Stop me if this sounds familiar: Head coach Brady Hoke has transformed a perennial loser into a surprising winner.
It should. Hoke, the former Ball State savior, has led San Diego State to a 7-2 record and has the Aztecs bowl eligible for the first time since 2003. Entering Saturday's matchup at TCU, the Aztecs are, for the first time in recent memory, a worthy opponent.
"Our goal every year is to win the Mountain West Conference Championship," said Hoke. "We're not gonna be afraid of having that expectation."
That goal remains far-fetched for the time being, as the Aztecs would have to knock off an unstoppable-looking Horned Frogs team coming off a 47-7 beatdown of Utah. But that doesn't make San Diego State's turnaround any less impressive. The Aztecs' seven wins this season already outnumber the six they managed in 2008 and 2009 combined, and their offense has been consistently dangerous. Their 33.7 points per game average is a colossal improvement from the 15.2 mark they posted in '08, the year before Hoke took over.
Much of the success has stemmed from increased familiarity with Hoke's system. The coach introduced wholesale changes upon his hiring, implementing a pro-style offense to replace predecessor Chuck Long's spread system and using combination rather than zone-blocking schemes. Hoke also brought in Aaron Wellman, his strength and conditioning coach at Ball State, to revamp the team's weightlifting regimen.
"We all have our own ways of doing things," Hoke said of his methods.
It's hard to argue with his results. San Diego State's resurgence is just the latest resurrection project for Hoke, who rebuilt Ball State from a 4-8 to a 12-2 team during his six-year tenure. Though he avoided directly comparing the two programs, he admitted his experience at Ball State serves as a guide as he continues to remake the Aztecs.
Hoke, though, gives all the credit to his players, many of whom have thrived since his arrival. Quarterback Ryan Lindley has upped his passer rating from 117 to 137, and the entire defense has stiffened, vaulting from 113th to 33rd nationally. Most notably, lightning-fast freshman running back Ronnie Hillman has piled up statistics that have the local media likening him to former Aztec great Marshall Faulk.
"When Ron is running the football, you get the opportunity for some big plays," Hoke said.
That's a bit of an understatement. Hillman's 1,044 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in the nation. He already has four 150-yard rushing games and averages 5.6 yards per carry. Eerily enough, he was born on Sept. 14, 1991 -- the same day as Faulk's record-setting 386-yard showing against Pacific.
"I'm not here to be Marshall Faulk," Hillman said. "I'm just here to play football and be Ronnie Hillman."
That's been plenty good enough for these Aztecs, who were unsure if Hillman would even don a uniform when the season began. After arriving on campus last fall, Hillman immediately found himself entangled in a messy SAT scandal that forced him to miss the entire 2009 campaign while he retook the test. He watched as the team limped to a 4-8 record, averaging 78 rushing yards per game.
"In a way it kinda helped me," Hillman said. "I got a little bit more focused."
It also expedited his maturity, something he showcased during the team's early-season showdown at Missouri. Hillman rattled off 228 yards and two touchdowns, though Missouri pulled out a 27-24 victory on a Blaine Gabbert-to-T.J. Moe connection with 51 seconds left. Hoke thinks the experience gained in that high-pressure situation will help the Aztecs this weekend when they take on the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth.
They'll need the help against TCU's top-ranked defense, which hasn't surrendered more than one touchdown, or allowed a 100-yard rusher, since Sept. 24. The Horned Frogs are allowing just 215 yards per game and are even better at home, giving up eight points per contest.
Though an upset is unlikely (TCU is favored by 26.5 points), Hoke's not shying away from the challenge. He'll continue to maintain a balanced attack on offense -- SDSU has a 1.04-to-1 pass-to-run ratio -- and attempt to build off the 13 turnovers the team's created on defense. To Hoke, facing the nation's No. 3 team is just another step toward the team's preseason goal.
"We've just scratched the surface of what we want to accomplish," Hoke said. "November is when you play for championships."
1. This has been billed as a battle between TCU's shutdown defense and San Diego State's upstart offense, but the deciding factor may be whether Hoke's team can slow down the Horned Frogs' attack. In their previous three meetings, TCU has outscored SDSU 141-52. Quarterback Andy Dalton has racked up 537 passing yards, 104 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in two games against the Aztecs.
2. At 1,044 rushing yards, Hillman is just 183 yards shy of the MWC's freshman rushing record of 1,227 yards, set by BYU's Harvey Unga in 2007. He's 557 yards away from the league's all-time season mark of 1,601 yards, set by Colorado State's Cecil Sapp in 2002. Hillman would need to average 186 yards per over the final three games (at TCU, vs. Utah, vs. UNLV) to eclipse Sapp's record.
3. Saturday's game will be the last in the old Amon G. Carter Stadium, with the venue scheduled to undergo an estimated $105 million renovation prior to the 2012 season. The stadium has been a Forth Worth staple since its opening in 1930, and TCU is 22-1 at home dating back to 2007.