Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 2 opponent: the San Diego State Aztecs.
It’s safe to call last year’s San Diego State team something of an aberration. The Aztecs had won at least ten games a season in the three previous seasons. Even last year had the Aztecs on the path to getting to ten wins as they raced out to 7-2 and had an end-of-season schedule that had them favored in three of their final four games. But San Diego State collapsed—and collapsed hard—losing two games at home to bad UNLV and Hawai’i teams, then putting up a stinker in the Frisco Bowl against Ohio.
Interestingly enough, it was the defense of San Diego State that collapsed down the stretch. SDSU’s offense put up their usual level of production, although their ground game wasn’t nearly as strong as it had been early in the season, but the defense started giving up more and more yards per play and at a higher success rate, which is a recipe for disaster. Considering Aztecs head coach Rocky Long makes his bones on defense, this was surprising to say the least.
Still, before the collapse this team was impressive. They beat Arizona State at home, went on the road to beat MWC Mountain division champion Boise State, and were grinding out wins both at home and on the road. UCLA is literally switching out Fresno State with its 2019 version.
Aztec quarterback Ryan Agnew was....fine. He didn’t light the world on fire and found some successes on third and short, but he only broke 250 yards passing once in a game and he hovered around a 50 in adjusted QBR in games that he was the primary quarterback. I’m not sure if Agnew has a higher ceiling than what he’s shown, though he should theoretically benefit from being the obvious top choice running the offense going forward.
But Agnew is going to need to be better, if only to help out SDSU’s rushing attack. As usual, the run game for the Aztecs is their bread and butter and it’s what the focus will be again in 2019. Juwan Washington led the team with 999 yards, all the more impressive considering he missed time due to various injuries, and he’s being supported by a wide array of tailbacks that all gained some level of experience last year, which should help keep his workload down a bit. Still, the Aztec running game was almost the definition of boom or bust and their ranking of 92nd in rushing offense S&P+ was the lowest it has been since 2013. Maybe a healthier year of Washington helps this group out, but they need to be better at gaining yards at an efficient clip.
The Aztec receiving corps should be fine. They don’t get targeted a lot, but Tim Wilson Jr. turned into something of a big play receiver and efforts to get teams out of the box could include a higher workload for tight end Parker Houston. The Aztec offensive line also has a host of experience despite losing a few starters. So, they should be fine on that end also.
If UCLA is going to take the next step and prove that their offense is legit, the San Diego State defense is going to be an important early test. The Aztec defense ranked 24th in Defensive S&P+ with the rush defense ranking an impressive 9th. The good news for the Bruins is that they should outsize the Aztecs—the Aztecs in general cash in on speed over size—and should outexperience them on the line. Linebacker Kyahva Tezino, the team leader in sacks and tackles for loss, returns, but the defensive line loses four of their top five tacklers from last season.
If the Bruins can’t attack a revamped defensive front with any success, they might be able to find success in the passing game. San Diego State struggled to generate any sort of QB pressure outside of Tezino and, in general, the defense gave up way too many passes that allowed teams to stay on the field. Combined with an inefficient offense, and it’s no small wonder that the Aztec defense collapsed late. CB Darren Hall does return and his five passes defended should help turn him into a solid piece in the secondary, but there are vulnerabilities that, hopefully, Chip Kelly and Dorian Thompson-Robinson can exploit.
I’m trying to be more realistic about UCLA in 2019. So, let’s first take into account that San Diego State is a good program with a whole lot of institutional momentum. Despite that collapse, this is still a team that beat Arizona State last year and beat Stanford two years ago. Bill Connelly gives UCLA a 52% win probability in this game, the best of any non-conference game on the slate, but I’m not sure how much the home field advantage bump will really matter considering San Diego State is not as far away from the Rose Bowl as, say, Oklahoma. SDSU’s offensive strength lines up perfectly with UCLA’s defensive weakness, and their defensive strength matches up well with what UCLA will want to do on offense.
All that said, a successful UCLA season, almost by definition, has to include a win here and last year’s debacle gave Chip Kelly very little wiggle room on having a successful season. So, I think UCLA will be extra-motivated in this game.
UCLA wins, 31-17.