Here are some thoughts following the SDSU Aztecs’ convincing 34-10 win over the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on Saturday in Los Angeles.
1. There was a new starter along the defensive line for the Aztecs. Jonah Tavai started in place of an injured Kahi Neves, who played in the game with a noticeable club on his right hand. Saturday was Tavai’s second start of his career and marked a special day for the Tavai family. Jonah’s older brother, Justus, also started in the game as a defensive end for the Rainbow Warriors. Both had terrific games, but it was Jonah who walks away with the bragging rights as his team came away with the victory.
Jonah also bettered his big bro individually. He had his best game as Aztec, recording five tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble. Particularly enjoyable was watching the 305-pound Tavai line up three yards from the line of scrimmage on passing downs and bullrush his way through two or even three Hawaii offensive lineman.
2. Tavai was not the only new starter for the Aztecs. Junior Chris Martinez started at right guard in place of William Dunkle. It was Martinez’s first start, and only the second time he has seen game action for the Scarlett and Black. Martinez was a surprise starter not only because he was listed as the backup center on this week’s depth chart, but also because of the player he replaced. Dunkle, a sophomore from Eastlake High School, was an Honorable Mention All-Mountain West performer last season, a preseason All-Mountain West selection by Pro Football Focus this year, and on the NFL draft radar. An unfolding story is Dunkle’s playing time going forward.
3. In a game of big plays, the biggest play was the 71-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior linebacker Segun Olubi. Fans of the East Village Times’ coverage of the Aztecs are no strangers to Olubi, but Saturday was certainly his coming out party for the rest of the conference. When Olubi came to SDSU, he practiced at both defensive back and linebacker. At linebacker, he showed his coverage skills on Saturday.
Assigned as the “spy” to prevent quarterback Chevan Cordeiro from running, Olubi lined up on the right side of the defensive formation. At the snap, he took two steps towards the Hawaii backfield before reading Cordeiro’s eyes and dropping eight yards to make the interception. It was a winning play by a savvy veteran who went beyond the X’s and O’s designs to seal the victory essentially.
4. The secondary continues to be a work in progress. For the fourth week in as many games, Tayler Hawkins was listed as the starter at corner, but Cedarious Barfield received the starting nod. However, as was the case for most of the game against SJSU, Hawkins received the most reps at cornerback. The coaching staff seems to be allowing Hawkins to focus more at the corner after spending a large amount of time at safety in the first two games.
Added to the defensive rotation this week was sophomore safety, Patrick McMorris. McMorris was tasked early in the game with containing any scrambles by Hawaii’s quarterback alternating with Olubi as the “spy” defender. With a Covid shortened season and SDSU’s senior-heavy secondary, repetitions for players lower on the depth have been scarce. San Diego State will be replacing four seniors next year and might need to replace a fifth in junior Darren Hall. Hall, a true scholar-athlete, has already earned his undergraduate degree and will have the option of leaving SDSU for the NFL Draft or as a graduate transfer. Any playing time this year for next season’s projected starters will lessen their learning curve and make for a smoother transition in 2021.
5. In the last edition of EA Sports NCAA football, one player rating category was “awareness.” Fans of the franchise will remember playing a road game with a quarterback with a low “awareness rating.” Calling an audible pre-snap, the screen would shake as the noise of the hostile crowd increased. Normally clear routes like a post or an out would be replaced with squiggly lines. EA Sports’ famous motto, “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” proved true once again Saturday. SDSU’s QB Carson Baker has plenty of arm strength, he is accurate with the football, and he is a leader. However, Baker’s last four quarters are in the running for the worst four quarters any SDSU quarterback has ever had. During that time, Baker has four turnovers, and each mistake was due to his low awareness.
On the first, a fumble against SJSU, Baker double-clutched the ball instead of spiking it immediately at the feet of his running back. The hesitation allowed the rush to close and force the fumble. The second, an interception in the end zone against SJSU, was committed due to a lack of awareness at where his tight-end would run. The third, an interception against Hawaii, came when Baker misread the option route Kobe Smith was running. The route called for Baker and Smith to read how the defense was playing and adjust mid-play. If the corner was playing over Smith, Smith should break off his route at the first down marker, but if the corner was playing under, Smith should continue his route to the end zone. On third and 12 with the defender two steps ahead, Smith properly broke off his route. With the coverage and protection Baker was given, this should have been an easy completion, but Baker misread the play, and it turned into an easy interception. The final turnover found Baker rolling to his right, and instead of throwing the ball immediately to his check down receiver, Greg Bell, Baker held onto the ball and narrowed the window he had to throw. He threw very high, and Bell did not have a chance to catch the pass. In total, Baker completed six passes – four to SDSU receivers and two to Hawaii defenders.
Baker was replaced after his last turnover by another San Diego product, Lucas Johnson. Johnson came into the game at a time when San Diego State was running out the clock. Focused on the Aztecs running backs, Johnson’s running ability on the read-option looked promising. The story from Saturday was Carson Baker, suddenly looking like an inexperienced player with no game awareness. Every indication from his coaches, his teammates, and his interviews suggests Baker will bounce back. The only question is if he will be given another opportunity this season.
6. SDSU’s leading receiver is Jesse Matthews, a former walk-on from Christian High in El Cajon. For San Diego State to turn its faltering passing game around, they will have to unearth more under the radar gems like Matthews. Convincing high profile wide receiver recruits to come to a school who had 30 yards passing for the game is a tall task. Case in point, after the game, SDSU received a commitment from Joshua Nicholson, a wide receiver from Grand Prairie, Texas. Nicholson is a zero star (unranked) recruit with no other FBS offers. Nicholson looks like the perfect, less-heralded receiver the Aztecs need to recruit and develop to move towards their stated goal of being a balanced offensive attack.