SAN DIEGO — There will be at least two immediate indications tonight whether the football season is starting off right for San Diego State.
The first will precede the Aztec-Cal State Long Beach game at 6:05 p.m. in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, when the officials summon each team's captains to midfield for the coin toss.
This is where the Aztecs made their first mistake last season. Before their opener at Oregon, Aztec captains won the toss, got confused, elected to defer to the second half . . . and kick off. So Oregon, with the first-half option, elected to receive.
So SDSU kicked off to begin both halves. Coach Al Luginbill couldn't believe it.
"I think that's the most shocked I've been of anything that has ever happened to me," Luginbill said.
Once the Aztecs get past tonight's coin toss, another early success/alarm indicator will be how often the revamped defensive line is able to penetrate the Long Beach backfield.
SDSU's defensive troubles were well-chronicled last year. For half the season, the Aztecs ranked last in the nation in defense. An often overlooked part of that was the sluggish play of the defensive line.
The unit compiled only 20 sacks, a pathetically low number considering opponents had 373 pass attempts--34 a game--in 1990.
This year, the Aztecs say, things will be different. Before the season finale against Miami last year, defensive coordinator Barry Lamb installed a more aggressive scheme calling for the defensive line to shoot the gaps and attack rather than concentrate on containment.
Going into tonight's game, that's what returning nose tackle Eric Duncan and new ends Turaj Smith and Ramondo Stallings will continue to do.
"It's more of a get-upfield defense," Duncan said. "In the past, the ends would have to contain. That really slowed those guys down because they had to keep the quarterback inside."
And since they were more worried about keeping the quarterback in the backfield than in making things happen, Duncan says there was a tendency to be too passive.
"You get into a habit," he said. "It was understandable, because if you let guys get outside of you, you were going to get chewed out."
This is a more aggressive scheme and, as a result, more fun for the defensive line.
"It's a lot of fun," Duncan said. "It seems like it helps us out against the run too because, whether it's a run or pass, we're going to get upfield.
"And when you get upfield, you can cause all kinds of havoc in the backfield, like messed up handoffs."
Said Lamb: "We're trying to utilize the strengths of our personnel rather than have straight adherence to a textbook defense."
Still, Lamb disagreed that the Aztec defense of the past was too passive.
"We never taught staying back," he said. "What we're doing is emphasizing aggressiveness, movement to the ball.
"We did some things against Miami that we won't do against the Long Beach offense because we think their quarterback is a lot more mobile than (former Miami quarterback Craig) Erickson."
Long Beach quarterback Todd Studer was able to complete 18 of 47 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown against the Aztecs last year. He also carried six times for 25 yards in a 38-20 Aztec victory.
"Studer hurt us last year breaking containment," Lamb said. "Finding a hole in the defense and running the ball. We're going to work very hard on that, not allowing him to get outside of us and not allowing a lot of time for him to decide whether to throw or run."
Studer will not be the only familiar face the Aztecs will see tonight. There are eight offensive and seven defensive starters returning to Long Beach. The 49ers are similar to SDSU in the sense that they were young last year and that they improved as the season went along. Long Beach won its last three games in 1990 and six of its final eight.
But opening games are usually difficult to call. The 49ers have a new coach this year in NFL Hall of Famer Willie Brown, and they are an unknown quantity.
And the Aztecs, once again, think their defense is improved. But until it does the job in a game, who knows?
Luginbill said that on most teams, after four or five practices, the defense should be ahead of the offense. That happened at SDSU this fall for the first time since Luginbill has been there.
Now, he is waiting to see if it is real.
"Everyone is walking around here on pins and needles," he said. "That's what is unique about this club. Nobody knows what's going to happen.
"I don't know. I'm looking forward to finding out."
The Aztecs are expecting a crowd of about 30,000. . . . Coach Al Luginbill said Chris Rodahoffer will start at the final offensive guard position. Carson Leomiti is the other guard. . . . SDSU hasn't opened the season at home since 1986, when it defeated Long Beach, 27-24. . . . Patrick Rowe will enter the game with nine consecutive 100-yard receiving games, an NCAA record.
SAN DIEGO STATE
* Opponent: Cal State Long Beach
* Site: San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium
* Time: 6:05 p.m.
* Records: SDSU 0-0; CSLB 0-0
* Radio: XTRA (690)
* TV: Prime Ticket (blacked out in San Diego)