SAN DIEGO — Everybody involved recognizes the topsy-turvy trend of San Diego State's football team, but few can figure why it's happening.
The Aztec offense played very well the first four games and not-so-well the last three. The defense didn't play very well the first four games, but has played very well the last three.
For once, the Aztecs would like both units to play well in the same game.
"We had our problems early defensively," said Tim McConnell, defensive coordinator. "We were kind of floating along. Now, the tide has turned. We're making more big plays defensively and slipping offensively. When you don't make big plays, and it doesn't matter whether it's offense or defense, your performance suffers."
In the first four games, SDSU's defense allowed an average of 33.3 points and 397.5 total yards. In the last three games, it has allowed an average of 16.3 points and 297.3 yards.
The offense averaged 29 points and 391 yards in the first four games. But in the last three games, it has averaged 11.7 points and 292 yards.
"It's weird," quarterback Todd Santos said. "I was thinking about that, too, and couldn't come up with an answer."
The offense worked smoothly in the first four games, with the exception of a 45-14 loss to UCLA.
Alfred Jackson caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Santos to beat Cal State Long Beach, 27-24. Kenny Moore's 41-yard reception led to a last-minute touchdown that beat Utah, 37-30. After losing to UCLA, the Aztecs beat New Mexico, 38-34.
So what has happened since then?
Part of the problem has been the loss of Santos, who broke a wrist against New Mexico. He was replaced by Jim Plum in a 17-10 loss against Stanford, but Santos has played the last two weeks.
Even with Santos, the offense has struggled. It made numerous mistakes in a 15-10 victory against Texas El Paso, then was nearly non-existent in last week's 22-10 loss to the Air Force Academy.
"Maybe the quarterback change slowed us down a little," Coach Denny Stolz said. "Plus, we have played against better defensive teams. What the heck, USC only scored 10 points on Stanford. It's not hard to explain those things."
It is difficult to explain the chances SDSU has squandered in the last three weeks.
--In the second half against the Cardinal, the Aztecs got inside Stanford's 30 three times, scoring one touchdown.
--The Aztecs were penalized 13 times for 100 yards against UTEP, and they had a touchdown and field goal nullified by penalties. They were able to score only six points in the first-half though driving to UTEP's 17, 11 and 8.
--Against Air Force, SDSU was unable to score five times when it got inside the Air Force 40.
"Moving the ball and scoring are two different things," Stolz said. "What we'd like to have would be a long touchdown pass or a long touchdown run by (Chris) Hardy. You'd like to have a big play now and then. We've had the potential for big touchdown plays and haven't scored on them. You just can't drive the ball forever."
Against Air Force, Santos overthrew Moore and underthrew Jackson when each receiver had beaten the defense. And Hardy, who had two 92-yard runs for touchdowns last year, slipped on what might have been a breakaway.
"I'm trying to figure it out, too," Hardy said. "When we get inside the 30, things stop clicking for some reason. Every time I look at films, I see where I'm a fraction of an inch from breaking a long run. In the last three games, I've been one man away from breaking 80 or 85-yard runs. I'm just waiting for that one game to come. Maybe that one man will slip or something."
It's evident that the offense has slipped since Santos was injured. Stolz, who said he prefers not to make excuses for Santos, thinks the injury is still on Santos' mind.
"You're somewhat conscious of it, no matter whether you want to be," Stolz said. "There's that certain amount of doubt. But Todd had some people open against Air Force that he certainly should have hit."
Santos said the injury still bothers him at times, but he's getting better every day. He feels restricted by having his wrist taped. Before this week, the tape went to his wrist and between his thumb and index finger. The tape now ends at Santos' wrist, making him feel less restricted.
Santos said the tape may have affected his ability to throw long.
"Plus, we haven't worked on the long ball too much," he said. "The timing has to be there, too."
The defense didn't seem to have its timing down the first four games. The only question each week was whether the opposition would succeed by running or passing.
Against an average New Mexico team, the Aztecs allowed a school-record 690 yards total offense.
"We sort of got embarrassed," said Levi Esene, defensive tackle. "Although we won, we felt like we had lost because of the way they kept marching on us. After that week, we decided to improve."
And so they have.