SAN DIEGO — After their most bitter and controversial loss of the season, a 25-20 defeat at Oregon Saturday, it was hard for the San Diego State players and coaches to find consolation. But if the team left Eugene with one good feeling, it was that the defense played its best game so far.
"I saw fire in the eyes, people getting after it," said Mike Hooper, a senior defensive lineman. "I'm very proud of the way the defense played."
The Aztecs acquitted themselves much better in this defeat than they did in their losses to UCLA (47-14) and Air Force (49-7). They held the Ducks in check for most of the game until a 96-yard touchdown drive that gave Oregon the lead for good with 1:41 to play. The Aztecs had a chance to win the game, but their drive stalled after a controversial call in which quarterback Todd Santos was penalized for intentionally throwing the ball out of bounds.
The Aztec defense held up despite playing without its two regular cornerbacks--Mario Mitchell (knee) and Clarence Nunn (shoulder)--and with only limited participation from two other starters. Rob Graff, a defensive tackle, started but was not at his best because of the flu, and Chuck Nixon, the starting outside linebacker, played almost exclusively on special teams because of a thigh bruise.
Five Aztecs made their first college starts on defense, including Lee Brannon, who started at defensive end and tight end. Others making their first starts were John Wesselman at outside linebacker, Morey Paul at inside linebacker and Clark Moses and Jeryl Williams at cornerback. Paul, a graduate of Oceanside High School, was the first true freshman to start for SDSU since Nunn in 1983.
The defense, which had allowed an average of 536.3 total yards and 43.3 points per game in its first three games, held Oregon to 359 yards and 25 points.
"San Diego State did a good job putting a pass rush on us, the best we've seen this year," said Rich Brooks, Oregon coach. "They did a lot of different things. They brought a lot pressure, and we didn't do a good job of picking it up."
Key defensive players may be missing again this Saturday in a Western Athletic Conference game at Wyoming. Mitchell and Nunn are questionable, Nixon might not be ready to start and Hooper has a sore left knee.
"The defense is finally coming together," said Harold Hicks, the senior strong safety who played despite a deep thigh bruise. "I was hoping and praying for a win, but we wanted to walk out of this stadium with more defensive team unity, more team unity, period, and we got it."
Santos needs 461 yards passing to move past Mark Herrmann of Purdue and into sole possession of eighth place on the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division I-A career passing list.
Santos has 8,728 yards and needs to average 236.9 yards in the Aztecs' last eight games to pass all-time leader Kevin Sweeney (10,623), formerly of Fresno State. Santos is averaging 308.8 yards per game and is on pace to exceed 11,000 yards.
Wyoming had only one serious injury to report from its 34-17 victory over Iowa State Saturday. Rich Miller, a reserve strong safety, injured his left knee and will not play.
The Cowboys got a boost when regular quarterback Craig Burnett, who twisted his knee in a loss to Oklahoma State the week before, came off the bench in the third quarter with the score tied at 17-17 and led them to 17 points.
The Cowboys also should regain the services of Steve Bena, their starting fullback, who missed the Iowa State game with a slightly separated shoulder. In three earlier games, Bena has 142 yards and a touchdown in 25 carries.
This is is the Aztecs' first 1-3 start since 1984. . . . Alfred Jackson, a junior wide receiver, had his streak of touchdown catches in four consecutive games snapped by the Ducks. . . . Lee Brannon's start at tight end was the first change in the Aztecs' starting offensive lineup.