San Diego State entered the 2015 season with high hopes of breaking through under Rocky Long: the Aztecs had won 8, 9, 8, and 7 games in each of his first four seasons since taking over for Brady Hoke--solid records, but records that gave their fans a yearning for something more.
Unfortunately, things haven't quite gone to plan. A blowout loss against a very good Cal team in week 2 was followed by an overtime loss against a much less good South Alabama team a week ago, and SDSU limps into Beaver Stadium to face a Penn State team heading very much in the opposite direction.
To tell us just why the Aztecs have underachieved, we reached to Jeremy Mauss, who covers San Diego State football at SB Nation's Mountain West Connection. Be sure to check out MWC all season long to keep up to date not just on San Diego State, but on the rest of the conference, and today, to read my answers to Jeremy's questions. Thanks for taking the time to help us out, Jeremy!
On to the questions:
Black Shoe Diaries: Last week, the Aztecs were upset by 17-point underdogs South Alabama. What went wrong?
Mountain West Connection: In short, it was a complete collapse and the defense gave up an early lead, specifically the rush defense which gave up big plays all afternoon. The Aztecs were missing their top defender in linebacker Jake Fely which played an issue. Also, quarterback play for San Diego State has been poor and Maxwell Smith has not shown to be able to lead the team consistently.
BSD: Rocky Long has been consistently solid at San Diego State, winning between 7 and 9 games each of his four year. As a former defensive coordinator, what is the Aztecs' defensive philosophy, and how will they look to counter Penn State's newfound rushing game?
MWC: Rocky Long is known for his 3-3-5 defense which can present many looks ranging from a 3-4, 4-3, or even a 4-2-4 at times. Creating that confusion is part of what makes that defense successful. Getting linebacker Jake Fely back is a huge gain and should help the defense this week in the Penn State rushing game. With the five defensive backs on the field at least two of those are basically hybrid linebacker/safety and can help in the running game.
BSD: San Diego State has pulled in some of the best recruiting classes in the Mountain West, including a pair of 4-star prospects in last year's class. Does that mean Penn State won't be able to line up and just "out talent" the Aztecs?
MWC: Penn State still has more overall talent despite that San Diego State has improved its recruiting, but they still are not even in the top half of FBS in recruiting rankings. They will get a few players here and there that are highly rated and part of that is being in California, but the depth is not there to say they have similar talent against a team like Penn State.
BSD: Running back DJ Pumphrey had over 2000 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs last year. What makes him so dangerous--and why as he struggled a bit out of the gate this season?
MWC: Quarterback play is an issues as Maxwell Smith is not even completing 50 percent of his passes and teams are not buying the pass game in effect hurts what Pumphrey can do on the ground. What helps him be successful is his vision, being shifty and his balance allows him to stay on his feet after hits, and he is good at making cuts to avoid tackles. Another reason for his lack of yards is that they opened against San Diego and he didn't play much against the FCS team, against Cal the game got out of hand and the Aztecs needed to pass to try to get back and then against South Alabama he had his first 100 yard game. Part of it is opponent and flow of the game but he is not playing as well as last year, and teams are focusing on him more which showed in the Cal game.
BSD: In his preseason preview, Bill Connelly wrote that San Diego State has "no excuse not to pass better" in 2015, and with a 9:1 TD:INT ratio last year, it seemed like Maxwell Smith (who had started at Kentucky and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team back in 2012) was poised for a big year. What's the scouting report on Smith, and why hasn't he been able to get on track against opponents like San Diego and Southern Alabama?
MWC: I am not sure why there was so much hype on Smith. Back in spring the quarterback battle started at six and not until late in fall camp did Rocky Long name a starter. The reason there was optimism is that Smith saw significant time at Kentucky and with him as the starter the hope was that consistency would help the passing game. Besides the inaccuracy, the Aztecs have not had a good set of wide receivers and tight ends which is another reason for the lack of quarterback play. It is not all on Smith but he still needs to get the ball better to his targets. I disregard the San Diego game because three of their touchdowns came from defense and special teams. As for South Alabama, there is no real explanations outside of Rocky Long calling USA a very good team it makes no sense as they are a fairly new FBS team. That game should have been a way for the team to get off the ground and some confidence, but that didn't work well.
BSD: Before the season, Penn State fans were worried about this game, perhaps more than any other non-conference matchup. Today, how confident or nervous should Penn State fans be? What will have to go right for SDSU to pull off the upset?
SDSU: There is talent with San Diego State but this year it hasn't worked out too well. I'd say Penn State fans should be comfortable in getting the win. If the Aztecs are to get the win it likely will come from their defense since they get back linebacker Jake Fely and that will help in the pass rush and likely will get to Christian Hackenberg a few times, maybe not as much as Temple but expect a handful of sacks. Offensively, maybe the team was overlooking South Alabama and wanted a shot at Penn State and will be more focused in this game. If they are more focused perhaps we could see the San Diego State team that was thought coming into the year. Pumphrhey will need have at least 100 yards but probably more importantly is having Maxwell Smith complete around 60 percent of his passes.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
MWC: I thought San Diego State could pull off the upset and was being even more positive after Temple beat Penn State but the Aztecs have been sluggish in their loses to Cal and then terrible game against South Alabama which was a disaster. I think the Aztecs will keep it closer than the large two touchdown spread and for some odd reason I feel Pumphrey will have a big game on the ground but it will be not enough as Penn State wins by about 10.
Thanks again, Jeremy, and remember to keep reading Mountain West Connection all season long.