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Cal vs. San Diego State: Previewing the Aztecs defense

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SDSU wants to create havoc on defense. Will they be able to shake the Bear Raid?

LB Calvin Munson returns one of his two pick-sixes against USD
LB Calvin Munson returns one of his two pick-sixes against USD
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Grambling State, you're welcome back any time. Great day, great band, great win for the Bears. Having said that, boy am I glad we're playing an FBS team this week. Not only will San Diego State present a more exciting matchup and a bigger test for this team than Grambling, they also have a readily available depth chart on their website! That means we can get a good look at who will be tasked with stopping Jared Goff from a repeat performance of #drop73. Let's meet the Aztecs:

The Story so Far...

If tradition holds, this weekend's game will be a matchup of strength on strength: head coach Rocky Long moonlights as the Aztecs defensive coordinator, and his defense has historically been the team's strongest unit. Last year's 7-6 team ranked 16th nationally in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Unlike Grambling's defense, which got torched deep by the Bears, SDSU specializes in shutting down the big play. They allowed the eighth fewest big plays in FBS football last season (defined as plays of 10 yards or longer), and only allowed four plays of 50+ yards all season. On the other hand, they struggled to produce negative plays, a trend that bears watching as most of the linebacking corps is being replaced this season.

The Aztecs tuned up against local FCS challenger San Diego last week. Everything went to plan in the Aztecs' 37-3 win except for one little hiccup: the offense only scored one touchdown. Special teams added another, which means that the Aztecs' leading scorer is currently LB Calvin Munson, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns. For his efforts (including 11 tackles and a fumble recovery for good measure), Munson was named MWC Defensive player of the week. Let's not give him too much credit though, because CB Demontae Kazee might have upstaged him with three INTs of his own.

The level of competition might leave something to be desired, but the Aztecs defense sure made a statement in week one. In all, they allowed 109 yards passing and 84 yards rushing. So, Cal fans who (smartly) didn't read too much into last week's stats, does this sound like a challenge that might interest you?

Defensive Line

Starters: Sr #99 Jon Sanchez, Fr #95 Noble Hall, Jr #58 Alex Barrett

Let's pause for my weekly plug for LiffeyBear's defensive breakdown. Have a look, get intimately acquainted with SDSU's 3-3-5 defense, then come back. Got all that? The scheme starts up front, where two upperclassmen anchor the defensive line. Jon Sanchez has appeared in every game since his freshman season, including starts in all 13 contests last season. Across from him, Alex Barrett made Phil Steele's preseason All-MWC first team after anchoring the line last season.

Linebackers

Starters: Jr #54 Calvin Munson, Jr #40 Randy Ricks, Sr #42 Jake Fely

The obvious guy to watch here is Calvin Munson, whose two pick-sixes against USD seem like early justification for his bevy of preseason honors. He's the only returning starter of the three, although sixth-year senior Jake Fely had been promising before losing most of his last two seasons to injury. In the middle, Randy Ricks joins the Aztecs from Arizona Western Community College to round out the crew. Coach Rocky Long loves to blitz, so these guys will give Cal's offensive line a chance to show whether they've improved since last week's shaky start.

Defensive Backs

Starters: Sr #7 J.J. Whittaker, Jr #12 Malik Smith, Jr #21 Na'im McGee, JR #32 Kendrick Mathis, Jr #23 Damontae Kazee

Until Trey Lomax went down with a dislocated kneecap in the second quarter against USD, the Aztecs had been set to return every starter from last year's secondary. Lomax will be replaced by the junior Kendrick Mathis, but the rest of the unit brings back considerable experience. SDSU has a funny naming convention where McGee, the free safety, is listed as an "aztec" and Smith and Mathis are "warriors" instead of strong safeties. Regardless of what they're called, these guys caused some serious trouble last week and could definitely do the same against the Bears. Kazee's three interceptions last week headlined a unit that may be the best in the conference, while Whittaker, the lone senior, is a guiding presence as team captain.

Andrew's Take

Just as we shouldn't take too much stock in Kenny Lawler's 36-TD pace after the Grambling game, don't read too much into the Aztecs' week one performance. USD is a non-scholarship FCS school, which means the level of competition there really isn't close. Even so, SDSU has a legit defense that clearly knows how to force turnovers and get quick stops. They'll be running an aggressive scheme similar to the one that Grambling used to expose our OL last week, but at a significantly higher level of play. This should be a tough enough test for our offense that we'll have a good sense of where they're at before heading to Austin.