By Agustin Gonzalez, Assistant Sports Editor
During the Make-A-Wish Foundation reception at the Omni Hotel on Wednesday, San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke spotted defensive end Ernie Lawson chatting it up with Navy’s star quarterback Ricky Dobbs.
Hoke, with his dry sense of humor, said he wanted Lawson to enjoy his close encounter with Dobbs while it lasted.
“You know, I’m glad you’re talking to him now, because this is the closest you’ll get to him on Thursday,” Hoke told his starting defensive end.
But if SDSU (8-4) wants to sink Navy (9-3) and win its first bowl game since 1969, the Aztecs will have to contain Dobbs and stop the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense in its tracks.
When Navy has the ball
Seen as a potential Heisman candidate coming into the season, Dobbs rushed for a team-high 860 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. In 2009, he set the NCAA single-season rushing touchdown record for a quarterback with 27 touchdowns. Needless to say, he can run.
Dobbs is the vital cog in Navy’s offensive scheme, which head coach Ken Niumatalolo calls the “broken bone.” This scheme, which is a variation of the old school wishbone offense, consists of triple-option plays and also plays where offensive players are closer to the line of the scrimmage before the snap, leading to the occasional big gain through the air.
The Midshipmen don’t pass much (only 142 attempts all season), but when they do, Dobbs has shown that he can find his receivers downfield and do some damage. The senior quarterback has a passer efficiency rating of 162.61 and the offense as a whole is averaging over 18 yards per completion.
Hoke also said that stopping fullback Alexander Teich, who’s averaging six yards per carry, is a priority.
This season, Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 defense showed it can have success against the triple option when SDSU defeated then-No. 23 Air Force at Qualcomm Stadium. Long brought his safeties and defensive backs up in support, and as a result Andrew Preston notched 10 tackles and Jose Perez added seven.
Although it will seem like Navy will run the ball a thousand times on Thursday, SDSU’s defensive backs have to respect Dobbs’ throwing ability. If he catches the Aztecs sleeping in coverage, Dobbs will make them pay.
When SDSU has the ball
At Thursday’s press conference, Niumatalolo was asked if the Midshipmen had the personnel to imitate SDSU quarterback Ryan Lindley in practice.
“Not unless we have a bazooka out there throwing footballs,” Niumatalolo answered.
The Aztecs’ junior quarterback has the arm to make all the throws, and all the confidence from Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges to do so. Lindley has thrown for 3554 yards and 26 scores this season, and has big-time targets in Demarco Sampson (65 receptions, 1175 yards, eight touchdowns) and Vincent Brown (61, 1187, 9), who were both named to the All-Mountain West Conference first team. Tight end Gavin Escobar and running back Brandon Sullivan have also proved to be reliable targets. SDSU ranks 11th in the nation in passing offense, while Navy is only 66th in pass defense. Look for Lindley to have a solid, if not spectacular, game.
The Aztecs have another weapon in freshman running back Ronnie Hillman. The diminutive speedster rushed for 1304 yards and 14 touchdowns this year and is a home run threat every time he touches the ball. Hillman makes his living on runs to the outside, and if he turns the corner he is capable of making both linebackers and defensive backs miss tackles.
“They can stretch you in so many ways,” Niumatalolo said. “Running the football, throwing the football vertically, it’s kind of like pick your poison.”
Key matchup: Andrew Preston vs. the Navy backfield
Preston, who plays the “Aztec” back position, was key in controlling Air Force’s triple option offense. He made nine solo tackles, broke up a pass and was responsible for the most critical stop in the game. Down 20-18 with only 2:08 left to go in the game, Air Force attempted a two-point conversion which would tie the score. Preston took down Air Force running back Asher Clark just inches from the end zone to preserve SDSU’s lead.
If Preston can have just as much success against Dobbs and Co. on Thursday, SDSU will be just fine.
The Aztecs beat an Air Force team that is statistically better than Navy in rushing offense, passing offense and gave up less points per game, while Navy lost to the same Air Force team 14-6. Navy also gave up 220.4 passing yards per game during the regular season. Look for Lindley and his “bazooka” arm to surpass that number.
Niumatalolo will have his players play the pass early, and a rested Ronnie Hillman will reel off a long touchdown run in the first half. After that, the Midshipmen will start stacking the box, which will open up vertical and play-action options for Lindley down the field. Lindley will throw for a couple of scores and SDSU will be victorious in front of what is expected to be the largest crowd in Poinsettia Bowl history.
Lindley stat line: 290 yards, two touchdowns, one interception
Dobbs stat line: 119 passing yards, 88 rushing yards, three total touchdowns
Hillman stat line: 115 rushing yards, two touchdowns
Score: SDSU 38, Navy 31