Do not look now, but the San Diego State Aztecs' defense has been the driving force to their 4-3 overall record, their 3-1 record in conference and the reason they sit alone atop the West division.
With injuries forcing SDSU into a one-dimensional offense, the defense has been looked to keep the offense within striking distance and this unit has stepped up consistently to meet that task.
The 3-3-5 scheme implemented by head coach Rocky Long is the primary reason for the Aztecs' success with its multiple blitz packages and disguised coverages that can be employed to keep the opposing offense guessing. This defense has primarily been used to combat spread offenses that rely on an additional skill player to exploit mismatches, which are prevalent in the Mountain West.
It could not be stressed enough, however, that this scheme is not the easiest to use and many have failed before; Rich Rodriguez in Michigan is a prime example. Not only does this defense have a high level of difficulty to run and has a lot of moving parts, but also one needs the proper athletes to implement it as a base defense. Furthermore, the 3-3-5 requires depth, especially among the defensive line, where their primary assignment is to eat up blockers and consistently face double teams.
Now coach Long is fortunate that nine of his 11 starters on defense are returners and are well versed in his 3-3-5 scheme that demands players to think on the fly. Along with that experience has came results, as the defense ranks 29th in the nation in total defense allowing only 339.3 yards per game; the best it has been under Long in his four seasons he has been at the helm.
The passing defense for these Aztecs has also improved over prior seasons. SDSU, however, is still prone to give up the big play through the air.
The Aztecs can still boast that they hold opposing quarterbacks to only 214.3 yards per game, good enough for 43rd in the nation, on 58 percent passing and have only yielded five touchdown passes through seven games. This in large part has to do with the play in the secondary by the two experienced corners in J.J. Whittaker and Damontae Kazee, and safety/linebacker hybrid Malik Smith who have combined for four interceptions and 14 pass breakups.
The pass defense in total has intercepted nine passes, at least one in every single game, which ties SDSU for 20th in the nation. This defensive unit has also been able to get after the quarterback and have recorded 16 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries.
The run defense of San Diego State has also been spectacular this season, as the Aztecs currently rank 31st in the nation only allowing 125.0 rush yards per game at a clip of 3.5 yards per carry. It is no surprise that in this 3-3-5 scheme, which allows the linebackers and safety hybrids - Aztec and Warrior - to find the ball and make plays, that the top four Aztec tacklers are outside linebackers Josh Gavert and Calvin Munson, Warrior Trey Lomax and Aztec Na'im McGee; combined they have totaled 173 total tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss.
But the one stat that matters above all else and what sets the San Diego State defense apart from others, certainly in the conference, is its scoring defense. SDSU has only allowed 18.7 points per game, which is 15th in the nation. In conference that number drops even further for the Aztecs who are second in points per game at 16.25.
This is essential as points are at a premium for the offense that is only averaging 23.3 points per game, which is near the bottom of the entire FBS. The fact that all three Aztecs losses have come when the opposition has topped the 18.7 ppg mark clearly portrays both the heavy reliance on the defense and inefficiency of the offense.
Depth, as aforementioned, is also playing a huge role to this amazing start for the defense. Christian Heyward, Dontrell Onuoha and Dakota Turner are all viable backups on the defensive line and have combined for 28 total tackles, five tackles for loss and four sacks. Redshirt-freshman second-string safety Brandon Porter and sophomore backup middle linebacker Fred Melifonwu have seen the field in every game, both making plays in the backfield.
This unit may not get the attention that the offensive side receives, but do not be mistaken it is the backbone of this Aztec team.