Put the pigskin in Pumphrey’s palms

by Ethan Bailey, Senior Staff Columnist

Remember when the San Diego State Aztecs football team banked on its explosive backfield to win the game against University of Nevada, Las Vegas last week?

Despite playing with a true freshman quarterback on the road, offensive coordinator Bob Toledo didn’t show the same commitment against the California State University, Fresno Bulldogs on Saturday—and it cost the team the game.

With more than six minutes left in the fourth quarter and down 17-13, the Aztec offense had a chance to take its time and try to score a touchdown with little time left for Fresno State.

The drive started out nicely, as freshman quarterback Nick Bawden completed a couple of passes to convert on back-to-back third downs. The Aztecs started at their own 37-yard line and drove 29 yards in five plays, burning almost two minutes off the clock. At this point, SDSU was nearing field goal range. Unfortunately, Bawden’s next pass was intercepted after the ball tipped off the hands of his wide receiver.

I know it’s easy to be frustrated with freshmen ¬— especially when they’re the signal caller of the football team — but this wasn’t Bawden’s or his receiver’s fault. This turnover began with Toledo’s play call.

The Aztec offense uses a heavy amount of play-action passes to capitalize on the success of its running backs and catch defenses off guard. It’s a great strategy, but not when you’ve thrown the ball multiple times in a row with success. The right-rolling, play-action pass didn’t fool a single Bulldog defender and they were ready to pounce on Bawden’s throw.

Down one score with less than five minutes left in the game and all three timeouts, there was no need to force the passing game. The Aztecs had rushed for nearly 200 yards at this point, compared to Bawden’s 84 passing yards, so why not pound the ball forward the way you had the entire game?

Even SDSU junior fullback Dakota Gordon rushed for more than 40 yards, averaging seven yards per carry.

Fresno State couldn’t stop any of the Aztec rushers all night long, yet there was no sight of them in a potentially game-winning situation.

The Aztec defense held up its end of the bargain, stopping the Bulldogs and giving the offense another chance from its own 14-yard line with 4:23 left in the game.

The next offensive play was a screen pass that resulted in another interception.

Again we have to look at the play call and wonder why a screen pass to the short side of the field was the decision here. Screen passes work best when defenses are in attack mode — the pass rushers get behind the line of scrimmage and then the quarterback dumps the ball off to the running back, who burns the defense for a big gain.

With about four minutes left and the Aztec offense backed up near its own end zone, it’s hard to imagine the Fresno State defense would’ve taken a balls-to-the-wall approach because they had to ensure the deep pass was covered.

The whole thing is especially frustrating because it was a well-called game by Toledo up to these points. Bawden was having trouble moving the offense in his first collegiate start so sophomore running back Donnel Pumphrey and the rest of the Aztec backfield was able to put the team in multiple scoring positions throughout the game. But it’s not about how you start; it’s about how you finish. If this team wants to go anywhere this season, it has to learn how to finish games and it has to learn in a hurry.

The bottom line is that the offensive play calling at the end of games? It has to get smarter or the Aztecs’ season will be over before we know it.