Defending MW champion Aztecs kick off 2016 college football season on winning note

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The San Diego State University football team has strung together some impressive numbers over the past several years under head coach Rocky Long.

For instance:

The Aztecs have qualified for six consecutive post-season bowl game appearances, including last year's 42-7 victory against Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl.

The Aztecs tied a program record with 11 wins last season en route to capturing the Mountain West championship with a win over the Air Force Academy.

The San Diego State University football team has strung together some impressive numbers over the past several years under head coach Rocky Long.

For instance:

The Aztecs have qualified for six consecutive post-season bowl game appearances, including last year's 42-7 victory against Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl.

The Aztecs tied a program record with 11 wins last season en route to capturing the Mountain West championship with a win over the Air Force Academy.

The MW title was the second for SDSU in four years and SDSU players have set their sights on winning another conference championship this season.

The Aztecs are the preseason favorite to win the MW's West Division this season.

 “We have high expectations,” explained senior left guard Nico Siragusa, a graduate of Mater Dei Catholic High School. “We want to go undefeated. We have a lot of players with experience, I’m excited. We just need to focus on going 1-0 each week. If we can do that, we can go to the (conference) championship game.”

The most important number for the Aztecs in last Saturday's season opener against the University of New Hampshire Wildcats at Qualcomm Stadium was its 31-0 non-conference win. The victory was the 11th consecutive for SDSU, which ended last season with 10 consecutive wins.

“Obviously in the first game, there are things you did well and some things you didn't do well,” Long assessed of the game played in front of an announced KGB SkyShow crowd of 46,486. “Winning is the most important thing, and we won by a substantial margin.”

Former Carlsbad High School quarterback Christian Chapman passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns – both to ex-Oceanside High School star Mikah Holder – and Donnel Pumphrey (Las Vegas) rushed for 98 net yards and scored once to stake SDSU to a 21-0 halftime lead.

John Baron (Temecula) kicked a 33-yard field goal and Rashaad Penny (Norwalk) scored on a one-yard run to boost the Aztec offense in the second half.

Holder caught four aerials for 160 yards, including an 86-yard bomb to ignite scoring in the first quarter. He later caught a 14-yard scoring pass while diving over the pylon to increase the SDSU lead to 21-0 in the second quarter.

Pumphrey carried the ball 21 times; he scored on a 20-yard run with 42 seconds left in the opening quarter to double the Aztec lead to 14-0.

SDSU led 24-0 following Baron's third quarter field goal.

Former Lincoln High School standout Eric Judge caught five passes for 54 yards to highlight contribution by San Diego County homegrown talent.

SDSU out-gained New Hampshire 461-141 in total yards. The Aztecs recorded four sacks and one interception on defense; the hosts forced 12 punts in the game.

SDSU recorded 11 first downs via the pass while holding the Wildcats to three passing first downs. The Aztecs averaged 4.1 yards per rushing play as opposed to 2.3 yards per rush for New Hampshire.

SDSU out-gained the New England visitors 170-71 in the rushing game and 291-70 in the passing game.

The Aztecs will have to remain on top of their game, if not raise it a notch, when they engage their next opponent – the Cal Bears – Saturday, Sept. 10, at Qualcomm Stadium. Kick-off is 7:30 p.m.

The Bears defeated SDSU, 35-7, in Berkeley last season and kicked off this season with a 51-31 non-conference win over Hawaii in a game played Aug. 26 in Sydney, Australia.

The Bears' football program has been bullish on the field with 24 former players on opening day NFL rosters.

“There are some things that we have to improve dramatically,” Long addressed the media in the post-game press conference. “We didn't run the ball as well as I hoped we would. We've got to clean up the holding penalties, because I thought the holding penalties broke a lot of momentum in the second half. If we don't get those holding penalties, we might have scored 50 (points).

“So, obviously, we've got to get better at all of those kind of things and we're playing a much better opponent next week, so we've got to get better quick … If you want talent level, they've probably got a lot better talent than we've got. So, we better play pretty good to have a chance to win."

Watch lists

Sixteen different SDSU players received MW preseason accolades. Six players have been tabbed on National College Football Awards Association watch lists: center Arthur Flores (Rimington Trophy for most outstanding center in FBS play), cornerback Damontae Kazee (Chuck Bednarik Award for collegiate defensive player of the year), linebacker Calvin Munson (Bednarik Award), Penny (Paul Hornung Award for most versatile player in college football), Pumphrey (Maxwell Award as top college player) and Siragusa (Outland Trophy for top collegiate interior lineman).

Pumphrey, a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, returns as the nation's active leading rusher with 4,272 career yards. He rushed for 1,653 and 17 touchdowns last season while also catching  28 passes for a team-leading 416 yards and three additional scores. He was only one of four players in all of the FBS to lead his team in both rushing and receiving yards.

Kazee had eight interceptions in 2015, which was tied for second most in the nation.

Penny returned 24 kicks for 804 yards and three touchdowns last season.

Munson led SDSU last season in tackles (98), tackles for losses (15), sacks (9.5) and fumble recoveries (two, tied). He also returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

Siragusa was a member of an offensive line that last season posted a school-record 3,226 rushing yards and a pair of 1,000-yard rushers (Pumphrey and Chase Price).

Senior team captains this season include defensive lineman Alex Barrett (Mesa, Ariz.), Kazee (San Bernardino), Munson (St. Charles, Mo.), Pumphrey and Siragusa (Chula Vista).

Locals only

Seventeen players with San Diego County ties were on Saturday's season opening game roster, including former Helix High School lineman Forrest Hanlon, a freshman defensive lineman (6-2, 240), and Valhalla grad Ryan Krum, a senior offensive lineman (6-4, 320).

Krum is listed third on the depth chart at right guard.

Joining Hanlon, Krum, Siragusa, Chapman, Holder and Judge as homegrown products on this year's SDSU team are cornerbacks Derek Babiash (Poway) and Derek Binkley (Ramona); defensive linemen Thomas Brown (St. Augustine) and Fred Meliwonfu (Lincoln); offensive linemen Daniel Brunskill (Valley Center), Kwayde Miller (Ramona) and Zach Thomas (Carlsbad); linebacker Troy Cassidy (Carlsbad); safeties Brandon Fitzpatrick (Ramona) and Trey Lomax (Mira Mesa); and fullback Alex Valenzuela (Otay Ranch).

What's trending

SDSU returns 15 starters (seven offensive, seven defensive and one on special teams) to this year's roster.

Last season, SDSU was the only team in the nation to have its league's offensive player of the year (Pumphrey), defensive player of the year (Damontae Kazee) and special teams player of the year (Penny). All three players return this season and received preseason honors in those same categories.

As of Aug. 26, 11 Aztec alumni were on the rosters of NFL teams: long snapper Aaron Brewer with the Chicago Bears, wide receiver Brice Butler and tight end Gavin Escobar with the Dallas Cowboys, running back Ronnie Hillman with the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, running back Chase Price with the Indianapolis Colts, offensive lineman Pearce Slater with the Jacksonville Jaguars, safety Nat Berhe and cornerback Leon McFadden with the New York Giants, offensive lineman Darrell Greene with the Philadelphia Eagles, and linebacker Eric Pinkins and offensive lineman Terry Poole with the Seattle Seahawks.

MW teams carry a composite 8-4 record into this weekend's slate of games. UNLV, Nevada, SDSU, New Mexico, Utah State, Air Force, Boise State and Wyoming all kicked off the 2016 season with victories while Fresno State, San Jose State, Hawaii and Colorado State will be out to secure their first wins of the season.

The MW has tie-ins to six bowl games this season: New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 17 on ESPN), Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 17 on ABC-TV), Poinsettia Bowl (Dec. 21 on ESPN), Idaho Potato Bowl (Dec. 22 on ESPN), Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24 on ESPN) and Arizona Bowl (Dec. 30).

This year's MW championship game is scheduled Dec. 3 at the site of the higher-seeded team.

This was the 13th consecutive year the Aztecs have hosted the KGB SkyShow. 

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