Friday, September 23, 2011

How Good is San Diego State?

When Brady Hoke left San Diego State in January for his dream job at Michigan, Rocky Long received an offer to come with him. There was already wide speculation that San Diego State's athletic director Jim Sterk would attempt to make Long the replacement head coach of the Aztecs, since Long already possessed experience as a head coach. However, it wasn't certain if Long wanted to be a head coach again. He had achieved moderate success at his alma mater, New Mexico, before eventually stepping down and taking a defensive coordinator position at San Diego State under Hoke.

Hoke wanted Long to know he had the option of coming to Michigan if he wasn't interested in being a head coach. "He called me," Long said. "He knew that Jim Sterk was going to offer me this job. He called me and said, 'Well, what are you going to do?' and I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'Well, you can come to Michigan if you want.' Now, I don't know if that was being offered a job or not. I don't know if it was going to be the same job there or not the same job, but he did say I could come to Michigan if I wanted to."

It was an intriguing offer, to be sure, but Long couldn't help but think of the program that he and Hoke had worked so hard to establish. He didn't want the Aztecs to start over. Did he consider the Michigan job? Yes. Did being a head coach again have anything to do with Long's decision to stay? "No, I think that was the least of my motivation," he said. "The biggest part of my motivation was that we had kids here who had made tremendous progress from where they had started and I hated to see them start over again."

Rocky Long was instrumental in helping Brady Hoke build the Aztecs' program. Before Hoke and Long arrived, San Diego State was ranked 113th in yards allowed and points allowed. By 2010 (Hoke's second year), the Aztecs were ranked 43rd in yards allowed and 36th in points allowed. They came within five points of beating a TCU team that would go on to whip Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, and after a good 8-4 season, San Diego State faced Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl and won. It was the Aztecs' first bowl victory in 41 years. Hoke took a team that hadn't been to a bowl game since 1998 and put them on the map.

There's no lack of appreciation for what Brady Hoke did for San Diego State. "Hoke's legacy, albeit a short one, is that he brought a sense of toughness to a program that always had good athletes but constantly seemed to underachieve," said Kevin Gemmell for the San Diego Union Tribune.

Hoke's departure for Michigan hardly came as a surprise to anyone in San Diego. When players learned that Michigan had fired Rich Rodriguez, there was a strong sense that Hoke might receive the job offer. As further evidence of this, Hoke had said when he first took the head coaching position at San Diego State that Michigan was his dream job. So, the Aztecs understood why he left but were still sad to see him go.

When Aztec quarterback Ryan Lindley was asked about Hoke's departure immediately after the fact, Lindley said, "You know, you're upset, and it's something that this whole process since last week, since hearing about them firing their coach, you're kind of crossing your fingers, hoping it doesn't go down that way, but you knew it was a possibility. So, I mean, we were all kind of braced for that, and I think with what's gone on in the last twenty-four hours, with Coach Long coming in and Mr. Sterk just acting as quickly as possible, it's been a great situation—considering."

Since most of the players were on break during the hire, Hoke never got the chance to say goodbye to them in person. He was forced to send text messages. "You never do it the right way," Hoke said in a recent press conference. "They were on fall break, so no one was there, only the guys in San Diego. You send a text because you couldn't get them all together. There was a time element and everything, obviously. We had a full team meeting when I left Ball State, my alma mater, that was hard to leave and hard to leave those kids. So we were fortunate to be able to do that. We couldn't do it out there [in San Diego]."

Coaching transitions are rarely smooth, and few would say that losing a successful coach is a "good situation." However, it seems like everything worked out as well as possible for both Michigan and San Diego State. The fact that Rocky Long stayed allowed the Aztecs to maintain a good sense of continuity, which allowed them to continue the momentum that Hoke established. Brady Hoke might not have been able to bring Long with him as defensive coordinator, but it allowed him to hire Greg Mattison. Hoke went to work trying to bring back Michigan to what it used to be, and Long kept up what Hoke started in San Diego. And as much as the Aztecs appreciate what Hoke did for them, they appreciate Rocky Long's decision even more. He stayed when he just as easily could have gone. The results are that both teams had successful starts to their respective seasons and each is entering the contest at 3-0.

In a game that is likely going to run high with emotion for both sides, San Diego State will face Michigan tomorrow in the Big House. It may prove to be the Wolverines' toughest non-conference game of the season. The Aztecs are coming off an exciting comeback win over Washington State, who recently dominated their opponents offensively despite struggling to put together winning seasons in 2009 and 2010. San Diego State's game against Michigan will be even bigger, in front of 110,000 fans on a stage that many of them have never played before. Will beating Hoke be a factor? The Aztecs say they're more focused on Michigan's players than the coaches.

They might be nervous if they didn't have enough weapons to give the developing Michigan defense headaches. San Diego State's running back, Ronnie Hillman, was a Freshman All-American in 2010 and put up 1,532 total yards and 17 total touchdowns last year. (The Wolverines, on the other hand, haven't had a running back break 1,000 yards in a season since Mike Hart.) Hillman has also been in early Heisman talks.

Meanwhile, San Diego State's quarterback Ryan Lindley has developed into a prototypical pro-style passer under the tutelage of Al Borges (now Michigan's offensive coordinator), and Lindley put up 3,830 total yards and 28 total touchdowns in 2010. He had continued to be effective so far this year and will likely be a fourth or fifth round NFL draft pick. The Aztecs lost their excellent receivers to graduation, but Rocky Long fixed the gap at wide receiver by bringing over Colin Lockett from cornerback, and he has been getting a lot of receptions—enough to where some consider him Lindley's new favorite target.

The Aztec defense, like Michigan's, is a work in progress. Michigan has switched back to 4-3 defensive scheme under Greg Mattison, since the Wolverines could never seem to be effective under the 3-3-5 that Rich Rodriguez insisted then-coordinator Greg Robinson (who had sparse knowledge of the 3-3-5) coach. However, at San Diego State, Rocky Long is the master of the 3-3-5, since he practically invented it. "What Rocky Long has done—and I've been lucky, I've coached with Rocky twice at UCLA and San Diego State, and against him when I was at Oregon, I've seen both sides of him—he's taken a 3-3 concept and created a lot of looks from the 3-3 that makes it hardly recognizable as a 3-3," said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges. "What seems to be very helter-skelter is not at all. It's a very disciplined style: every guy's in a gap, everyone has a responsibility, coverage is sound, but it's not what you see every week, and that requires a little more preparation. It's almost like facing a wishbone team when you've never seen a wishbone team."

When Brady Hoke was coach of the Aztecs, he allowed Long to run the scheme that Long knew best, and that happened to be the 3-3-5. Hoke has done the same with Mattison and the 4-3. Instead of micromanage, the effect that Hoke brings to his defenses—since Hoke considers himself a defensive-minded coach—is a foundation of fundamentals and technique combined with a strong aspect of physical and mental toughness. This effect, at least early on, appears to be palpable, and it's largely the reason Hoke was successful in rebuilding the program and eventually was offered the Michigan job.

What made Aztec fans so pleased with Rocky Long was that he said he wasn't going to change anything that Hoke cemented. That sense of toughness was going to continue on both sides of the ball. Long also doesn't micromanage his coordinators either. When asked about the differences and difficulties in being a coordinator versus being a head coach, Long answered, "I think there's real problems if you don't trust the guys on the other side of the ball. I think a head coach that is a micromanager cannot do it and if he tries to do it, he's ruining his football team." Long went on to say that what he shares with his coordinators (like Hoke did with him) is a philosophy, a vision of what they'd like to see the team become. While Long serves as his own defensive coordinator, he brought in Andy Ludwig from Cal-Berkeley to be San Diego State's offensive coordinator. (Ludwig runs the same pro-style offense that Borges essentially did, and this continuity has made Aztec fans very happy, and it's one of the main reasons they have started out 3-0.) Long said that Ludwig is in "complete control" over the offense during games, but that their philosophical similarities allow for that coaching trust.

If Michigan fans aren't worried about losing to San Diego State, then they should be. Despite my continued efforts to remind the Michigan faithful that the Aztecs are not to be underestimated, there are still some people who think that Michigan will win simply because we have Denard. However, my point stands: this will not be an easy game. The Aztecs have more than enough motivation to eek out a win on what seems to be an unsuspecting Michigan home crowd, and Rocky Long's strategy ("It doesn't matter what conference you're in; we can play anyone, anywhere, anytime") has allowed them to snap losing streaks against BCS teams. Michigan does have an advantage over San Diego State, if only because Brady Hoke and Al Borges are incredibly familiar with the Aztec personnel and what they like to run. However, the Aztecs' recent trend means that an upset is more than possible.

Thankfully, Michigan's coaches and players aren't overlooking their opponents. Brady Hoke even tried to get the game "un-scheduled" when he first arrived in Ann Arbor. He had been a part of scheduling the game when he was back in San Diego because he thought his Aztec team would be good enough to play Michigan. Now, he's on the other side, and it's starting to feel a little awkward. However, both Hoke and Long have said that "there's no animosity" between them.

The two opposing defenses will have a difficult time containing each other's offenses. Michigan's run defense will struggle against Ronnie Hillman, who constantly seems to make players miss, and San Diego State will have the unenviable task of containing Denard Robinson. Ryan Lindley is also a far more developed passer who will be the best test to Michigan's secondary that they will face before heading into the Big Ten and against such teams as Northwestern and Michigan State, who each rely on heavy passing games.

The good news for both teams is that a loss does not affect either's conference standing. Both Michigan and San Diego State, while they admittedly would be satisfied with a win, have winning their conference as a far greater priority. Moreover, and I've stressed this before, a loss should not be humiliating for either team. Michigan fans should be pleased with how much Hoke has developed the Aztecs and, regardless of how the game ends, what it means for Hoke's new team. Meanwhile, for San Diego State, any result could spark momentum when they return to Qualcomm Stadium for their bout against TCU: a win and they'll want to continue the momentum, a loss and they'll want to get it back.

Both teams should also be pleased with their head coaches. Even if the Aztecs don't defeat Hoke's Wolverines, San Diego State's fans should still be happy to have Rocky Long, who considers himself blessed to have a second chance to be a head coach and who has done a fantastic job with the start of the 2011 season. The Aztecs haven't been 3-0 since 1981, and a lot of that is thanks to what Long has done to keep the consistency of Hoke's foundation. When he was re-introduced as San Diego State's head coach, Long was gracious and thankful for the fans' immediate support.

"I'd like you all to know how excited I am and how proud I am to be a part of the Aztec nation," he said. "And I promise you one thing: we will do everything we can, we will work our butts off to make sure we have a winning football team here that goes to bowl games."

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