SAN DIEGO — The San Diego State football team has not budged from its first-place standing in the Western Athletic Conference this season, but it wasn't until last week that the Aztecs began thinking like conference leaders.
Aztec Coach Denny Stolz said practice last week for the game against the University of Hawaii was the team's best this season.
"The most encouraging thing is the difference in their competitiveness from the beginning of the year," Stolz said Sunday. "That doesn't mean just in the ballgames. Last week was the first week of practice at San Diego State that the kids started getting ready emotionally during the week."
The new line of thinking paid off Saturday night when the Aztecs trounced visiting Hawaii, 35-5. SDSU must beat Brigham Young University next Saturday to win its first WAC championship and clinch a Holiday Bowl berth.
The hype before the Hawaii game was centered on the rugged style of football played by the Rainbow Warriors, especially defensive tackle Al Noga, the "Samoan Sack Man." But the Aztecs bullied Hawaii and all but quieted Noga, who was limited to three tackles and one sack. Before the game, Noga was averaging eight tackles and 1.8 sacks a game.
"That was the hype (Hawaii's toughness), but our kids said, 'Hey, we hit, too,' and it's about time they get some credit for that," Stolz said. "To watch them come together physically--which San Diego State does not have a very good reputation for--was satisfying. San Diego State has a reputation for skill people and throwing the ball."
SDSU did display its offensive skill, rolling up 28 points in the first quarter. Running back Chris Hardy ran 66 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening play. Before the end of the first period, Hardy scored on runs of four yards and one yard.
The Aztec celebration was soured when tight end Robert Awalt was taken off the field on a stretcher midway through the first quarter after he sprained his left ankle. The seriousness of Awalt's injury was not known Sunday, and will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis, said John Rosenthal, SDSU sports information director.
Awalt was replaced by Kerry Reed-Martin, who softened the loss of Awalt. Reed-Martin wrapped up the first-period scoring for the Aztecs with his five-yard reception from quarterback Todd Santos.
"Kerry Reed-Martin has been a good player for us all year," Stolz said. "He would probably have played a lot more, except Awalt's in a class by himself in this country, not just in our league.
"It's awfully hard to take a No. 1-type kid (Awalt) out of there when he is such a dominating No. 1 kid. But Kerry has gone in and played well whenever we have asked him and he certainly played well Saturday night."
With Reed-Martin in the lineup, Stolz didn't alter his strategy.
"I don't change the game plan," he said. "We absolutely refuse to do that. I can't keep track of all that. What I put down in the game plan during the week, we are going to run."
The large Aztec lead throughout the game enabled Stolz to play 62 of his 77 available players, the most brought into action in one game this season. The added experience throughout the team should aid the Aztecs next Saturday against BYU, Stolz said.
"I think (Tim McConnell, Aztec defensive coordinator) was using No. 2 kids late in the second quarter and the third quarter, and that will all come back to help our football team," Stolz said. "After we got beat pretty soundly by UCLA, I said that ballgame will help us, it will make us a better team because we played a lot of kids against them.
"When we have had injuries we have been able to plug the dike a little bit and that's because we have played a lot of players."
Aztec Notes: Fullback Corey Gilmore had seven receptions, to become the team's leading receiver with 44 for 297 yards. "We have made (Gilmore) an offensive threat with Hardy still being the tailback," Stolz said. "That is hard to do. That's the balance that we are very proud of, that's why we move the ball around to a lot of different receivers."