Despite each team’s struggles, Chargers surge while Aztecs fade
Each weekend two San Diego football teams grab the attention of football fans throughout the county. The San Diego State Aztecs, coming off a 9-4 season when they won the Poinsettia Bowl, own college football Saturdays while the San Diego Chargers, 4-1 for the first time since 2006, dominate NFL Sundays – assuming the games aren’t blacked out on local television. While San Diego State and the Chargers are two football teams in San Diego County nearly everybody supports, neither team is playing the way fans expect.
Fresh off a bye-week following an ugly loss to Michigan two weeks ago, San Diego State was expected to challenge and possibly beat an unranked TCU team that had just lost to SMU in overtime the week before and had barely beaten the Aztecs a year ago. This year, the Aztecs got the Horned Frogs at home in front of 44,000 fans at Qualcomm Stadium. The last time they took to the field at the Q, they came back in the second half to beat surging Washington State in week 3 in front of one of the largest Aztec home-football crowds ever. Saturday’s matchup against TCU didn’t play out quite the same, resulting in a 27-14 loss.
Coming in to the game, TCU had not done well against spread passing attacks. They lost to Baylor in week one, gave up 17 first-quarter points to Louisiana-Monroe in week 3 and then lost to SMU last week in overtime. Everything was stacked in San Diego State’s favor heading in to the game. Once the game started, however, the Aztecs were their own worst enemy.
Lindley, considered one of the top quarterbacks in the conference along with Boise State’s Kellen Moore, has struggled the past two games to the tone of completing just 38 of 89 passes (42.7 percent) for 454 yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday, he threw three interceptions and was unable to put any points on the board for the Aztecs in the first half as they trailed 17-0 at intermission. It didn’t help that running back Ronnie Hillman, who entered the game as nation’s second-leading rusher with 151.5 yards per game, lost his third fumble in the past two games. Saturday’s fumble came in the second quarter at the goal-line. After starting the second half with three carries for minus-1 yards against the staunch TCU run defense, Hillman was pulled in favor of backup Walter Kazee.
It wasn’t all bad for the Aztecs, who mounted a second-half comeback similar to the comeback against Washington State three weeks ago. Only difference this time around was when the Aztecs needed a defensive stop to get the offense back ion the field, TCU didn’t oblige. The Aztecs looked ready to complete a comeback and take the lead after Lindley connected with fullback Chad Young on a four-yard score. However, on the Aztec’s next possession, Lindley threw his third interception of the game which killed San Diego State’s momentum. Had the Aztecs been able to stop TCU they would have had enough time for another shot at taking the lead. But, shortly after Lindley’s interception, the Horned Frogs salted away the victory when tailback Matthew Tucker scored from five yards out with 5:23 remaining.
“TCU played better than we did,” SDSU head coach Rocky Long said. “In the first half, we prevented ourselves from scoring at least 10 or 17 points by our own mistakes.”
Now, San Diego State has a must-win game this Thursday night against Air Force on the road. Travelling to Colorado Springs is never an easy task for a football program, particularly an Aztec-program desperately seeking it’s fourth win of the season. Another loss Thursday and a once-promising season that had the Aztecs 3-0 prior to playing Michigan two weeks ago, will quickly spiral out of control if the Aztecs are 3-3 and 0-2 in the Mountain West come Friday morning.
While San Diego State was struggling coming off a bye week, the San Diego Chargers were struggling heading in to a bye week. And, although the Chargers have yet to beat a team with a winning record and struggled in their one match-up against a top-notch competitor in the New England Patriots, they head in to their week six bye atop the AFC West with a 4-1 record. Since Norv Turner took over as head coach in 2007, the Chargers have been notoriously slow out of the gate but turned their struggles around in October and through November and December.
The last time the Chargers started a season 4-1 was in 2006. Charger fans surely remember 2006 as the season the team finished 14-2, but then lost to the Patriots in the playoffs after blowing a 24-21 fourth quarter lead. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer was subsequently fired and the Norv Turner era began.
Sunday’s 29-24 victory over the Denver Broncos marked the first time under Norv Turner that the Chargers have had a winning record this early in the season. In 2007, they started 1-3, 2-3 in 2008 and 2009 and 2-5 last year. Each year, however, they still won the AFC West and made the playoffs – until last year, that is. In 2010, the Chargers finished with the best statistical offense and defense in the league, but missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
Though the offense and defense have both struggled through the team’s first five games, winning is winning no matter who you play or how you play. Yesterday, the Chargers struggled to take an early lead and then once they had that lead they struggled to hold onto it. It wasn’t until a last-gasp deep pass in to the endzone from Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow that San Diego fans could breathe easy.
“A lot of things happened in that football game that made it a great game for everyone to watch,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “Our objective coming in here to Denver was to get a win. I’m excited about winning a football game.”
Yes, there were some great things that took place. Second-year running back Ryan Mathews is starting to break out in a big way and yesterday was a huge step forward. Mathews rushed for a career-high 125 yards and finished his sixth consecutive game with at least 100 total yards of offense; the only other 100-yard rushing game of his career came last Jan. 2 at Denver. Malcolm Floyd, who finished with more than 100-yards receiving, hauled in Rivers’ only touchdown pass of the game – a 42-yarder.
San Diego’s other touchdown came in the second quarter when the Chargers were faced with fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line but chose to go for the score instead of settling for a third-straight field goal after moving the ball inside the Broncos 10-yard line. Out of the shotgun, with five receivers spread out along the line of scrimmage, Rivers scored on a scramble up the middle giving the Chargers a 13-10 lead – a lead they would stretch to 26-10 before the Broncos mounted a comeback.
“The name of the game has never changed in this league, and it’s winning,” Rivers said. “There’s no AP votes. There’s no coaches’ poll. It’s just win football games. So far, we’ve done that 80 percent of the time.”
Despite a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead the Chargers victory was not secured until Tebow’s final pass fell incomplete. In fact, it was Tebow’s mere presence in the game that seemed to give Denver a spark. Starting quarterback Kyle Orton, who struggled mightily, was finally pulled for Tebow to a roar of approval from fans who have chanted for Tebow since the season started. Although Tebow didn’t do much to stifle outspoken critics, completing only 4-of-10 passes for 79 yards, he did throw a touchdown pass and rush for a touchdown that brought the Broncos within a score.
Thankfully Charger kicker Nick Novak, replacing the injured Nate Kaeding, converted all five of his field goal attempts Sunday, otherwise the five-point lead would only have been two and the Broncos would only have needed a game-winning field goal instead of a game-winning touchdown.
“If you have the confidence that when it’s the last two minutes, you’re going to get the stop, the first down or make the kick, I think it gives you a chance mentally to go win every game,” Turner said.
Luckily the Charger got both the kick and the final stop.
Photos courtesy thetcumagazine and Jeffrey Beall via Flickr.