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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the SDSU Offense

Welcome to the Donnel Pumphrey show.

NCAA Football: Nevada at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of teams on Cal’s schedule—I’m looking at you, Cougars—didn’t get the job done in their season openers. A few of them—oh hey there, Trojans—were outright embarrassed on primetime television. That’s what happens in week one; some teams just need a little more time to find their rhythm.

Then there are teams who can march right into the stadium and take care of business. And San Diego State did did just that, dropping FCS opponent New Hampshire by a no-nonsense score of 31-0. That’s sort of what the Aztecs do these days, as they ride an 11-game win streak dating back to last October. Their strength of schedule over that stretch may leave something to be desired, but it’s still an impressive record of quietly getting the job done. And it’s the reason why some believe SDSU has a chance to run the table this year.

Run, if you’ll excuse the forced transition, is the operative word there. This team and its ultimate success are in the hands of senior running back Donnel Pumphrey. Cal fans may not have much reaction to that name, as the Bears limited him to 76 yards in their last meeting, but most other opponents haven’t been so lucky. In his junior campaign, Pumphrey slashed through the Mountain West to the tune of 1653 yards and 17 TDs. And he picked up last week right where he left off, rushing for 98 yards on 21 carries against UNH.

That stat line is by no means an all-timer for Pumphrey, but it’s pretty indicative of how SDSU likes to run their offense. Led by Chris Ault disciple Jeff Horton, the Aztecs prefer to put the ball on the ground and grind out yardage. We might see them be a little bit more pass-happy this season as their quarterback situation has improved since last time around, but a 70/30 split favoring the run is entirely plausible. Their scheme is nothing too fast or too flashy (67 plays from scrimmage last week as compared to Cal’s 89 against Hawaii), but they can still put up points; only twice in their win streak have they been held under 30.


Sophomore Christian Chapman gets the nod, claiming the starting job all to himself after splitting time with Maxwell Smith last season. Chapman took only 20% of QB snaps in 2015, but filled in for an injured Smith at the end of the season and performed serviceably. He’s got room for improvement though, as he finished the season 29/49 with two TDs and a pick. That interception, by the way, was made by Cal’s own Darius White.

Chapman is already off to a hotter start this season, throwing for two scores and 283 yards in a clean if unexciting performance in the opener. Of course if he could throw for 283 unexciting yards every week, just enough to keep defenses honest against the run, that would be more than good enough. He’s also known to be a fairly mobile QB, but didn’t show off too many flashes against UNH.

Receiving Corps

The Aztecs have plenty of targets to choose from, and seem content to spread the ball around among them. Three of their top for wideouts return from last season, though none stands out as a particular home run threat. Mikah Holder is their most productive returner, but Pumphrey actually saw the same number of targets in the passing game and turned in a higher catch rate. Holder did reel in both of Chapman’s TD passes last week however, so maybe he’s ready to take the lead in this offense.

Again, passing won’t be the main focus for the Aztecs. This looks to be a group of capable if unspectacular receivers—all upperclassmen, for that matter—that will be waiting to exploit the Bears’ defense if they begin cheating up to stop the run. It’s a nice break from the usual slate of pass-first Pac-12 offenses, so anything other than a quiet day through the air should be cause for concern.

Running Backs

We’ve talked a bit about Pumphrey already, but he’s not the only weapon in the Aztec backfield. They lose Chase Price, last year’s #2 back and a 1000-yard rusher in his own right, but they’ve added a couple of new pieces to back up the Heisman hopeful. Juniors Marcus Stamps and Rashaad Penny will help keep Pumphrey fresh, and redshirt freshman Juwan Washington could get in on the action as well.

Names on a page don’t mean much, but in this case they should strike a terrible fear into your Cal-loving heart. This was one of college football’s most prolific rushing offenses last season, and they’re back/healthy/more experienced/out for revenge against the Bears. Oh, and they’re going to run the ball somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 times against our front seven (er, six, because the Bears don’t have enough linebackers to run a 4-3). Let’s hope Art Kaufman can dial up the same magic he used to stop Pumphrey last year, or all 5’9” 180 pounds of him are going to get that Heisman campaign rolling quickly.

Offensive Line

The Aztecs had two All-MWC first team offensive linemen last season. They return one, LG Nico Siragusa. Add to that two more returning starters and a pair of fresh JuCo transfers, and you’ve got yourself an offensive line that shouldn’t lose too much production. Credit to SB Nation stats guru Bill Connelly for pointing this one out: the average Aztec O-lineman is actually larger than the average San Diego Charger offensive lineman. So that’s just a fun little thing to think about.

There’s not too much intrigue to the SDSU offense. They can run the hell out of the ball, but they probably won’t put up too much fight through the air. But that’s worked for them eleven times in a row. Can the Bears find enough discipline to keep that streak from reaching twelve? They might have to score a few points of their own to do it.