Notebook: SDSU football’s play-calling paradox and dominant defense

by Patrick Carr, Sports Editor

Coming into Satuday’s San Diego State football game against Fresno State, there was some focus on play calling. It wasn’t to the degree of last year, when Bob Toledo confused half the state of Texas with his illogical play calling.

Much of this year’s talk was centered around offensive coordinator Jeff Horton’s reliance on junior running back Donnel Pumphrey, despite having three capable running backs backing up Pumphrey.

The prevailing thought: Pumphrey’s going to get hurt.

He did.

Pumphrey limped off the field in the third quater with an apparent left ankle injury. He stayed on the sideline for several minutes while being guarded by a circle of teammates and team trainers before he walked gingerly to the locker room.

X-rays were negative on his left ankle. He has a high ankle sprain and could be out as much as four weeks.

“Hopefully it’s not more than a couple weeks,” head coach Rocky Long said. “It’s good news because when you see him limp off the field you have no idea what it is or how severe it is, he’ll recover naturally from an ankle sprain.”

Pumphrey had 23 carries for 124 yards and a touchdown before he left. He was used predominantly throughout the game, despite the stable of running backs SDSU possesses.

Senior running back Chase Price stepped in well for Pumphrey, running 27 times for 151 yards. Sophomore running back Rashaad Penny once again had an explosive game despite a small number of touches. He had two catches for 48 yards and a touchdown along with one rush for 17 yards.

Pumphrey returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter wearing street clothes with a boot on his left ankle, but Price shouldered the load in the second half, running straight at — and sometimes through — the defense.

Pumphrey’s workload has been high for a 5-foot-9, 170-pound running back. Against University of South Alabama two weeks ago, he had 28 carries while not one other running back had more than four. Most of those runs were up the middle, right into the teeth of the defense.

Play-action pass works wonders

On the other hand, Horton’s strategy of “Let’s run, baby!” seemed to do nothing for the play action pass initially.

SDSU started the game with 17 straight runs. Horton called a pass play after 15 straight runs, but the incomplete pass from graduate transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith was ruled off because of a penalty on Fresno State.

It was also by design, although maybe not the exact number of runs.

“That first drive was something much better than I anticipated it was going to be,” Long said. “That was pre-planned. Every play was going to be a running play…then taking it down and scoring I didn’t anticipate that to be honest with you. That was just an added bonus.”

Smith was sacked the next play while attempting a play-action. He then threw and completed his first pass two plays later on a six-yard throw to sophomore wideout Mikah Holder.

Later in the game, Smith made the Bulldogs’ defense bite on a 33-yard touchdown pass to an in-stride Penny.

“(The run heavy offense) definitely helps, and they bit hard on that one, and we were just waiting to run it and Penny was wide open,” Smith said. “Those are some of the toughest throws as quarterbacks because you see them wide open and you kind of want to aim it a little bit, but you’ve just got to let it go.”

In the fourth quarter, Smith delivered another dime, this one to junior wide receiver Eric Judge in stride for a 44-yard score to give the Aztecs a 21-7 lead.

Defense comes up huge

Lost in the attention given to Pumphrey’s injury was the SDSU defense’s dominant performance. It held the Bulldogs’ offense to just 89 yards and zero third-down conversions. They managed just 12 yards rushing on 22 runs.

Fresno State averaged just more than 0.5 yards per rush — 22 rushes for 12 yards as a team — while also punting 10 times. Sophomore quarterback Zach Greenlee, returning after serving a one-game suspension last week, threw for just 77 yards on 25 attempts (12 completions).

The Bulldogs were under pressure all night long, which took a lot of pressure of an Aztec defense that was plagued by long stretches on the field in its last three games.

“When the defensive line give their all, it makes the whole defense better, gives the linebackers holes to fill and the defensive backs easier coverage,” senior linebacker Jake Fely said.

Next up is the University of Hawaii on the road in Honolulu. The Rainbow Warriors lost 55-0 against Boise State on Saturday.

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