The Arizona Wildcats (0-1) will make their long-waited home debut Saturday when they host the San Diego State Aztecs at 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.
Arizona, of course, is coming off a 24-16 loss to BYU. SDSU beat a lowly New Mexico State team 28-10 in its opener. We caught up with Jeremy Mauss of Mountain West Wire to get the inside scoop on the Aztecs. Here’s what he had to say.
Ryan Kelapire: SDSU went 4-4 last season. What are expectations like for the Aztecs this year?
Jeremy Mauss: With the recent success under Rocky Long and a three-year stretch of winning double-digit games, the goal is to win the West Division and compete for the Mountain West title. Those are not unrealistic goals at all, even this year when the West division has four teams that realistically can win it, including the Aztecs. They fell off last year due to running back Greg Bell suffering an injury that limited him in the second half. If he is healthy and there is at least average quarterback play, winning the West is the goal.
RK: How would you characterize San Diego State football under Brady Hoke?
JM: This is his second go around with the Aztecs but this time instead of fixing something that was broken, he is in charge of maintaining a quality team. As of now, he is not changing all that much because he has been on staff under former coach Rocky Long as the defensive line coach so his recent promotion didn’t mean an overhaul was needed. What the next evolution or change that will be seen eventually but sooner that late for Aztecs fans is the quarterback play. Last time he was the head coach he had QB Ryan Lindley slinging the ball and he was one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West, and eventually was drafted and spent a handful of years in the NFL.
That passing game is nothing for Arizona to worry about this weekend, but overall he has been fine in his first year back as head coach. Last year, all of the new guys will get a pass but there was a lot of potential in the first handful of games before injuries hurt the running back room.
RK: What are SDSU’s strengths and weaknesses expected to be this season?
JM: Their strengths have been and forever always be the running game, offensive line and the defense in general, specifically the 3-3-5 scheme. The running game does not have the depth it used to when there was always someone in the wings when the likes of Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny were in the backfield and winning conference player of the year awards. Greg Bell is the stud at running back and when healthy is one of the best backs in an already stacked Mountain West.
RK: SDSU kinda struggled against New Mexico State. What can Arizona glean from that game?
JM: There is no passing game for San Diego State with QB Jordon Brookshire going just 6 of 19 for a paltry 76 yards. That led to long third downs and the Aztecs converting just 5 of 14 of those games. RB Greg Bell and the defense bailed them out with Bell going for 161 yards on the ground and a second half shoutout for the defense. For the Wildcats to be successful, force San Diego State into obvious passing down situations and that should led to getting the ball back more often than not. In my opinion, stack the box and force San Diego State to beat essentially man coverage
RK: Who are some SDSU players Arizona fans should know about?
JM: First up Greg Bell. He is a beat at running the ball and is the main offensive weapon that the Arizona defense needs to stop, or at least try. Even though he essentially missed two games and was hurt in four last year, Bell was third in touchdowns and second in total yards in the Mountain West. Also, know that QB Jordon Brookshire is not great at his position, he has shown some flashes last year but if he can’t get it done vs. New Mexico State that is scary for the Aztecs.
On defense, defensive lineman Cameron Thomas is a beast and one of the best defenders out West. I know it was New Mexico State but he was in the backfield all day with 3.5 TFL’s and a pair of QB hurries causing havoc. Slowing him down is key from an offensive line perspective. The other to watch out for is preseason all-Mountain West linebacker Caden McDonald, he had just four tackles and one for a loss but he and Thomas have the potential to be the defensive player of the year in the Mountain West.
RK: If San Diego State is going to beat Arizona, it needs to _____.
JM: Find a resemblance of a passing game to be able to balance the ground game and use Greg Bell the best way they can.
RK: Arizona opened as a one-point favorite, the first time they’ve been favored in a game since 2019. Are you surprised by that line?
JM: Very surprised that the Wildcats are favored. They were picked last in the media polls for the Pac-12 South, but their close loss to BYU and the quarterback play by Gunner Cruz gave some confidence. Plus, it doesn’t help that the Aztecs struggled for a half vs. one of the bottom five teams in FBS against New Mexico State. My thought it would be at most a field goal for San Diego State.
RK: Score prediction?
JM: San Diego State 24, Arizona 14