McGrane: A New Dark Side Dawns at SDSU
Dec. 4, 2015
McGrane: A New Dark Side Dawns at SDSU
By Mick McGrane, @GoAztecs Senior Writer (@MickOnTheMesa)
Its starting quarterback, senior Adam Hall, was in a walking boot, the result of a high ankle sprain suffered in the season opener.
The backup, sophomore Matt Dlugolecki, had never started a collegiate game, having sat out the previous season after transferring from Illinois.
It was Week 2 of the 2003 season at San Diego State, and if there was the slightest reason to eye the glass as half-full, there was also reason to run for cover. The upcoming opponent? Defending national champion and No. 2-ranked Ohio State. The Aztecs were big underdogs.
In the week leading up to the contest, a defense that would ultimately place four players in the NFL gathered to gauge the magnitude of the moment.
One of those players, linebacker Kirk Morrison, would become a first-team All-American by season’s end and a third-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders.
“We basically said to each other, ‘Hey, fellas, we’ve got a backup quarterback starting this game and he’s not ready for this,’ “ said Morrison, the school’s all-time leader (since 1979) in career unassisted tackles with 241 and now a color analyst for Aztec radio broadcasts. “As a defense, we had to step it up. We knew things were at a point where it was going to be up to us. We also had a true freshman running back in Lynell Hamilton. There was so much uncertainty, so many unknowns. Our coaches told us, ‘Hey, this is going to be on you, because we aren’t going to get much offense.’ ”
And the Aztecs didn’t. They scored 13 points --- and lost 16-13 after on a game that turned with a 100-yard interception return by Ohio State’s Chris Gamble.
Twelve years later, as SDSU braces for Saturday’s Mountain West championship game against Air Force, events are much the same. A defense that ranks No. 5 in the nation and has put up numbers worthy of some serious head scratching must again prove its mettle. Redshirt freshman quarterback Christian Chapman, who has never started a game, takes the reins from starter Maxwell Smith, the graduate transfer from Kentucky who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last week against Nevada.
“I think that (Ohio State) game was where we found out how good we could be,” Morrison said of a defense that would become known as “The Dark Side,” a unit that regularly took the field at Qualcomm Stadium to its own video, one featuring the theme to “Star Wars.” “You have to remember that this was an Ohio State team that was fresh off a national championship and we didn’t give them one offensive touchdown. For us, I think that was much like the second half of this year’s game against Penn State where this defense just kind of flipped the switch.”
SDSU, which has won eight straight, its longest since putting together a 10-win streak in 1976-77, enters the title game ranked among the nation’s top 20 in defense in no fewer than nine statistical categories. In addition to a national ranking of No. 5 overall (283.6 yards per game), the Aztecs are:
* No. 1 in turnovers gained (31)
* No. 4 in rushing defense (95.0 yards per game) and passes intercepted (20)
* No. 7 in third-down defense (28.5 percent) and kickoff returns (27.89)
* No. 9 in scoring defense (16.6)
* No. 10 in opponent first downs (191)
* No. 13 in fumbles recovered (11)
* No. 17 in pass deficiency defense (111.0)
* No. 19 in tackles for loss (7.4 per game)
In the Mountain West, SDSU is No. 1 in turnovers gained, rushing defense, third-down defense, scoring defense and pass-efficiency defense. It ranks second in passes intercepted, opponent first downs, fumbles recovered and tackles for loss.
Think slamming your hand in a car door and initiating the healing with a hammer. When Morrison’s Dark Side unit entered its final game of the season in 2003 (also against Air Force) it ranked No. 11 nationally (290.1 yards per game) and No. 1 in the MW. No Aztec defense had allowed fewer than 300 yards per game in 27 years. All three of the team’s linebackers --- Morrison, Matt McCoy and Heath Farwell --- ended up in the NFL, as did safety Marviel Underwood.
The 2015 Aztecs’ defense may not have an NFL draft pick in April, but Morrison, who spent eight NFL seasons with the Raiders, Jaguars and Bills, says it’s of little consequence for a unit where individual stardom doesn’t always stand out.
“You kind of sit back and marvel and say to yourself, ‘Who’s going to be the guy this week?’ “ Morrison said. “I had a coach (former Aztecs linebackers coach Andy Buh) who used to always use the term “big sombrero.” Who was going to be the guy that wore the big hat that week? Every game is geared toward playing defense as a team, but there’s also one guy every week that has to be special. I was told many times, ‘Hey, Kirk, we need you to be special this week,’ or ‘Hey, Heath Farwell, we need you to be special this week and hold the edge. And we really embraced it.
“With this team, there are a lot of standout players, but there really isn’t just one single guy that you look at and say, ‘Hey, we need you to make a play.’ It’s crazy to watch, because it’s just great team defense. When you’re watching film during the week, you want to see that final clip where all 11 guys are in the picture. And that’s what you get with this team. I mean, very rarely with this team do you see a guy miss a tackle. It’s an outstanding tackling team.
“Have you ever seen a group cornerbacks tackle as well as this group does? When you look at the stat sheet at the end of the game you realize just how physical J.J. Whittaker and Damonte Kazee really are. It’s those kinds of the things after you’ve watched this defense all year long that just make you shake your head and go, ‘Wow!’ ”
Kazee, who this week became the first Aztec since Morrison to be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, is part of a unit that has held 15 consecutive MW opponents to fewer than 400 yards, the longest active streak in the nation. SDSU also has limited four opponents to single-digit point totals this season, the first time since the Dark Side achieved the feat in 2003. Five of the last seven teams the Aztecs have faced have failed to gain 100 rushing yards.
“I think the one area where this defense is similar to ours is that everybody came up through the same defense,” Morrison said. “But this defense has so much more depth than we did. If we had one or two guys go down, we knew the whole defense was going to suffer.
“The strength of our defense was the defensive line, not just the linebackers, and I think that’s true of this team. It’s Jon Sanchez, Christian Heyward (out for the season with a knee injury) and Alex Barrett who really make this 3-3-5 defense go. When you take care of the run first, and they’ve faced some good running backs, you force teams to pass. And when you’re putting teams in third-and-long, then you’re able to bring pressure. You’re able to blitz with (senior linebacker Jake) Fely and (junior linebacker Calvin) Munson and force the ball to come out early. That’s why you see a guy like Damonte Kazee with so many interceptions (seven). That’s why you’re seeing (Warrior) Malik Smith make so many tackles (64). It gives guys a ton of confidence.”
During their 10-game MW win streak, the Aztecs have outscored the opposition 357-111. They have won eight straight by at least 14 points, the first time since an eight-game stretch from Dec. 6, 1969 to Oct. 31. 1970. SDSU has never trailed in the second half during the course of its current eight-game run.
“During our position meetings, Coach Buh used to say, ‘Hey, if you feel like you’re a better player than anybody in this room, then come up here and tell me why you should be starting over somebody else,’ “ Morrison said. “He’d say, ‘If you guys want to duke it out we can move the tables and you can settle it right here. If you have a gripe with somebody and you think they’re slacking off, then that’s what we’re going to do.’
“I’ve never had a coach say anything like that. The most competitive room I’ve ever been in was during those three years with Coach Buh. And you could see it in the quality of (linebacker) play with Matt McCoy, Steve Larsen, Heath Farwell, Freddy Keiaho and me. In 2005, Freddy Keiaho was a first-team all-conference linebacker who couldn’t even touch the field during his first three years. It was that competitive, and I think that’s the way this team is.”
And the way it must remain if the Aztecs are to beat back Air Force’s triple option. The Falcons, who have lost five straight against SDSU and whose four losses this season have all come on the road, are averaging 34.4 points. Air Force boasts seven players who have rushed for at least 300 yards and enters the contest as the nation’s No. 3 rushing team (323.5 yards per game). The Aztecs also must hold their ground without the services of Heyward, whose spot is expected to be taken by Barrett, a player Coach Rocky Long called the best nose tackle in the league before the junior was moved to right defensive end this season. Junior Kyle Kelley, who has played in all 12 games, is expected to fill Barrett’s spot at defensive end.
“The Aztecs are going to have their hands full,” Morrison said. “If you don’t stop the (fullback) dive play, all of their other players are going to kill you. You have to stop the dive first. This is such a great tackling team on the perimeter that they’ll be able to stop the sweeps and tosses and I don’t think Air Force is going to be able to throw the football. If you get them in third-and-six or third-and-seven, the game is going to be in favor of San Diego State. But you can’t let them get into too many third-and-twos or third-and-threes.
“But Rocky knows how to defend the option. He’s seen it plenty of times before. He’s the best coach for this spot.”
With a that soon may need a name of its own.