Analysis of SDSU Aztecs domination of New Mexico

Photo Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

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Photo Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

Quarterback play, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Jordon Brookshire’s work on Saturday offered plenty of reasons for an ugly assessment, but a closer look reveals a much more attractive performance.

Brookshire’s start against New Mexico was only the fifth of his career and the first in nearly a month. He was injured against Arizona on September 11th and had not seen game action since. Brookshire’s terrible first quarter, though not surprising given this context, was very informative. His ability to shake off the cold start is the clearest indication to date that SDSU has found its starting quarterback.

As the graphic above shows, Brookshire was 3-11 for 18 yards after the first 15 minutes of the game. However, over the next 32 before Lucas Johnson took over for him early in the fourth quarter, he was 8-13 for 112 yards. That Brookshire was able to elevate his play during a game was a sign of maturity, confidence, and proof of significant improvement.

Since the Arizona game, opposing defenses have used a similar approach against the Aztecs. Their chief aim has been to bottle up Greg Bell and prevent an explosive run by SDSU’s star. One of Bell’s best traits is his ability to cut back into running lanes created by aggressive defenders. The past three weeks, these holes have not been as plentiful as defensive coordinators have been more conservative in their approach, content to allow a couple of yards instead of the significant gain. This approach intentionally puts pressure on Brookshire to do more than just handoff.

Aside from Bell being the special player he is and making defenders miss, there are three ways to combat this tactic. The first is to take what the defense gives the offense and convert on third and short. Brookshire, even in his subpar first quarter, was good on third down. The second is to spread the defense out and use the screen game effectively. Brookshire excelled in getting the ball out on time and accurately in these short passes allowing his skill position players to run after the catch. Finally, when a defense calls a run blitz to plug all the gaps, it does not leave many defenders to help in the intermediate and deep passing game. Brookshire missed a number of these throws early but rebounded to hit three of them as the game wore on.

Photo Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

The photo series to the left illustrates Brookshire’s improvement from last season. In the middle of the second quarter facing a fourth down and two from the New Mexico 37, Jeff Hecklinski called a play-action pass. As Brookshire dropped back, his eyes were locked downfield on his pre-snap read. Too often last season, his eyes wandered to the oncoming defenders in this situation. With three defenders bearing down on him, Brookshire deftly took a step to his left, buying an extra moment before lofting a pass to Tyrell Shavers well before the wide receiver looked back for the ball.

“We have big goals,” Brady Hoke said postgame. To reach those heights, SDSU needs Brookshire to play as he did after the first quarter Saturday. The Aztecs are looking for a complement to their dominating defense and terrific running game capable of spreading the ball around in the short passing game, picking up a handful of third-down conversions, and connecting on a few shots down the field. Brookshire’s performance was far from perfect, but it was winning football. From the proper perspective, it was beautiful.

Schedule Analysis

How good is SDSU? Despite a 5-0 start and a pair of wins over Pac-12 opponents, the question remains open because the Aztecs have just navigated the easiest part of their schedule. Four of their first five games were played at home against teams that are not exactly setting the college football world on fire. While their win over Utah grows more impressive by the week, the rest of their vanquished foes give little insight into the potential for this team. That is about to change.

Of SDSU’s final seven games, only one, UNLV, currently has a losing record. Four of the contests will be played on the road, including the next two against defending Mountain West Champion San Jose State and Mountain Division-leading Air Force. The rest of the Aztecs’ slate is littered with capable quarterbacks, who can be difference-makers in any game they play.

Critics of the Group of Five schedules will have nothing to say if SDSU emerges from this stretch without blemish. Week in and week out, they will have tough matchups and will be tested in various ways. How good are the Aztecs? We are about to find out.

The Return of Rocky Long

One of the top two coaches in SDSU history returned to play his former team Saturday night. It was quite a homecoming. More than an hour and a half before the game, coach Long emerged from the tunnel. A steady stream of SDSU coaches made their way to see their former boss. It is doubtful Long smiled more in his decade on the Mesa than he did pregame.

Postgame, he was even more jovial as his former players showed their appreciation to their old ball coach. Long barely made his way onto the field before he was mobbed with greetings and hugs. It was a fitting gesture to a person who has meant so much to the program. The friendship between Long and Hoke allowed for these special and well-deserved moments.

Quick Takes

It is never tiring to find new ways to express how great the SDSU defense has played. Here is another. On the season, they have given up 50 yards a game rushing. When their opponents are not playing the Aztecs, they average 131 yards on the ground. Here is the breakdown.

Team                             Not Playing SDSU                       Against SDSU

New Mexico State       90                                                 48                                                      Arizona                         148                                               51                                                              Utah                              194                                               70                                                              Towson                         110                                               15                                                              New Mexico                 114                                               66     

– The transformation of recruiting coordinator Nik Embernate from his persona as a player with the nickname Nik “Embernasty” to an inviting host of the gathered recruits is a fun contrast. He is still an imposing presence but possesses an even larger personality.

– Perhaps it was a coincidence, or maybe it was the fruit of breaking into the top 25, but there were more recruits gathered pregame than any other all season.

– Speaking of recruiting, one player who received a lot of attention from the Aztecs staff was Andrew Overland.

Photo Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

– Best sight of the night: seeing Dominic Gudino and Rashad Scott in uniform. Postgame, coach Hoke spoke about the morale boost having those two respected players back provided for the team.

– Dallas Branch was really good. With only one hand, he was around the ball all night. If he continues to perform like he did Saturday, he may earn back the starting role he lost due to injury.

– New Zealand Williams’ brother, Zacharyus Williams, a class of 2024 recruit, was in the stands. He is already a national recruit with offers from Florida State, Arizona State, and Pittsburgh. Williams looked sharp in his SDSU hoodie.

– It was Segun Olubi’s turn to stay back from the coin toss this week. He did not accompany the other team captains to the center of the field.

– As they entered the game, both teams were lined up in the tunnel, with UNM following SDSU. This can often be a disaster waiting to happen. One ref comically tried to hurry up the Aztecs as their entrance video played on the stadium screens. He even went to the players in the front and motioned for them to run out. Another ref with a huge smile on his face rescued his colleague from the pointless attempt.

– Marines from Camp Pendleton presented the nation’s colors on Saturday. They had the same honor at Sunday’s Chargers vs. Browns game.

– The Mountain West did well securing the new Rams’ home as a reward for their champion. SoFi Stadium is a little nicer than Sam Boyd, where the Las Vegas Bowl has been played for years. 

–  Early in the season, many of SDSU’s main players ran down on kickoff coverage. Only Trenton Thompson and Keagun Williams from the impact players had those duties on the opening kickoff against the Lobos.

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– Koby Duru is an emotional leader for this team. Not many players have more enjoyment on the field than the junior transfer from Montana State. From the players’ tunnel, the sideline, and when he is in on special teams, the joy of #87 is evident. Be on the lookout for his dancing at the next home game.

– Seyddrick Lakalaka is a true downhill player. When he attacks, he imposes his will on the offense.

– Tayler Hawkins has not completely recovered from his injury. Kurt Mattix did a great job minimizing how much he had to run Saturday. Hawkins played on the short side of the field, and the other cornerback lined up on the long side. All year, Hawkins has often played the “field” corner because of his superior tackling ability, but he played “boundary” Saturday.

–  Credit Jeff Hecklinski for splitting out his tight ends wide. Not only do Daniel Bellinger and Jay Rudolph possess the ability to be dangerous as receivers outside, but lining them up wide makes the offense even more multiple and the defense easier to read.

Noah Tumblin has grown and was very comfortable making tackles in the screen game. He showed more veteran savvy than he had at the beginning of the year.

– SDSU advertised their “NIL Information Headquarters” for the first time this season.

– The wide receivers continue to rotate a lot. It is the only position where many different players play.

– Halfway through the second quarter, SDSU had first and goal from the three. On first down, Greg Bell ran for two yards. As the players looked to the sideline for the play call, Bell pointed to himself as if to implore the sideline to give him another shot. When the play call came in, Bell clearly indicated his disgust by throwing his head back. Sure enough, the second down call was a play-action pass that Brookshire ended up running in for the score. Bell’s antics, which gave away the play type, were broadcast for everyone to see on the stadium video boards.

–  One point of emphasis for SDSU was finishing each half of the game well. In their previous two contests, the defense gave up 21 points at the end of the first or the second half. New Mexico’s best drive of the night came towards the end of the first half but ended when Trenton Thompson intercepted a pass in the end zone.

– One of the new formations on Saturday was a two-back look with both backs flanking Brookshire. From shovel passes to spread option concepts to max protection, the new look has a lot of possibilities. The Aztecs called a well-designed screen out of it in their first use of it against the Lobos.

– New Mexico was the first team all year to respect Matt Araiza’s leg. Their punt returners lined up much deeper than previous teams did.

– CJ Baskerville was the first Warrior Safety off the bench. The true freshman came in on some plays so Trenton Thompson could have a breather. When he did, Cedarious Barfield jumped over to cover the slot, so Baskerville did not have to play in a one-on-one situation his first snap in the game.

–  Does Greg Bell have a fumbling issue?

– SDSU was 4-4 in red-zone chances. All four were touchdowns. Add that to the list of important aspects of Brookshire’s game. It was a point of emphasis in the offseason, and the Aztecs are doing much better in this regard so far in 2021.

– Following Brookshire’s second touchdown, he ran through a dozen of his teammates who were all seeking a more significant celebration from their offensive leader. He did not oblige until short snapper Jacob Raab came over. Brookshire pointed in the air, and the pair leaped in jubilation. After the game, Brookshire said there was nothing premeditated. It was all in the moment.

– Jordan Byrd looks very comfortable returning kicks this season. Following the Aztecs’ contest with the Spartans last season, Byrd lost his starting punt returner role. He goes into this week’s game against the Spartans, a different player.

– Caden McDonald introduced a new sack celebration. In an ode to his Texas roots, he held his fingers like a cowboy with two revolvers, shot them, blew out the smoke, and re-holstered them. As cool as the new celebration was, the best part of McDonald’s night was the excitement he showed after the second-string defense completed the shutout by turning over the Lobos on downs. With under a minute left, he rushed from the sidelines to congratulate his teammates about as fast as he pursued the quarterback all night. 

– A picture of the seating plans and pricing for Aztec Stadium made its way across social media on Monday.

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