Over the last few years, this point in the season has marked the beginning of the end for hope in a Coug fan. By game three WSU has usually been coming off what may be their only win of the season or hoping for one last chance at a W before conference play starts. In those years, most of the buzz would be around desperation. Not just for a Coug win, but to keep UW as the only team in recent memory to go winless (after the "scoring streak" this seems to have been the chief concern among Wazzu fans - have to have something to root for!).
This year, things are a little different. WSU's obliteration of two weaker opponents has caught the eye of not only the West Coast, but national writers as well. The sense of excitement around the football team is at a high it hasn't seen since before this website started.
Now the Cougs face what may be their biggest test in the season's first five games (known as the "set up for a fast start" or "Nuss's favorite topic"). San Diego State was often overlooked by WSU fans in the offseason as they dreamed of a "5-0." This was a good team last year that won nine games and gave some of the "traditional" Mountain West powers all they could handle. The Aztecs are favored in this game for good reason.
Football Outsiders' S&P isn't in peak form this early in the season, as much of the rankings are still based off early-season projections and have very little opponent adjustment. For what it is worth, FO has WSU at #58 (rising over 40 spots in the first two weeks) and SDSU at #56. In the raw numbers this game pits the #1 overall offense in Raw S&P (guess who!) against #29. Could we have a shootout on our hands? We promised as much last week, but it turned out to be extremely one-sided. We'll take a look at San Diego State after the jump.
OFFENSE: 36.0 PPG, 6.5 YPP
The Aztecs run a pro-style offense with the quarterback most often taking the snap under center. They run some single-back three-wide and four-wide sets but are not strictly limited to that. SDSU will also bring in the fullback as a lead blocker for their talented running back.
Calling the signals is strong-armed senior Ryan Lindley. Lindley is a four-year starter who set the school touchdown record in the Aztecs' first game against Cal Poly. He amassed some pretty impressive numbers last year with the help of two stud wide receivers who have since departed for the NFL. In all, he passed for 3,830 yards for 28 touchdowns and only 14 picks on 421 pass attempts.
So far this season Lindley's completion percentage has seen a drop despite playing against some lower competition. He was not at his best against Army, completing just eight of his 18 pass attempts for 146 yards. Exactly half of those yards came on San Diego State's second play from scrimmage, a 68-yard touchdown pass where Lindley displayed his best weapon, the long pass. As the season progresses it will be interesting to see if his completion percentage continues to suffer without his two favorite targets from 2010.
The biggest threat to WSU will likely be running back Ronnie Hillman. Hillman has carried the ball 45 times in the first two games for 6.8 yards per carry. He put up huge numbers as a freshman last season with 1532 yards and 17 touchdowns. He definitely looks to have a future in the pros with good size for a sophomore (5-10, 190) and speed. He makes quick cuts and is strong enough to break tackles. The Cougs will have to wrap up against this guy, and make sure to stay assignment-sound to be aware of the cutback. If not, fans may have flashbacks of Chris Polk in the Apple Cup.
While the SDSU offense may not be as good overall as they were a year ago, there is no doubt they are still above average and light years ahead of anything WSU has seen so far this season. This will be a true test for the defense before heading into conference play, and likely will be better than anything it will see until its next home game against Stanford.
DEFENSE: 20.5 PPGA, 5.1 YPPA
It is very difficult to get a gauge on SDSU's defensive performance this season because they have played two option-heavy teams. In the limited amount of action I've seen they regularly have had eight men within ten yards of the line of scrimmage and five men right at the line (as one would expect when facing an option offense).
With that in mind, they struggled pretty heavily against Army's attack. The same Army offense that struggled to do anything against Northern Illinois the week before until the game was out of hand. The Aztecs yielded 403 yards rushing to the Black Knights on 5.2 yards per carry. Their only saving grace was Army putting the ball on the ground six times, resulting in three turnovers.
So what can we take from that performance? It's hard to say. It's possible that San Diego State just doesn't have the right personnel to deal with an option attack. Maybe they are more suited to defending a team that throws the ball more than seven times a game and has a quarterback who isn't going to run for over 7 yards a carry.
By S&P standards, the Aztecs were middle of the road on defense a season ago, ranked 65th overall. They were better at defending the run than the pass, so maybe there is hope there for Washington State. Or maybe the Cougs should just line Marquess Wilson up at quarterback and run the triple-option.
The Aztecs are in trouble if...WSU finds a way to limit Ronnie Hillman on offense and SDSU fails to get much pressure on Marshall Lobbestael on defense, allowing guys like Wilson, Isiah Barton, Jared Karstetter, and Bobby Ratliff run free.