San Diego State off to hot start

Their recent history is sad string of Ls, interrupted every now and again with a W.

But today, San Diego State is not much into history. Not with an energized team, an energized coach, and an energized start to the season. At 3-1, the Aztecs are off to their best start since 1996 and one of the surprise teams of this young season.

If you look even closer, they are 52 seconds and a 68-yard touchdown pass away from being 4-0 after a heartbreaking last-minute loss to Missouri.

“It’s been a while since we’ve enjoyed any degree of success,” offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “We’re confident, but we’re still very, very realistic about where we are and where we have to go.”

Indeed, when Brady Hoke took over the Aztecs a season ago, he inherited a 2-10 team that was among the worst in the Mountain West. He knew he had to instill discipline, a tougher work ethic and mentality, and make strides in the weight room before he would begin to see results.

Positive steps were made last season, in which the Aztecs went 4-8. But much of what happened in the offseason set the stage for 2010. First, 16 starters returned, giving his team much more experience and another year in the offense and defense. Second, his team hit the strength and conditioning room hard.

Quarterback Ryan Lindley, for one, added between 15 and 20 pounds of muscle, to help him withstand the grind of taking hits throughout the course of the season. Third, he knew he was getting prized running back Ronnie Hillman, who was forced to leave the team before the start of last season after his SAT scores were questioned. He retook the test, re-enrolled in the spring, and has become an immediate factor.

San Diego State struggled to run the ball over the last several seasons, ranking near the bottom in the country in rushing offense. This season, the Aztecs are 25th nationally, averaging 213.5 yards a game.

Hillman has eight rushing touchdowns, equaling the entire output the Aztecs had on the ground in 2009. Through four games, the team has 13 total touchdowns and 854 yards behind Hillman, Walter Kazee and Davon Brown. Last season, San Diego State rushed for 940 yards. Total.

When asked about living up to some of the high expectations fans have of him, Hillman said, “You can’t really go out there and think about what everybody thinks about you. You just have to play. I’m not looking at what everybody wants me to be or what everybody thinks I am.”

The ability to run has helped Lindley and set up the play-action pass nicely. Already this season, Lindley is 74-of-136 for 1,174 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown have proven to be his go-to targets, and both have touchdown receptions this season of 70-plus yards.

“So much of what we do is predicated on running the football,” Borges said. “Sometimes we start the game off throwing to soften the defense to run football. Sometimes we run ball to soften the defense to throw the ball. It makes such a difference if you can effectively attack the defense. A year ago, we didn’t pose a lot of threat with the run game so the play-action wasn’t as effective.”

The improvement is not all on the offense. The Aztecs are giving up 13.8 points a game, ranking 12th in the country. That is down 17 points from last season. Total defense ranks 27th, giving up an average of 296 yards a game, nearly 100 yards less than last season.

But of course, there are eight more games left to play, including a tough test at BYU on Oct. 9 following a bye this week. The last time the Aztecs made a bowl game was 1998, when they finished the season 7-5. Success has not come frequently here. They have made just five bowl appearances all time.

“I’m confident we’ll stay focused,” Lindley said. “With the way our leadership is, we’re not going to stray from the path. We know what this season is about, going to a bowl game and winning a Mountain West Conference championship. You have to be better than you were a day before.”