San Diego State has made miles of progress in the past two years, but the Aztecs realize they still have a long way to go. Their understanding of the situation reveals why it may be only a matter of time before they get there.
San Diego State's players and coaches could have been proclaiming a moral victory last week after their heartbreaking 27-24 loss at Missouri. The Aztecs instead blamed themselves for allowing Missouri to come from behind in the final minute.
"We've got to win these games," San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman told reporters afterward. "We can't lose these. It hurts. We've got to earn our respect."
Hillman already has gained plenty of respect.
He ran for 228 yards against Missouri to set a Mountain West Conference freshman record. He ranks sixth in the nation with 443 rushing yards and has seriously upgraded a ground attack that ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams last season.
San Diego State already had a potent passing attack with Ryan Lindley throwing to DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown. Hillman's emergence has balanced out the offense and has helped make San Diego State the MWC's most improved team.
The Aztecs won their first two games by a combined 88-21 and led Missouri 24-20 until Missouri's T.J. Moe turned a short completion into a game-wining 68-yard touchdown with 51 seconds remaining. MWC officials later admitted that Missouri should have been penalized for an illegal block that would have nullified Moe's touchdown.
"We didn't deserve to win it, the way we played," San Diego State coach Brady Hoke told reporters. "We didn't play very well. We didn't tackle well on defense all night long. We played a little bit tentative and we can't do that."
Hoke knows how to build a winner.
He came to San Diego State after leading Ball State to a 12-1 record in 2008. Although the Aztecs only went 4-8 last season, they doubled the win total from '08. San Diego State realistically can expect to compete for a bowl bid this season.
For the Aztecs to go bowling, they can't afford to lose games they're expected to win. Hoke's task this week is to make sure San Diego State concentrates on Saturday's game with Utah State rather than brooding over its misfortune at Missouri.
Two years ago, San Diego State led Notre Dame in the fourth quarter before falling 21-13. The Aztecs were trounced by San Jose State 35-10 the following week and went on to finish 2-10. Hoke can't allow history to repeat itself.
"This is a different team," Hoke said. "I think this is the 87th football team at San Diego State. It's a different team with different leadership from the senior class. It's different expectations and it's a different feel.
"I've been doing this pretty long. You sense how your team feels and where they're at. I like our guys. I like the hell out of them."
Best matchup: SMU pass offense vs. TCU pass defense. SMU coach June Jones generally operates one of the most potent passing attacks in the nation, though it's worth noting that the Mustangs currently rank just 53rd in passing offense. SMU QB Kyle Padron threw for 280 yards and four touchdowns without an interception last week in a 35-21 victory over Washington State. Of course, TCU isn't Washington State. The Horned Frogs rank fourth in the nation in total defense and ninth in scoring defense, though they are just 47th in pass efficiency defense. It should be fun to watch the poker game between Jones and TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas, even if Bumpas has a far better hand. SMU will need to worry about giving Padron enough time to throw. The key for TCU is to contain Aldrick Robinson, who caught three of Padron's four touchdown passes last week.
Player on the spot: BYU QB Jake Heaps. The two-quarterback system has ended at BYU. Riley Nelson is out for the season with a shoulder injury, leaving Heaps as the Cougars' unquestioned starter for the rest of the year. Heaps was 30-of-60 for 260 yards with one touchdown and one interception while splitting time with Nelson. "That's why I came here," Heaps told The Salt Lake Tribune. "I didn't come here to take half of it or to not be the guy. I came here to hopefully be the guy and hopefully, when the time was right, to lead the team. And right now it happened, and it was under unfortunate circumstances, but it is an exciting opportunity for me, and I am going to work as hard as I can. Like I said, it means a lot to me." The true freshman won't get an easy assignment in his debut as a starter. BYU will have to light up the scoreboard to beat Nevada, which averages 50.7 points per game.
Numbers game: Although Air Force lost 27-24 to Oklahoma last week, the Falcons' 351 rushing yards in that game were the most allowed by the Sooners since Bob Stoops started coaching them in 1999. Air Force averages 399.0 rushing yards per game to lead the nation in that category.
What they're saying
"Who knows whether he's prepared or not? It's a freshman playing football. If there's anyone that is prepared, his experience to this point has led to me feeling very comfortable. I believe in his potential. It's just a matter of catching up on experience and playing football. He's very capable. It's just going to be decision-making, experience, execution and playing ball.'' -- BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, to The Deseret News of Salt Lake City, on Heaps' preparation for the starting job.
"You know when you're a child and you knew Christmas was coming up and you asked for that one toy? That's how bad I wanted it." -- Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, explaining to The (Colorado Springs) Gazette how much he wanted to win last week's game at Oklahoma.
"I'll show the celebration part of the video to all of them and [show] how it looked. They made a DVD of that win, so I guess it was a big deal." -- TCU coach Gary Patterson, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram how he'd use the Horned Frogs' 21-10 loss to SMU during the 2005 season as motivation for Saturday's game between the Dallas Metroplex-area foes.
"I show up and expect to win every single game. But if we think our program is in a position right now to knock off [teams like Boise State and Texas], then you haven't been watching this program very long. The program isn't there, and that's why I'm here to get it there. It doesn't happen overnight." -- Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, to The Laramie (Wyo.) Boomerang, after the Cowboys' 51-6 loss to Boise State. One week earlier, the Cowboys had fallen 34-7 to Texas.
Etc.: The quarterbacks at the MWC's top programs were particularly accurate last week. TCU's Andy Dalton went 21-of-23 in a 45-10 triumph over Baylor to set school and conference single-season records for completion percentage (.913). Dalton tied former Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford and former Boise State QB for the highest single-game completion percentage (with a minimum of 20 attempts) of any FBS passer since 2004. Utah's Terrance Cain, playing because of an injury to starter Jordan Wynn, was 20-of-23 in a 56-14 rout of New Mexico to break his school's single-game mark (.869). ... As well as Cain played last week, he probably won't be starting Saturday against San Jose State. Wynn has returned to practice after missing the past two games with a sprained thumb. ... Dalton has thrown 48 career touchdown passes, which puts him one away from the school record held by Max Knake (1992-95). ... San Diego State TE Alston Umuolo had hip surgery Tuesday and likely will miss the rest of the season. Umuolo was the preseason pick as the All-Mountain West tight end. ... Utah has allowed only one sack, and its starting offensive line hasn't given up any sacks. Penn State is the only FBS team that hasn't allowed any sacks. ... Nine of TCU's past 10 wins have been decided by at least 27 points. The lone exception is its season-opening 30-21 victory over Oregon State. ... In a nod to the school's history, Colorado State will be wearing orange jerseys Saturday for its home game with Idaho. Although Colorado State now wears green and gold, the official school colors were green and orange from 1893 to 1909. The school's football team wore orange jerseys with orange pants in 1940, and they continued wearing orange pants as one of its uniform options through the 1958 season. Colorado State officials also want fans to wear orange in an attempt to "orange out" the stadium. ... Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild is shuffling his offensive line as he attempts to rejuvenate a winless team that ranks 119th in rushing and 105th in scoring. The Rams haven't scored more than 10 points in any of their first three games. Redshirt freshman Weston Richburg is the new starting center and sophomore Joe Caprioglio has cracked the starting lineup at guard. Colorado State previously had been starting Richburg at guard and junior Tyler McDermott at center. ... New Mexico heads into UNLV this week with an uncertain quarterback situation. True freshman Tarean Austin relieved an injured Brad Gruner last week and went 15-of-27 for 128 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception against Utah. He also rushed for a team-high 38 yards on eight carries. Gruner has recovered from his back problems and is available this week, but New Mexico coach Mike Locksley hasn't named a starter. New Mexico's season-opening starter was B.R. Holbrook, who sat out the Utah game and won't play against UNLV as he prepares to undergo exploratory surgery on his left knee. ... It's easy to understand why UNLV is winless. "We haven't done much offensively," UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. "That would be it in a nutshell." No kidding. The Rebels are ranked 117th in the nation in scoring and 118th in total offense. ... UNLV CB Will Chandler leads the MWC in interceptions (two) and is tied for the conference lead in fumble recoveries (two). He is responsible for all four of the Rebels' takeaways this season. ... Air Force will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for its new indoor training facility Oct. 1. The facility, which cost nearly $16 million, should be ready in time for next season's training camp.