San Diego State's football team makes a comeback to face Navy in Poinsettia Bowl

By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:16 AM

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego State football program had fallen into such disrepair over the last decade that about its only distinction was being able to claim Marshall Faulk as a former player.

The Aztecs certainly were not linked to victories or even particularly competitive games in those years, with the 2008 season the most dreadful.

At 2-10, San Diego State had sunk to the nadir, and yet another coaching change was imminent. That's when Brady Hoke entered the picture, becoming the team's fourth coach in nine years.

Wrapping up his second full season, Hoke has San Diego State pointed in an entirely different direction. A definitive indictor has been the brisk ticket sales for the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday at Qualcomm Stadium, where the Aztecs (8-4) get essentially a home game against Navy (9-3).

"It goes with discipline and accountability," Hoke said about what measures he implemented to purge the losing culture. "The coaches and both groups of seniors [on offense and defense] have laid a foundation. We're big on respect, accountability and those things. We talk about it. Those are things that are always important to any successful business or anything. That's where we've started from."

The Mountain West Conference coach of the year and his staff also have done one heck of a job extracting the most from the players they inherited and recruiting others who have made an immediate impact, most notably on offense.

It all starts with quarterback Ryan Lindley, who has passed for 3,554 yards this season, the fourth-highest total in San Diego State history. The junior needs 379 yards to set the school mark, and it's not as if that total is wishful thinking. Lindley has three games of at least 400 yards in his career.

Lindley has a pair of dangerous targets in wide receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, both seniors. Brown has 2,945 receiving yards in his career, including five games of at least 100 yards over his last nine. During that span, the first-team all-Mountain West selection has 1,032 yards and nine touchdowns.

Sampson, another first-team all-conference pick, leads the Mountain West in receptions per game (5.4) and has six games with at least 100 yards this year. He has 713 yards and six touchdowns on 38 catches in his last six games.

Throw in running back Ronnie Hillman, and the Aztecs can be downright scary when they have the ball. Hillman was named Mountain West freshman of the year after a season that included 1,304 rushing yards, the second most by a freshman in school history behind Faulk, and 14 touchdowns. A threat to score any time he touches the ball, Hillman has runs of 93 and 75 yards, one game of 200 yards and five with at least 150.

"We scrimmaged the Patriots one time with Tom Brady," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said, perhaps only partially in jest, when asked to which offense San Diego State's compares favorably. "Yeah, Coach [Bill] Belichick brought the Patriots down. Seriously, the quarterback, in my opinion, he's a first-rounder."

The Aztecs rank 11th nationally in passing, 19th in total offense and 20th in scoring. They've had eight games with at least 30 points, and although they've lost two of three, their average points per game over that stretch is 39. San Diego State has outscored its opponents this year by 147 points, a remarkable turnaround considering in 2008 the Aztecs were outscored by 235.

San Diego State is far from simply an offensive juggernaut. The defense ranks 18th in third-down conversion percentage (34.6) and 19th in yards allowed per play (4.8) and has limited two opponents to seven points or fewer, matching the number of times that had happened in the Aztecs' previous 60 games.

"Do we want to win every game there is? There's no question about it," said Hoke, who recently received a contract extension through 2015.

"Winning national titles and that kind of stuff? In the back of your mind, that's there. It's how you develop 115 kids, and how you're there for them. You're a father, a mother, a grandfather. You're everything in a lot of cases. That's why you coach. I like the game, but that's not why I coach. I coach because of those kids."

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