Football facing tough early tests

Junior running back Emilio Martinez, who had 140 total yards in his season debut, charges up field against Western New Mexico. Photo courtesy of USD Football/Twitter

Toreros open with challenging slate against Western New Mexico and UC Davis
     For sports fans, September means just one thing: football is back.
From Pop Warner to the professional ranks, the game dominates the national sports landscape every fall, grabbing the attention of fans with its acrobatic catches, pad-rattling hits, and late-game heroics.
Here on the campus of the University of San Diego, it is no different, as the home team opens another season in Torero Stadium.
     This year’s team will look to build on arguably the best season in school history, as the 2016 Toreros won their eighth league title in the past 12 seasons and finished at number 19 in national polls. The team would go on to advance to the second round of the NCAA playoffs with a win over Cal Poly, the first playoff win in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) history by a non-scholarship school against a scholarship program.
     In addition to the Toreros’ group success last season, members of the team garnered individual accolades as well. The program graduated a player to the National Football League ranks in Detroit Lions defensive back Jamal Agnew, while running back Jonah Hodges, wide receiver Brian Riley, and defensive end Jonathan Petersen all garnered end-of-season recognitions.
In 2017, the Toreros appear primed to repeat that success, and early results paint a promising picture.
The team opened their season on Sept. 2 at home against Western New Mexico.
     Despite a tough opening quarter that saw the visiting Mustangs pull out to an early 13-0 lead, the Toreros maintained their composure and managed to battle back for a 34-20 win in front of a crowd of more than two thousand blue-clad fans.
     The difference maker was a USD defense that created five turnovers, providing the Toreros with short fields and easy opportunities for points.
     Junior linebacker Kim Mahoney forced two fumbles and recovered another, while sophomore cornerback David Tolbert and senior safety Ray Clark each had nine tackles.
The offense, meanwhile, was paced by near-hundred yard games by running back Emilio Martinez and wide receiver Justin Priest.

Senior offensive lineman Miles McArdle (55) and senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen (95) talk with a referee prior to the Toreros’ game against the UC Davis Aggies last Saturday. USD would go onto lose, 35-7. Photo courtesy of USD Football/Twitter

     Despite being outgained by Western New Mexico by almost 200 yards, USD showed grit and determination in pulling out the win.
     Unfortunately, the same could not be said for this past weekend, which saw the Toreros visit UC Davis. USD appeared largely overmatched by the Aggies, who gain a distinct advantage with their ability to offer scholarships to incoming recruits.
     Despite keeping it close early, UC Davis pulled away the rest of the game, handing the visiting Toreros a 35-7 loss that dropped their record to 1-1 on the year.
     While the Toreros have shown that they have the talent to compete for the top spot in the Pioneer League again this year, the season’s opening games have exposed a handful of question marks that will need to be answered soon in order for that to happen.
The first is the play of the defensive secondary, which has struggled mightily through two games, giving up passing totals of 464 yards and 369 yards, respectively, against Western New Mexico and UC Davis.
     “It’s just these gash plays,” head coach Dale Lindsey said in a postgame interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We’ve got to find an answer for those. We’ve got to find a way to stop the big play.”
     The second is the disappointing play so far of quarterback Anthony Lawrence, looked to as one of the offensive leaders on the team after the graduation of Riley and Hodges.
     Named to the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton award, the most prestigious individual award given out by the FCS, Lawrence has failed to throw for more than 200 yards in back-to-back games while completing just 56 percent of his passes.
“In two games, he hasn’t looked anywhere near as sharp as in the past,” Lindsey said of the quarterback. “He’s got to improve his play.”
     The team will now look ahead to an East Coast matchup this Saturday against 2016 Ivy League front-runner Princeton. The Toreros last faced Princeton in 2014 in San Diego, coming away with a 39-29 victory, and will look to replicate that success this weekend.

Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista