Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 6:05 p.m.
San Diego State University will launch its 81st season of Aztec football on Aug. 30th when the Aztecs host the Eastern Washington Eagles at Qualcomm Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m.
The Aztecs are coming off a 4-9 season that included a 4-3 mark in the Mountain West Conference - good enough for a third-place finish. The Eagles are coming off a 6-5 season that included a 3-4 record in Big Sky Conference play.
San Diego State and Eastern Washington will be meeting for the first time ever. However, San Diego State is 8-0 vs. Big Sky competition. The Aztecs have not faced a member of the Division I-AA conference since defeating Nevada in 1995 when the Wolf Pack were in their final year of membership in the conference. No current member of the Big Sky has been on the Aztec schedule since SDSU journeyed to Montana State in 1968.
Eastern Washington returns 16 starters and 41 lettermen from the 2002 squad that finished fourth in the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles have posted four straight winning seasons, including all three under fourth-year head coach Paul Wulff. Eastern ended the 2002 season with a victory over the nation’s top-ranked Division I-AA team, undefeated Montana, and the Eagles lost just eight seniors from that squad. The Aztecs return 14 starters from last year’s 4-9 team. The Aztecs scored 78 points in the final two games of the season, a win at Air Force and a one-point loss at Hawaii.
San Diego State is 42-36-5 in openers, including a 7-4-1 record in the past 12 years. San Diego State has dropped three straight heartbreakers in its last three openers. San Diego State was a 10-7 loser to Arizona State in 2000, a 23-10 loser to Arizona in 2001 in a home game San Diego State led at the half. Last season it was a 16-14 setback at Fresno State when the Aztecs had a field goal blocked on the game’s final play.
San Diego State could make the case that it is coming off its most successful losing season ever. The Aztecs finished 4-3 in Mountain West play for their best record in conference action since the league was formed in 1999. San Diego State was the nation’s most improved passing team in 2002, jumping from 89th in 2001 to fifth nationally in 2002 with 330 passing yards per game. San Diego State was fourth nationally in total offense improvement in Tom Craft’s first year, making the jump from 98th to 29th nationally.
San Diego State returns proven starters at quarterback (Adam Hall) and at left tackle (Brendan Darby), who were both honorable mention all-conference last season. Another returning starter is center Jasper Harvey, who has moved from guard to the middle of the offensive front. Another lineman, Gerald Sykes, started during the second half of the season and Mike Kracalik was a part-time starter a year ago. Newcomers to the starting lineup will surface at running back (although Michael Franklin has a handful of starts under his belt), tight end and at all three receiver spots.
The Aztec defense figures to be improved from a year ago. The entire two-deep returns at linebacker, including all-league selection and All-America candidate Kirk Mor-rison. A second-team all-league cornerback returns in the form of Jeff Shoate. Two safeties who could both push for all-league honors (Josh Dean and Marviel Under-wood) are also back as returning starters. Defensive end Ryan Iata has been granted a sixth year and returns as a starter at one defensive end and athletic and active Brandon Rager is listed as a starter at the other defensive end slot. SDSU also retains a starter at tackle in Brook Miller. In essence, eight starters are returning with starting jobs open at one corner, one tackle and one defensive end spot entering camp.
Tom Craft’s first two recruiting classes have received rave reviews and the first real impact of those recruiting-battle victories should be seen this season. Ramal Porter, a receiver/kick returner, is a redshirt freshman who has been running with the first team since early in camp. Receiver Devin Pitts and tight end Jeremy Justice could be in the starting lineup and at some point, true freshman running back Lynell Hamilton is likely to make an impact. He ran for 63 yards on eight carries during the Family Day scrimmage on Aug. 16. On the defensive side expect safety Reggie Grigsby and new defensive linemen Derrick Durbin, Jonathan Bailes and Vaati Maka to show up in the rotation.
An interesting storyline during the first few weeks of the season will be the development of the Aztec receiving corps. A year ago, SDSU receivers J.R. Tolver and Kassim Osgood combined to set new NCAA records for receptions by two teammates (236) and receiving yards in a season by two teammates (3,337). Throw in the departure of senior receiver Ronnie Davenport (56 catches for 431 yards) and the numbers get blurry. San Diego State returns just 40 of its 352 receptions from a year ago.
The leading returning Aztec receiver is walkon Robert Ortiz, who enters 2003 with 13 catches for 141 yards. In fact, Ortiz is the only returning Aztec who has caught a touchdown pass in his career (one vs. Idaho in 2002). However, it should be noted that entering last season Kassim Osgood and Ronnie Davenport had never played a down at San Diego State.