September 5, 2012

Army and SDSU both enjoy an edge

San Diego State is hoping game experience favors it despite a 21-12 season-opening loss last week at Washington when the Aztecs return home against untested Army Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium.

The untested Black Knights are hoping having SDSU-Washington video to study while holding back a few new wrinkles in its opener favors Army.

In a reality, veteran San Diego State coach Rocky Long suggested the advantages/disadvantages of such matchup balance each other out. Otherwise he would remember the last time it gave his team an edge in a win or it cost his club a victory.

"I'm sure I have been on both sides of the deal, but I don't remember exactly when," Long said. "With the team that hasn't played yet, they'll have some things in their offense and defense that we haven't seen before and we're not able to prepare for, which gives them some advantages. I think they'll be a little fresher. They won't be as beat up, which gives them a little advantage.

"Now I think our advantage is we have played and we've seen game speed. It's really hard to go from practice speed to game speed. We've had sideline preparation. There are always things that happen on the sideline you that you have to organize after the first game. You have to get better at communication and getting plays in and out of the huddle -- those types of things. If you've played a game that gives you a little bit of an advantage. I think there are advantages to both sides."

The "new wrinkle" mystery gives Army more of a surprise edge this year than most seasons. San Diego State would usually only be concerned about a crash course in preparing for the Black Knights' triple-option offense, which led the nation in rushing last year with 346.5 yards a game.

But Long not only suspects Army will mix in more passes this year, he's wary of facing Army quarterback Trent Steelman as a fourth-year starter and leader of the triple-option.

"He knows what he's doing," Long said. "He's been the starter for three years. It will be his fourth year as a starter. He's as good as there is at the triple option offense, reading it and running it himself. He's big strong guy that breaks tackles, gains a lot yards on his own."

Army wants to be more a threat throwing this year with injury-prone senior running back Malcolm Brown switching out of a deep offensive backfield to wide receiver.

Air Force's triple-option offense, which has traditionally mixed in more passes than Army and Navy, had tormented San Diego State for decades until Rocky Long arrived in 2009 as defensive coordinator under former head coach Brady Hoke. After San Diego State won the first SDSU-Air Force game in 1980, Air Force won 19 of the next 27 games before Hoke and Long arrived. Befuddled San Diego State coaches included Doug Scovil, 0-4; Denny Stolz, 0-3; Al Luginbill, 2-4; Ted Tollner, 1-5; and Chuck Long, 1-2.

Under Long, SDSU has gone 2-1 against Air Force and 4-1 against all three service academy triple-options offenses.  The Aztecs beat Navy in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl. In 2011, SDSU beat Army 23-20 when the Black Knights beat themselves with eight fumbles (three lost) at Michie Stadium.

Long says one week is never enough time to prepare for the triple-option, and his problems are complicated this year by having only one returning starter among his front seven -- sophomore middle linebacker Jake Fely. But Army also is inexperienced up front with senior Frank Allen the only true returning starter in the offense line due to the hand injury suffered by sophomore center Ryan Powis.

Long, though, has plenty of experience game-planning the triple option. He faced Air Force every year in 11 seasons as the head coach at another Mountain West school, New Mexico.

The only time Long has lost to Air Force in the last three seasons was 2009 when SDSU finished 4-8 and the Falcons beat the Aztecs 26-14. But in SDSU's last two back-to-back bowl seasons, the Aztecs beat then-No. 23 Air Force 27-25 in 2010 and 41-27 in 2011.

Long emphasizes SDSU outscored the service academy teams in the last four games rather than stopping them. Army totaled 446 yards last year and Navy totaled 382 in 2010. Air Force's totals the last two years were 487 in 2010 and 419 in 2011.

 "We have won the game," Long said. "That's a lot different than having success against the triple-option. Last year, if you remember the (Army) game, they were running up and down the field, and if they don't fumble a bunch, we are in deep trouble."

Ah, ha! Long remembers who wins or losses when turnovers are involved but not necessarily when one team starts the year earlier than the other.
In other words, that's probably what will decide Saturday night's unusual matchup, too.

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