McGrane: Aztecs Convinced You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Oct. 6, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Aztecs Convinced You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
You don’t start a season 5-0 for the first time in 47 seasons and not be at your best.
You don’t match a program record by being ranked in the Associated Press poll for three straight weeks and not be at your best.
To which SDSU head coach Rocky Long might add, “Balderdash.”
“We’re not even close to being as good as we can be,” said Long, whose team has an opportunity to move to 6-0 for the first time since 1975 when it visits UNLV on Saturday. “We’re not playing very well right now. People think I’m lying when I say that, but I’m not lying. We’re not playing very well right now. We’re playing just like a young football team plays. We make a lot of mistakes.
“But the players have a great spirit, they play really, really hard, they think they’re going to win and somehow they’re finding a way to win. That’s a pretty good situation. I think we’re going to get better, and obviously we need to get better. Injuries are starting to hurt us a little bit now and it hurt us last week in the offensive line (senior guard Antonio Rosales missed the Northern Illinois game with a sprained ankle) when we got younger instead of older. If the injury bug doesn’t hit us hard, our team will continue to get better. Win or lose, we’re going to continue to get better.”
If only because experience still serves as the best teacher.
Consider: Of the Aztecs’ projected starters for Saturday’s contest, nine are seniors, four of whom, including tailback Rashaad Penny, were backups in 2016. In fact, assuming SDSU adheres to its current depth chart, there would be just two more seniors starting the UNLV contest than sophomores (four) redshirt freshmen (two) and true freshmen (one).
It’s enough to make a coach bite his nails to the quick, but it also serves as a window to the future. As with last season, when SDSU returned four senior offensive linemen to spearhead its trademark run game, four members of the team’s current starting offensive line return next season, three of whom are sophomores (left guard Daishawn Dixon) or redshirt freshmen (left tackle Tyler Roemer and center Keith Ismael).
Currently configured, the Aztecs next season would return 13 of 22 starters. Not that it would necessarily provide sufficient solace to their head coach.
“I thought going into the season that the expectations were out of sight, considering how young and immature our football team is,” Long said. “Obviously, when you win a few games the expectation level increases, because you’re only as good as your last game. And as many people as there are who want to see you succeed, there are just as many and probably a whole lot more that you want to see you fail.”
Failure, however, largely has been scrubbed clean from a program once thoroughly mired in the muck. Even with 13 non-seniors ranked No. 1 on the depth chart, SDSU rolls on. In addition to winning 26 of their last 29 and two straight Mountain West titles, the Aztecs have won seven straight dating back to last season (the seventh-longest streak in the FBS) and are 13-2 in their last 15 games.
“We have a much younger team than we did last year,” Long said at the outset of the season, “but we also have enough talent that as long as we improve our maturity level quickly, with younger guys playing starting roles and learning how to play at this level, I think we could have a pretty good year.”
So far, so good. SDSU, which emerged unscathed from the non-conference portion of the season for the first time in 36 years, has won 19 of its last 21 games against MW opponents. It also has won 11 straight against members of the league’s West Division, its last loss coming Nov. 1, 2014, a mere 1,069 days ago.
“The vibe around this team is that we really haven’t played our best game yet,” said senior wide receiver/punt returner Quest Truxton. “We’re 5-0 and that’s good, but we haven’t come close to playing a perfect game. The last two games we’ve kept it way too close, at least for our liking. We know we can play much better.
“Fans like to think, ‘Oh, this team lost to that team, so this should be an easy week.’ But the moment players start thinking like that, like how little can you do to get by or how many mistakes can you make and still pull out a win, that’s not the way to do it. You’ve got to be ready to play your best game every week.”
Which, for underclassmen, requires not only the support of seniors, but also coaches capable of ensuring that young players don’t lose faith when things go awry. With Rosales out of the lineup last week against Northern Illinois, the Aztecs’ offensive line included a true freshman (Dominic Gudino), two redshirt freshmen (Roemer and Ismael), a sophomore (Dixon) and a junior (Ryan Pope). After the opening quarter, SDSU had minus-4 yards rushing.
“You don’t go into a season expecting any freshmen to play. It’s unusual enough when redshirt freshmen play,” Long said. “The last two years, we had (an offensive line) that was a bunch of veteran guys who had played a whole bunch of football. This year, they’re very inconsistent because they’re young guys that don’t have that experience.”
Nonetheless, it’s also an offensive line that has enabled Penny to become the first Aztec since Marshall Faulk in 1992 to post five straight 100-yard games, tied for the second-longest active streak in the nation.
“We’ve got a couple of really good running backs, but if they don’t have a good day, it’s probably not because of them,” Long said. “Everybody wants to make a big deal out of our running backs when they gain a whole bunch of yards, well, how about making a big deal out of the guys who are blocking for them? We celebrate the running back, but the guys that ought to be celebrated are the guys up front.”
In the end, of course, celebrations are only afforded champions, players that have played their best. And as SDSU prepares to conclude the first half of the regular season, its best, apparently, has not been good enough.
“The fact that we’re 5-0, even in the (win) against Stanford, we didn’t play as well as we can,” said senior safety Trey Lomax. “(Stanford) had a lot of long runs where if we just make minor adjustments, we can limit those. To have the wins that we do have and still know that we’re not remotely as close to being as good as we can be on defense, offense and special teams, that really shows the potential that we do have. We haven’t done anything yet.”
Said Truxton: “We’re still looking for our best game, where everyone comes together. The last couple weeks it’s been, ‘Well, these guys haven’t stepped up, so these other guys have to step up.’ We’re looking for that game where everybody steps up and we really show our full potential.”