Before the season started, the Aztecs were picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West. But there were signs that this could be a turnaround season. First, coach Brady Hoke has built winners. Second, he had good assistants in Rocky Long and Al Borges. Third, their players had another year in their system. Fourth, they had some very solid players returning on offense. Ryan Lindley, DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown were good in the passing game, but the weakness in 2009 was an inability to run the ball. Insert freshman Ronnie Hillman and voila! Those troubles vanished. Hillman set the league freshman rushing record with 1,304 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to Mountain West Freshman of the Year Honors. Lindley threw for over 3,000 yards, and Sampson and Brown each had 1,000 yards. The defense made strides, too, especially linebacker Miles Burris, who had 74 tackles and 9.5 sacks this season. Hoke won the league’s coach of the year honors and just received a contract extension after several schools showed an interest in hiring him away. San Diego State posted its best season since 1996 and is headed to a bowl game for the first time since 1998. Now consistency has to be established. With a coach like Hoke leading the way, that seems inevitable.
Offensive MVP: RB Ronnie Hillman. You definitely can make an argument for Lindley, who had the best season of his career. But the biggest difference in this offense was its ability to run the football. Last season, San Diego State ranked No. 116 in the country in rush offense, averaging 2.9 yards a carry. This year, the Aztecs averaged 4.8 yards a carry, and Hillman is the biggest reason why.
Defensive MVP: LB Miles Burris. He was the lone returning linebacker returning from last season, along with the team’s leading tackler, and made even bigger strides this season. He ranks first in the league in sacks and tackles for loss (19) -- both career highs.
Turning point: After a 24-21 loss to BYU, San Diego State faced a ranked Air Force team at home. They held on to win the closing seconds to win 27-25 -- their first win over a ranked team in 14 seasons.
What’s next: San Diego State plays Navy in the S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl before going about the task of replacing Sampson and Brown.