Three thoughts after San Diego State’s 16-13 win over San Jose State on Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium:
1. Open audition at running back
The running back position has been deep for nearly a decade now at SDSU. So deep, in fact, that guys like D.J. Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny, who had 2,000-yard seasons in their future, had to wait their turn to run with the football.
With that in mind, imagine what it was like watching four different running backs get carries against San Jose State in what amounted to a midseason audition. And, get this, the one who ran for the most yards had never carried before in a college game.
This is what it has come to at Running Back U.
Everything was normal coming into the season. Junior Juwan Washington succeeded Penny as the feature back, and Washington was third in the nation in rushing early in the season. Then he fractured his clavicle against Eastern Michigan in Week 4, an injury expected to sideline him for six weeks.
“The running back situation is one where we’re looking for a starting running back because Juwan won’t be back probably for another couple of weeks,” Long said. “I don’t necessarily see us having a starting running back. There’s no one that outdistanced himself from any of the others.
“So what you do then is you kind of share the carries and hope one of them gets hot during the game, and tonight, I thought Chance Bell, he did some really nice things when he was in there.”
Bell, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound redshirt freshman from Burbank, had his first carry of the game — and his career — late in the first quarter. He rushed 14 more times against the Spartans and finished with a game-high 81 yards (5.4 yards per carry).
Sophomore Chase Jasmin, who rushed 19 times for 79 yards against San Jose State, had replaced Washington in the starting lineup and acquitted himself well — averaging more than 100 yards in wins over Arizona State and Eastern Michigan — or so it seemed.
Jasmin was in concussion protocol following the team’s win over Air Force. He was cleared to play against San Jose State, although third-string running back Kaegun Williams, another redshirt freshman who got most of the practice reps last week, played the first two series against the Spartans.
Williams carried five times for 22 yards in the game. True freshman Jordan Byrd, who burst on the scene two weeks ago with a 72-yard touchdown run against Boise State, also carried five times, collecting nine yards.
It turns out Jasmin has not convinced the coaches he should be getting all the carries until Washington returns.
Against San Jose State, SDSU rushed for 207 yards (requiring 47 carries to do it), just the second time this season the Aztecs rushed for more than 200 yards. By comparison, they averaged 241 yards a game over the previous four seasons.
“Chance Bell stepped up and showed he deserves more playing time,” SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Horton said. “We’ve got to be creative with Jordan and what we try to do with him. Kaegun and Chase are the normal down-and-distance backs, guys you can count on play in and play out.”
Horton said it could be rushing by committee again this weekend at Nevada.
“It benefits (the offense),” Horton said. “It gives guys more of an opportunity to do something and like I tell them, ‘Hey, if you’re showing me you’re making some plays, I’ll be the first guy to leave you in there. Hopefully, it creates competition that those guys will feed off of and try to make some big plays for us.”
2. Offensive struggles
With but 16 points produced against San Jose State, SDSU’s scoring average on the season dropped to 20.7 points a game. That ranks 120th in the nation among FBS schools. Only nine schools have been worse.
It is the lowest average for the Aztecs since the 2008, when the Aztecs averaged 19.3 points in Chuck Long’s final season as head coach. SDSU has never produced eye-popping offense. Only the 2010 team (20th with 35.0 ppg) and 2016 team (29th with 35.2 ppg) have ranked higher than 45th over the past two decades.
No one expected SDSU to scrape for points so badly that place-kicker John Baron II leads the team in scoring and is on pace to break his school record for field goals (21) he set two years ago.
Then again, no one expected the team to lose its starting quarterback, tailback and fullback for half the season with injuries, one of its offensive linemen for the season and its center for a couple of games.
“We’ve had to mix and match a little bit, but that’s football,” Horton said. “You can’t make any excuses. Whoever’s in there, we have to do a great job of coaching them and do a better job of giving our guys a good game plan.”
Perhaps most concerning is that the offensive line, a veteran group now that seemed to find its footing late last season, hasn’t taken another step forward.
“That unit has, hopefully, settled in with the right people at the right positions and will get better,” Horton said. “(Against San Jose State) even though at times it didn’t look like it, we ran the ball much better than we have in the previous weeks over the last two or three games.
“What little ray of sunshine there was, that was a little bit, anyway.”
3. The raised bar of expectations
It’s been said that there’s no such thing as an ugly win, a belief the Aztecs certainly tested against winless San Jose State.
It says something about this program that fans now are not only expecting victories on a weekly basis but giving style points following games.
SDSU’s win over the Spartans — the Aztecs’ sixth straight victory, despite several up and down performances — made the Aztecs bowl eligible for the school-record ninth straight season. At this point, only Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Stanford can make a similar claim.
It is expected in those places. And here now as well. Amazingly, SDSU had not been to a bowl game since 1998 before the current run.
“That’s nice that we are bowl eligible,” Long said. “But you can ask all our fans and everybody — not everybody but the majority of people here watching and the people that were watching on TV — if we’re not bowl eligible, they are upset.
‘Our program has gotten to the point right now that if we don’t win, or don’t go to bowl games, everybody’s mad and wondering what’s wrong.”