SDSU needs a strong run game to tame the Wildcats

SDSU enters Snapdragon Stadium. Credit Rashad Griffin/EVT

Braxton Burmeister drops back to pass at the team’s scrimmage on 8/20. Credit: Rashad Griffin/EVT

Saturday, Aztec Nation will get its first glimpse of SDSU’s offense with Braxton Burmeister at the helm. The Aztecs’ attack should reflect more of offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinksi’s designs employing multiple formations and position groups. As 2021 progressed, it became clear to the staff that the QBs had trouble reading the defense outside of the base three wide receiver sets. Burmeister’s experience should allow him to see how Arizona is playing no matter the formation SDSU employs.

The anticipation for the hometown heroes’ debut is warranted, but if the Aztecs are to come out with a win on Saturday, they will need to run the football. Burmeister and the deep arsenal around him at the skill positions will only be effective if the offensive line can hold up against the Wildcats’ pass rush. Nothing stops a defense from pressuring the QB better than a strong rushing attack.   

“There’s no doubt, that’s got to be a big part of who we are, running the football,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said on Monday. “I think we got a lot of good backs. I think a guy like Cam Davis. He brings something that’s a little bit different. He’s a year older. Obviously Chance (Bell) and (Jordan) Byrd. I’m excited about what we have.”

Cam Davis rushes behind a pancake block by Dean Abdullah. Credit Rashad Griffin/EVT

This weekend’s contest will be Arizona’s first under new defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen, who came to Tucson from UCLA, where he was the Bruins’ defensive line coach. Known as one of the best recruiters in the country, Saturday will be the first time Nansen has called a game in his career.

He employs a 4-2-5 that sounds very similar to SDSU’s 3-3-5 defense. Both use a hybrid player as their fifth safety. SDSU calls that position “aztec.” UA dubs it “star.” On the defensive front, the Wildcats have a KAT position, which is very similar to the SAM LB the Aztecs utilize. Watching their Spring Game, the KAT even stood up most of the time. Like the 3-3-5, Nansen’s defense is expected to bring a lot of pressure and blitzes.

“They’re physical,” Nansen said on Tuesday when asked for a scouting report on SDSU. “They run the football. Their quarterback, he likes to move out of the pocket. He’s pretty fast. Their skill guys are big-play guys. All around, like I said, they’re well-coached. They take after the personality of their head coach. He’s a d-line guy so you know they’re going to be physical so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The strength of Arizona’s defense is their defensive front led by right end and team captain (6’6, 260) Jalen Harris. Harris is projected to line up against left tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (6’6, 310). The other star on the defensive line is junior (6’3, 310) Kyon Barrs. He plays next to Harris and should present a formidable test for Cade Bennett (6’3, 315), who will be making his first collegiate start.  

They are joined by USC grad transfer (6’5, 250) Hunter Echols, who offers an intriguing contrast to Josh Simmons (6’6, 305), the SDSU player he will be matched up against. Both were four-star recruits and All-Americans coming out of high school. This is Echols’s final chance to live up to his recruiting hype, while Simmons is getting his first opportunity to do so. Arizona’s front is rounded out by UCLA transfer Tiaoalii Savea (6’4, 293). Savea is listed as an OR with Paris Shand (6’5, 290). They will be matched up against redshirt freshman Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli (6’4, 320).

“It’s definitely something we’re looking forward to,” Harris said on Tuesday when asked about facing SDSU. “They do a lot of shifts and motioning so we’ve got to focus on stopping the run first also stopping their quarterback who’s a runner.”

On paper, the battle between Arizona’s defensive line and SDSU’s offensive line is the biggest advantage for the Wildcats. Winning decisively up front is their recipe for an upset. Given SDSU’s RPO offense, which dictates how defenses line up and this strength, Nansen could choose to apply pressure with only his front four. If the Aztecs are able to establish the run, Arizona will not be able to get off the ball as quickly as it would like when SDSU passes the football.

Credit: SDSU

Chance Bell emerges, then, as the key player to an Aztecs’ victory on Saturday. There is a lot on the line for Bell, who returned for a super senior season for a chance to be the lead back. During the offseason, the staff let him know that the job was his if he stepped into it. He responded by remaking his body, adding 15 pounds, focusing in on his ability as a pass catcher, and working tirelessly to reach his NFL dream.

Bell is already an Aztec great. His 1,187 rushing yards ranks 31st in school history. He sits 1,432 yards from entering the top ten on the list and 813 yards from becoming only the 16th player in a century of football to top the 2,000 mark in his career. Last season, Greg Bell received the lion’s share of the carries, averaging 19 a game in the 13 contests in which he played extensively. Chance Bell begins the year expected to have a similar workload but will need to produce in his third career start in order to keep it.    

As the Aztecs break in new starters at four positions on the offensive line, SDSU needs a strong run game to tame the Wildcats.

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