Cal’s season started off well with a 51-31 win over a Hawaii squad that looks like it will be spending another season as the Mountain West’s doormat. The Bears earned a seven figure check for traveling nearly 15,000 miles round trip for the Sydney Cup, but the outlook wasn’t completely positive as the Bears also came home with serious defensive questions. This week the Bears take a shorter trip to face another team out of the Mountain West, but this matchup will prove to be a much stiffer test. We know the offense works, but the Bears have to prove they used their bye to cure their defensive woes in order to win at San Diego State.
This week we'll take a look at what makes the reigning Mountain West Champion San Diego State Aztecs such a scary matchup and what Cal’s defense must do to secure a win this Saturday.
The Aztecs - A power running offense, led by a beast of a running back.
After some early season struggles last year, the Aztecs railed off an eight game regular season win streak, beat Air Force in the Mountain West Chanpionship Game and defeated Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl. The core of the Aztec’s success was returning star Donnel Pumphrey, who rushed for 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns. Pumphrey rushed over 100 yards 9 times and generally terrorized Mountain West defenses last season.
Although Pumphrey didn't pass the century mark in last week’s 31-0 trouncing of FCS opponent New Hampshire, it's clear the Aztecs are poised to take it to opposing defenses this fall. The cohort of Aztec running backs behind Pumphrey combined with their leader to gain over 170 yards on the ground in addition to moving the ball through the air with ease. The offensive line returns mostly intact and kept Quarterback Christian Chapman’s jersey clean, allowing no sacks as he passed for 288 yards. It’sclear that the Aztecs are looking to show they can move the ball outside of Pumphrey and brought a balanced attack to last week’s contest.
Though the stat line shows improvement in the passing game, it seems Rocky Long used the overmatched New Hampshire defense to try and prove his Aztecs are no one-trick pony. Don't be fooled - the Aztecs offensive hopes hinge on their ability to get Pumphrey rolling.
The Bears - Wanted: A physical front Seven.
Aztec air attack or not, the Bears are going to be in deep trouble if they cannot find a way to stop the run this Saturday. Last year’s squad did an adequate job of containing Pumphrey, but it's clear this is not last year’s team. The Bears have lost a lot of talent up front to transfer, graduation, and the NFL. The challenge for the Bears on Saturday is simple: prove they still have the grit up front to stop the run.
If we use the early matchup down under against Hawaii as a barometer for expectations in meeting this challenge, the outlook is bleak. A lackluster defensive outing this week means the Bears will likely fall – while also catapulting Pumhrey into the forefront of the “dark horse for the Heisman” conversation. The Bears left gaping holes for the Hawaii backfield and were gashed early and often, ceding 248 yards to an average offense. Expected defensive leaders James Looney and Devante Wilson lost in the trenches and the relatively green linebacking corps seemed lost on gap assignments. What's even more troubling is the fact that the Bears lacked the physical intensity that we saw out of last year’s squad. Given these issues, it makes sense that the Aztecs come into the week favored to win by seven.
My Prediction- Defensive improvement earns a win.
Even with the early defensive warning signs from the Sydney cup, the staff should be able to adjust enough on defense to get the edge on the Aztecs. Head coach Sonny Dykes said he saw a physical defense throughout training camp, and that improving the defensive intensity of the Bears would be an area of focus going forward. Some of the early shakiness can be written off - travel, an extremely early opener and the distractions of Sydney may have had the Bears a bit lethargic defensively. The Bears undoubtedly have taken the bye week to refocus - expect the defensive front to slow Pumphrey and Co. enough for the Bear Raid to outpace the Aztecs. Cal by seven in a tough one.