SAN DIEGO — In perhaps the brassiest move in his brief time as San Diego State athletic director, Fred Miller last season all but guaranteed a victory against Cal State Long Beach.
Season-ticket holders, Miller vowed, could get a refund on their season tickets if they weren't satisfied after the game. To Miller, it must have seemed like a lock, but it turned out to be anything but a sure bet.
The Aztecs rallied from 14 points behind to squeak out a 27-24 victory. But it proved to be the start of a magical season. Of the Aztecs' eight victories, seven were decided by seven or fewer points. They went on to finish 8-4, win their first Western Athletic Conference championship and earn a berth in the Holiday Bowl.
What a difference a year makes.
The Aztecs play host to Cal State Long Beach tonight in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and no one is talking about a guaranteed victory. They are 1-6 and have lost their past five games. All the Aztecs want is an end to their worst start since 1980.
"I would like to get (a victory), anytime, anywhere, on or off the road," said SDSU Coach Denny Stolz.
Three weeks ago, Stolz was looking forward to a three-game home stand as a good chance to regroup and gain momentum for the second half of the season. But after a 34-33 loss to Texas El Paso and a 44-40 loss to Stanford, the Aztecs are just trying to salvage something before conference games at Hawaii and Brigham Young.
The Aztecs have never won in six games at BYU and have won only once in five tries at Hawaii since they joined the WAC in 1979. But hope is one commodity the Aztecs have not lacked this season.
"I feel good about this week," said Clarence Nunn, senior cornerback. "If we come to play, and play as a team, good things are bound to happen. Our luck can't be this bad the rest of the season."
Bad luck is not the problem, though. Poor execution, mistakes on defense and costly turnovers have had more to do with the Aztecs' fall than the alignment of the stars.
SDSU is allowing an average of 40.7 points per game, which ranks last among the 104 NCAA Division I-A teams. The 285 points the Aztecs have surrendered in seven games are six more than they gave up in 12 games last season and more than they have allowed in all but three of their previous 64 seasons.
The defense, however, has taken some encouragement from recent improvement.
It allowed an average of 536.3 yards in the first three games. In the past four games, opponents have averaged 389.3 yards.
The defense gave up a season-low of 341 yards against Stanford last Saturday.
"The points don't show it, but we've been improving," said Tim McConnell, defensive coordinator.
Of the 155 points SDSU has allowed in the past four games, 72 of those have followed turnovers inside Aztec territory.
"The emotion (of the defensive unit) is up and the overall execution is better. They're still making physical and mental mistakes, but certainly fewer than they were at the beginning of the season. We're making progress. Unfortunately it's not as rapidly as we would have liked."
McConnell has changed his lineup several times this season in an effort to find the right combination. He has made tackles ends, ends tackles, inside linebackers outside linebackers, outside linebackers inside linebackers. He even turned two tight ends into defensive ends. The lineup juggling will be no different tonight.
With left cornerback Mario Mitchell out with a sprained ankle, Clark Moses is expected to start at that position. Moses, a redshirt freshman, started against Oregon Sept. 26 when Mitchell missed the game with a knee sprain. Derek Santifer, who lost his starting job when he left the team without permission for two days last month, could make his first start at linebacker in six games.
Only three defensive players--free safety Lyndon Earley, end Brett Faryniarz and strong safety Harold Hicks--have started all seven games.
"We know we played well against Stanford except for a few plays," Nunn said. "But those few plays we didn't play well cost us a touchdown. When we screw up, we screw up. It's only been a couple of plays. But make a couple of bad plays and that's what gets you beat."
Cal State Long Beach is 4-3 and coming off two straight victories. The 49ers defeated Pacific, 9-6, and beat New Mexico State, 33-6. But they had lost their previous three games on the road. And their two earlier victories came against NCAA Division I-AA teams. They beat Montana State, 51-15, and Weber State, 30-7.
The 49ers have had trouble on the road. They have averaged only seven points in four road games; they averaged 38 points in three home games.
They will be without two of their best defensive players. Middle linebacker Tom Caines, the team's leading tackler, ruptured his spleen and nose guard Nate Deaton dislocated his wrist against New Mexico State.
Stolz said the injuries might encourage the blitz-happy 49ers to gamble even more than usual on defense.