San Diego State is a football team transformed. It is two bad calls and six points removed from 9-0. How has Brady Hoke's crew accomplished what so many coaching staffs had failed to do?
Its newfound success begins (and perhaps ends) on the ground. SDSU's ypc figures from 2005—Chuck Long's first year—through Brady Hoke's opening season in 2009 steadily declined from 3.9 ypc to a dismal 2.9. Enter a stronger, more competitive offensive line, steady employment of a fullback, and the most exciting new runningback in the Mountain West, and Aztecs' average yards per carry more than doubled, to 4.84 yards per carry. The fullback is senior Brandon Sullivan, and the runningback is true freshman Ronnie Hillman. Together, they certainly have done more to improve the offensive fortunes on the Mesa than any other duo on the team. They may have done more than much of the rest of the team, combined. Running behind Sullivan's blocking, Hillman carries the ball 62% of the team's carries, for 71% of its ground yards.
4.84 yards per carry is good for fourth in the MWC, and even better for SDSU, because it has allowed the passing game to expand. Opponents' respect for SDSU's running game—a new phenomenon—has allowed SDSU to improve the quality of its passing game. The Aztecs get 15.5 yards per completion in 2010, up from 12.9 in 2009, and 10.6 in 2008. That's almost a 50% increase over two years. In the MWC, only Air Force gets more yards per completion, and the Falcons are an outlier in passing statistics.
The Falcons have two NFL-bound senior receivers who haul in more than half of Ryan Lindley's passes. Demarco Sampson and Vincent Brown account for 55% of the team's completions, and fully two-thirds of the team's receiving yards.
Defensively, progress showed in the first year the new staff was installed. Rocky Long's defense in his first year in San Diego improved from 471 yards and 35 points per game to 372 yards and 30 points. The Aztecs have shaved 40 yards and ten points off those figures in the first 10 weeks of 2010, now allowing 336 yards and 20 points to opponents, on average. 2010 is the first year in many that SDSU scores more than it gives up.
These trends—all of them immensely positive for the Aztecs—have not gone unnoticed. SDSU ranks 27th in both polls, and has seen its attendance grow from 47% of its stadium capacity last season to 65% this season. SDSU clinched a winning records with its win over Colorado State last week, but with TCU, Utah, and UNLV as its remaining games, is likely to finish 8-4 before bowl season.
Those words before bowl season are relevant in San Diego for the first time in 1998. SDSU certainly will go to a bowl this year; probably it will stay at home and play Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. Nine wins are within reach.