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Saturday Showdown: Previewing the San Diego State Defense

If the Bears expect to upset the Aztecs, they’ll have to find a way to dismantle Rocky Long’s vaunted defense.

New Hampshire v San Diego State Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

If you were eager to find an early game that could be the best indicator for the rest of the Cal Football season look no further than this Saturday. The Bears face their first major test, on the road no less, against the 2015 Mountain West champion San Diego State Aztecs. Many of you may remember last year’s matchup when the Aztecs traveled to Berkeley. The game was relatively close until the Bears used a late score in the first half to put some distance between them and Rocky Long’s team. Check out the tape below (Warning: May induce Jared Goff flashbacks)

This year, the storylines look a lot different. San Diego State returns as the clear favorite to win the Mountain West, returning many starters and shutdown corner Damontae Kazee. The Aztecs have garnered top 25 votes and open as a seven point favorite in the friendly confines of Qualcomm Stadium. The high expectations of the Aztecs rests squarely on the shoulders of their defense. Their 2015 season endured a disappointing start but bounced back finishing in the top ten in points allowed per game at 17.2.

ESPN

The Aztecs defense would finish the 2015 season ranked in the top five in rushing yards allowed, top ten in passing yards allowed and place no worse than 22nd in any major defensive category. They also finished second in the nation in total number of interceptions, showing a propensity for playing both a technically sound and opportunistic style of defense.

What does this mean for Saturday? Generally speaking the Bears will have to be laser focused on playing a mistake free game and expose San Diego State early. If last years contest is any indication, a tight first half will give confidence to the Aztecs and perhaps leave the Bears missing the home environment of Memorial Stadium. Let’s take a look at each defensive unit below:

Defensive Line:

The defensive line lost a couple of contributors for the Aztecs but all signs point to them having more than a few serviceable replacements this upcoming year. The line is stacked with experienced players, more so than Cal’s defensive front, and due to the 3-3-5 defense Long runs, nearly all of them have game experience. The good news for Cal is that a 3-3-5 defense traditionally gives up size in favor of speed which creates a mismatch for the Aztecs when lining up against Cal’s front five. The Bears most experienced unit will be the most valuable come Saturday as the ground game will have to dictate the offensive rhythm for the Bears against such an experienced and successful defensive line.

Linebackers:

Talk about an experienced group of players where you need one. The Aztecs return five of their six starters from last season and expect even better production from a team that ranked in top 5 of two defensive categories. The depth across the linebackers unit is eye-popping and once again paints a direct contrast to that of the Bears defensive unit. Take a look at the experience below:

SB Nation

Credit the San Diego State defensive coaches for finding solid three star recruits who have developed into key players and who set the tone for a top tier defense. The Aztecs biggest issue last season, if you can even call it an issue, was finding a way for all of their players to see the field. They won’t find similar trouble this year as they enjoy the flexibility to make several substitutions without sacrificing the quality of their players.

Secondary:

Chad Hansen certainly has his hands full if he wants to repeat his Hawaii effort against another Mountain West foe. Damontae Kazee spurned the NFL to return to San Diego State this year and lead the secondary as the reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year. Kazee is the clear number one corner in the group and will be focusing his time on removing Davis Webb’s favorite target against Hawaii. The Aztecs vulnerability comes on the other side of the field as they have to replace J.J. Whittaker. If there is any matchup to like against this secondary, perhaps it is Demetris Robertson or Brandon Singleton at the X position against one of the many options the Aztec’s have opposite Kazee. Regardless, this should be an intriguing matchup to watch and one that could significantly challenge Spavital’s offensive scheme in just the second game of the year.

Final Analysis:

In what is the first of many difficult match-ups for the Bears, this game in particular should give us the best idea of what is to come for the rest of the season. If the Bears can break through this defense and put up thirty to forty points, the rest of the season looks bright. However, that level of success will be determined by the Bears ability to dominate San Diego State’s smaller defensive line. Davis Webb and the Bears offense will have to build momentum through the ground in a concentrated effort to create opportunities for the passing game. The Aztecs secondary has been susceptible against the long ball when facing teams that have more of a balanced approach and that could make all the difference come Saturday.