Aztec football ‘excited’ to face tough Penn State at Beaver Stadium

by Anthony Reclusado, Senior Staff Writer

One thing’s for certain about San Diego State football heading into its matchup at Penn State on Saturday: The Aztecs are thrilled.

“We have an exciting week this week,” head coach Rocky Long said. “I think our team is excited about going to a place that we’ve never been. I am excited about going to a place I have never been.”

Most coaches wouldn’t use the same rhetoric as Long if they were the ones headed to Beaver Stadium. It seats 106,572 crazed fans and it’s where the Nittany Lions boast a 267-71 all-time record.

Regardless of his enthusiasm, Long hasn’t lost sight of the challenges Penn State presents.

“They got a couple of first-round draft choices on defense,” Long said. “They got a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. They got really good receivers and really good running backs.”

Since opening the season and failing miserably in implementing a spread offense, Penn State returned to a traditional pro-style offense and has terrorized its opposition since.

On the shoulders of an explosive running back duo – redshirt-junior Akeel Lynch and freshman Saquon Barkley – the Nittany Lions have rushed the ball 80 times for 530 yards and six touchdowns in their last two games.

Penn State’s offensive coordinator John Donovan has even thrown in a few wide-receiver-designed runs for good measure, as freshman wideout Brandon Polk has already eclipsed the 100-yard mark and scored a touchdown on the ground.

The Aztecs (1-2, 0-0 Mountain West) have seen a dip in their rushing defense in their last two games, allowing over 400 yards on the ground, including 241 yards to University of South Alabama.

But with senior linebacker Jake Fely returning after missing last week’s game, SDSU should have a better chance to stop an offense that’s on the upswing.

“We have not been tested in this kind of running game yet,” Long said. “They don’t really care how many guys you put into the box, so we are going to put a bunch of them in there and see if we are good enough to hang in there and keep the game close.”

Even with the added attention to their rush defense this week, SDSU isn’t overlooking the Nittany Lions’ signal caller, junior Christian Hackenberg, whose play has not yet resembled a Heisman candidate.

Through three games, Hackenberg has completed only 49.3 percent of his passes for 372 yards and one touchdown to two interceptions.

“(Hackenberg) is not as good as (UC Berkeley junior quarterback Jared) Goff, but he is similar,” junior safety Malik Smith said. “He’s not playing very good right now, but we know he can strike at any given moment.”

Last week SDSU’s offense, especially junior running back Donnel Pumphrey, was supposed to find its rhythm against a middle-of-the-pack defense in South Alabama. That didn’t happen, and it’ll be an uphill battle in Happy Valley if that trend continues.

The offensive line, which has struggled in both the rushing and passing game, will have the biggest task on Saturday as they try to temper a Nittany Lions front seven that lives in opposing teams’ backfields.

Penn State currently has 31 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, led by the efforts of senior defensive end Carl Nassib who has tallied seven tackles for loss and five sacks.

The Nittany Lions’ defense also has a knack to get off the field, as they have forced 16 three-and-outs on 39 drives this season.

On the other hand, the Aztecs’ offense has been forced to 12 three-and-outs on 41 possessions this season — a poor mark fueled by the running game’s 3.9 yards per rush and the passing game’s 5.8 yards per pass attempt.

But with Penn State’s iron curtain of a rushing defense — No. 12 in the country — the best hope for success for SDSU’s offense lies on graduate transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith’s arm, who has yet to prove he’s the answer behind center.