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San Diego State vs. Northern Arizona game preview: Aztecs look to start season better than last year

The Aztecs will open their 2014 season against the No. 25-ranked (FCS) NAU Lumberjacks this Saturday at 4 p.m. PST at Qualcomm Stadium.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

By the time of the opening kickoff on Saturday afternoon, it will have been 252 days since the San Diego State football team lifted the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl trophy back in December in Boise, Idaho.

And then fans can collectively sigh and revel in the return of Aztec football when the team hits the field against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks this Saturday at 4 p.m. PT at Qualcomm Stadium.

Here’s a look at how SDSU stacks up with NAU in terms of offense, defense and special teams stack--plus some quick hits and a game prediction.

WHO IS NORTHERN ARIZONA? The No. 25 FCS-ranked Lumberjacks aren’t your local, lower-division punching bag. NAU went 9-3 last year, losing in the first round of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.

NAU also showed the year before that they could upset teams on the road, like they did with their 17-14 win over UNLV, the same Rebels who blasted the Aztecs last year in Las Vegas.

The Lumberjacks tied for 2nd in the Big Sky conference last season and are coached by Jerome Souers, who’s in his 17th season coaching NAU football.

OFFENSE: SDSU returns their senior quarterback Quinn Kaehler, who took over the starting role during last season’s game at Ohio State. Nineteen touchdowns and over 3,000 yards later, Kaehler is ready to lead the Aztecs.

Kaehler has options to throw to, as well. Senior wideout Ezell Ruffin and junior wideout Larry Clark are ranked No. 1 and 2 on the depth chart. Ruffin brings experience, catching nearly 70 passes last year, while Clark is due for a breakout year.

Where the Aztecs may be weak is the backfield. Sophomore running back Donnel Pumphrey ran for over 750 yards and eight touchdowns last year, but he’s a small guy, weighing in around 175 pounds.

Seeing as the offensive line isn’t the most experienced group, look for 200-pound junior running back Chase Price to see some carries.

NAU on the other hand has a mighty task of replacing last year’s starting running back, a wide receiver and two offensive linemen. Junior quarterback Kyren Poe wasn’t the most prolific signal-caller, throwing just six touchdowns to 10 interceptions.

The Lumberjacks offense wasn’t impressive either, ranking no higher than No. 72 in points per game, total offense, passing and rushing yards per game.

The good news for them: they return seven starters.

DEFENSE SDSU has taken some hits on defense. Junior linebacker Jake Fely will miss at least the first five games of the year due to off-season neck surgery, and fellow linebackers Josh Gavert and Derek Largent have been banged up this summer.

Senior cornerback J.J. Whittaker anchors an inexperienced secondary, with the four other planned starters having ZERO combined collegiate starts, including two who have no playing experience at the college level.

NAU brings a solid defense, holding opponents to under 20 points in six games last year. They ranked in the Top-20 in points allowed per game and passing efficiency.

The problem for the Lumberjacks is they have eight new starters on defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Here’s a sobering statistic: an SDSU kicker hasn’t made a field goal since Wes Freer’s 25-yarder in Week 4 last season against New Mexico State. Since then? Eight straight misses and an unconvincing summer kicking "competition," which has seen junior transfer Danny Hagerman take over as placekicker, while fellow junior Seamus McMorrow will just do kickoffs.

NAU also had kicking troubles last season, going 11-of-19 on field-goal attempts.

Will both sides be condemned to miserable kicking? Or will someone boot a crucial field-goal through the uprights on Saturday?

--Now here’s a look at some quick hits heading into Saturday’s contest.--

AZTECS’ MUST START QUICK: SDSU football fans may purposely try and forget last year’s opening-game debacle against Eastern Illinois, a 40-19 loss. Two more losses followed, condemning the Aztecs to an 0-3 start. They finished 8-5.

This year, there’s no room for a first-game slip up. A brutal road schedule awaits SDSU this season, with trips to North Carolina, Oregon State, Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada on the horizon.

NOT-SO-RIVALRY RENEWED: SDSU is unfamiliar with Northern Arizona on the gridiron. The Aztecs haven’t played NAU since 1966, a 16-8 victory for SDSU, which sealed a perfect 11-0 record that year.

The two also met in the previous season in 1965, a 20-0 shutout also in favor of the Aztecs.

ELEVATION DIFFERENCE POSSIBLY AFFECTING FITNESS?: Northern Arizona makes its’ home in Flagstaff, Arizona, at an altitude of 6,910 feet above sea level, whereas Qualcomm Stadium is situated around 100 feet above sea level.

Studies have shown athletes who train at higher elevation can perform better at lower elevations.

Translation: NAU isn’t likely to run out of steam, and may even have the edge in terms of longevity.

If this game gets close near the end, it could mean trouble for SDSU.

PREDICTION: The Aztecs’ continuity on offense will be far too much for the Lumberjack’s essentially-new defense. SDSU is going to be a little thin at defense as well, so NAU will be able to see some daylight on offense.

One last thing to consider is the disparity between these two squads. SDSU is a good, top-division program with four straight bowl appearances. Northern Arizona is also good, but they ARE in a lower division. Let that fact be either overlooked, or taken seriously.

SDSU will win comfortably, 38-21.