Matchup: San Diego State (0-0) vs. Eastern Illinois (0-0) Kickoff: Sat., Aug. 31 at 5:06 p.m. Location: Qualcomm Stadium TV: None Webcast: CampusInsiders.com (HD), Mountain West Digital Network Radio: The Walrus 105.7 FM Line: San Diego State -14
Coming off a 9-4 season and a Mountain West championship, San Diego State opens the 2013 season against Eastern Illinois and the Panthers' high-octane offense Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium. Check out keys to victory and key players to watch for each team as well as a prediction.
Keys to victory for San Diego State
1. Control the ball: You can expect SDSU to try and control the ball, maintain possession and steadily work its way down the field. The Aztecs will try to keep EIU's up-tempo offense off the field as much as possible, which likely means a heavy dose of Adam Muema. SDSU's star running back looks to be in line for a heavy workload, but the Aztecs could play a couple of other RB's behind him as they look for a solid No. 2 back for the season. We may see highly-touted freshman Donnel Pumphrey (who is expected to start alongside Colin Lockett at kick returner) get a few carries on Saturday.
2. Cornerbacks must hold their own: SDSU is expected to use a four-man rotation of J.J. Whittaker, Pierre Romain, King Holder and Damontae Kazee at cornerback. As a whole, the cornerbacks were inconsistent during fall camp, and will be tested early and often by EIU's spread offense. This game could either be a confidence booster or a cause for concern for the cornerbacks heading into the Ohio State matchup next week.
3. Conditioning/defensive substitutions: The Panthers try to run a play every 13 seconds, and SDSU head coach Rocky Long says they're as fast as any offense he's ever gone up against. EIU may disrupt SDSU's regular defensive substitution pattern, and if that happens then the Aztecs' level of conditioning will come into play.
Keys to victory for Eastern Illinois
1. Garoppolo must go off: SDSU had trouble against spread quarterbacks last season, surrendering 536 yards and five touchdowns to Fresno State's Derek Carr and 260 yards and four TD's to San Jose State's David Fales. EIU's Jimmy Garoppolo is neither Carr nor Fales, but is a talented QB in his own right. Garoppolo threw for 3,823 yards and 31 scores last year while completing 61.3 percent of his passes. He'll likely need to throw for 300+ yards and at least three touchdowns if the Panthers are to have any chance of pulling the upset.
2. Contain Adam Muema: With SDSU looking to control possession, the Panthers will need to contain the Aztecs' best offensive player. Easier said than done. EIU's linebackers and defensive line (which is replacing three of its four starters) will need to step up big-time.
3. Gain an edge on special teams: EIU likes to do some unorthodox things on kickoffs: pop kicks, squibs, moving from the left hash to right hash unexpectedly. Sometimes EIU's kickoffs land in the hands of the guys along the wings of the return team, which are usually linemen. SDSU has been preparing for this, but you don't know what's going to happen when a defensive lineman is returning a kickoff. The Panthers will need every break they can get on Saturday, and forcing a turnover on special teams would be a momentum changer.
Key players to watch
- SDSU running back Adam Muema: With EIU giving up 170.25 rushing yards per game last year, it isn't hard to envision Muema having a monster day on the ground.
- SDSU safety Nat Berhe: As the AZTEC safety, one of Berhe's duties is covering the other team's slot receiver, which means we'll probably see him matched up against EIU's star WR Erik Lora for much of the game.
- EIU quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo: Garoppolo's arm makes EIU's spread offense hum like a well-oiled machine and he will look to take advantage of SDSU's inexperienced corners. He'll likely need to throw for over 300 yards and three scores if the Panthers are to pull the upset.
- EIU wide receiver Erik Lora: Lora set an FCS single season record with 136 receptions last year, while also amassing 1,664 receiving yards and 12 TD's. Needless to say, he's pretty darn good.
- EIU middle linebacker Robert Haynes: Haynes led the Panthers with 101 tackles last season. He'll look to contain SDSU's rushing attack.
EIU starts off fast and SDSU's inexperienced cornerbacks get beat for a couple of touchdowns, but the defense clamps down as the game goes on. Garoppolo throws for over 200 yards, but the Aztecs get key stops when they need to. Muema runs for over 100 yards and finds the end zone (maybe several times), Adam Dingwell shows off the improvement he's made in the offseason, and the Aztecs have no problem winning and covering the 14-point spread.
- Eastern Illinois has four all-time victories over FBS schools.
- San Diego State owns a 2-0-1 record against current members of the Ohio Valley Conference.
- The first (and only time) SDSU and EIU faced off, Larry Ned rushed for 285 yards and three touchdowns as the Aztecs came away with a 40-7 victory on Oct. 6, 2001.
- Both SDSU and EIU were conference champions last year.
- There will be fireworks both on and off the field on Saturday, as the KGB SkyShow will be held after the game.