Victories over Pac 10 teams and Miami get the national attention. Victories over BYU get the WAC championships.

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Since a 1986 Holiday Bowl appearance, SDSU has had neither.

Luginbill’s goal this season--other than finding a starting quarterback before spring ball--is the same as it was last year . . . to win a bowl game. The Aztecs were considered for the Independence Bowl in 1990, mainly as an afterthought, but a slow start and poor fan support thwarted that idea nearly as soon as it was conceived.

So they will attempt to reach what they consider the big time again this season. Luginbill pounded the streets all summer in a ticket-selling campaign, and the Aztecs have set a school record with more than 11,000 new season tickets sold and total sales may approach the record of 22,300 set in 1978.

Will this be enough to bring real college football atmosphere to San Diego? And can any of the new ticket-holders play quarterback, just in case?

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These are only two questions facing the Aztecs as the 1991 season approaches. There are at least a dozen more. . . .

Will the Aztecs go to a bowl this year?

Absolutely. Each Monday night this fall, they will report to the Aztec Bowl to practice under the lights.

No, silly, that’s not what we mean . . .

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Oh, like the Holiday Bowl or the Weed-Eater Bowl? That’s tricky, but it may be a while if SDSU doesn’t make it this year.

The main thing is, the schedule couldn’t be better. They begin with two cupcakes at home, Cal State Long Beach and Pacific, so they should have things together by the time they open WAC play Sept. 21 at Air Force.

Then, they get UCLA here the next Thursday for a nationally televised (ESPN) game. Granted, UCLA is not easy, but the game is in San Diego and, after a near-miss against Miami in similar circumstances last fall, SDSU could get it right this time.

The Aztecs go next to Hawaii, which is always a difficult place to play. However, then they get New Mexico, Texas El Paso and Utah. Can you say “bottom third of the WAC?”

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By the time SDSU gets to the meat of its schedule in November--Wyoming, Colorado State, BYU and Miami--it should have a decent record. In that stretch run, Wyoming, Colorado State and BYU come to San Diego.

So where does one get bowl tickets?

Not so fast. Don’t ask at least until after Sept. 21, the day SDSU plays at Air Force. The Aztecs, you see, haven’t won in Colorado Springs since 1980. SDSU has lost six in a row there, including the last two by a combined score of 101-43.

SDSU was picked second in the WAC (behind BYU) in a preseason media poll. If the Aztecs lose at Air Force, pencil them in for fourth.

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We always hear that football is a numbers game. Can we have some numbers, please?

SDSU has 16 starters returning, seven each on offense and defense plus kicker Andy Trakas and punter Jason Savorn.

The biggest loss on offense, obviously, is Dan McGwire, an NFL first-round draft pick last April. Another tall quarterback, 6-foot-7 Cree Morris, was named Tuesday as McGwire’s replacement.

Morris, a redshirt sophomore, is a smart player with a good arm. To succeed, all he has to do is look toward receivers such as Patrick Rowe, a preseason All-American, and Merton Harris, Chris Chiarappa, Jake Nyberg, Keith Williams and Will Tate.

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The downside is that all but Chiarappa have been bothered with hamstring injuries. Williams and Tate will sit out Sunday’s opener.

The biggest losses on defense are ends Pio Sagapolutele--now with the Cleveland Browns--and Jason Swaney. SDSU must rebuild two-thirds of its defensive line.

Sophomore Ramondo Stallings, who will start at one defensive end, has shown a tendency to be dominating on four out of every five plays. On that fifth play, though, he has shown a tendency to be thinking of Van Halen or how many people are in the stands or maybe what’s for dinner, if you get the drift.

Sophomore Turaj Smith probably will start at the other end, having held off a challenge from Ohio State transfer Ty Morrison, George Glaze and Steve Matuszewicz.

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So this is a veteran team?

Not quite. Although several starters are returning, there are only 14 seniors.

“The only thing that scares me a little about this football team is that I feel our enthusiasm and our wanting to play the game the right way will outweigh our inexperience, but we won’t know that until we play a game,” Luginbill said.

Is there a defense for the defense?

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Won’t know that, either, until the Aztecs play a game. SDSU coaches and players say the defense is improved. They say it dominated more in the last scrimmage this fall than at any time during Luginbill’s term.

But they were also cackling at this time a year ago as to how improved the unit was. Then they went out and were ranked 106th in the nation--last among Division I-A schools--for half of the season. They finished 100th in scoring defense (35.1 points a game) and last in the WAC in total defense (438 yards a game) and touchdowns allowed (49).

This year, they say, will be better.

“It looks pretty good,” defensive back Robert Griffith said. “Everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing. . . .

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“With us having so many guys back, I think there is more cohesiveness than at the start of last year.”

Of course, looking at last year’s numbers, maybe it isn’t such a blessing to have so many of those guys back.

Can this year’s defensive backs catch?

Judging from scrimmages, they seem to be able to. But we’ll have to study the films first.

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In 1990, SDSU was the last Division I-A team in the nation to intercept a pass. That didn’t come until the seventh game, against Utah. Before that, passes deflected off helmets, shoulder pads, backs and hands. Boink, boink, boink, thud!

This year, sophomore Chris Johnson, who was overmatched early last year but played well the last four games, is the strong safety. Junior Damon Pieri, a consistent and aggressive player at free safety the final five games, will get a whole season there. And the cornerbacks will be senior Gary Taylor and sophomore John Louis. Senior Zac Stokes, sophomore John McCartney, junior Darrell Lewis and freshman Eric Sutton offer a depth at cornerback that the Aztecs haven’t had in several years.

What’s the deal with Larry Maxey?

He was going to be an H-back. Then a running back. Then an H-back. Then a running back. Maxey, second on the team in rushing last season and one of SDSU’s most versatile and talented players, will begin the season rotating between the two.

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“It feels like I’m in a Ping-Pong game and I’m the ball,” he said. “But as long as I’m getting an opportunity to show my talents. . . .”

Of the guys nobody has heard of, who can we expect to hear from?

Remember the name of running back Marshall Faulk. He was one of three youngsters SDSU signed last winter from Louisiana. Aztec coaches figured that, of the three, Faulk would progress the slowest.

Wrong. After three weeks of fall camp, they can’t believe what they have seen. Faulk starred in the first intrasquad scrimmage and played well in the second. He is quick (10.3-second 100 meters in high school) and is intimidated by nobody. Privately, SDSU coaches think he might give incumbent running back T.C. Wright a battle once Faulk gets a couple of games under his belt.

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Freshman receiver Darnay Scott probably will be worked into the receivers’ rotation in a couple of weeks.

Are SDSU’s new uniforms fashionable?

No. They are similar to last year’s (all black at home; black pants and white jerseys on the road) except now, there are no names on the backs, the “San Diego State” across the front is too small and there are too many stripes.

Is that annoying guy on the sidelines who uses a microphone to lead alumni cheers going to be back this year?

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Hope not.

So then, what are the keys to this season?

Two things: Quarterback production and defensive production.

Rowe and the rest of the speedy, talented receivers will be unable to do anything if nobody gets them the ball.

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And even if the offense produces, it won’t matter unless the defense does its part. Remember last year, a fellow named McGwire helped put 51 points on the board one memorable afternoon at Wyoming.

And the Cowboys got 52.

SDSU Schedule

Date Opponent Time Sept. 8 Cal State Long Beach 6:05 Sept. 14 Pacific 6:05 Sept. 21 at Air Force 11 a.m. Sept. 26 UCLA 5:10 Oct. 5 at Hawaii 9:30 Oct. 12 New Mexico 6:05 Oct. 19 at UTEP 6:05 Oct. 26 at Utah 11 a.m. Nov. 2 Wyoming 6:05 Nov. 9 Colorado State 6:05 Nov. 16 Brigham Young 6:05 Nov. 30 at Miami 1:05

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Home games at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

All times Pacific.


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