Analysis of SDSU Aztecs’ win over Utah

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Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

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Reflecting on his team’s loss against BYU, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said, “On offense, our main issue was mental mistakes. We didn’t get beat physically.” Following Saturday’s defeat, he said just the opposite, “Their front seven beat us up pretty good. In the run game, we usually generate close to 200 yards. I think we had close to 70 yards, which is not us.”

Whittingham’s assertion is backed up by statistics. The last time the Utes were held under 100 yards rushing was the 2018 Holiday Bowl in a 31-20 loss to Northwestern. SDSU’s dominance along the front is becoming a weekly story, but one worth repeating. The defensive line and linebackers were simply sensational Saturday night yet again.

The usual suspects produced. Caden McDonald had a pair of very timely quarterback pressures that prevented big plays. Cameron Thomas and Jonah Tavai were everywhere, somehow playing sideline to sideline from their defensive line positions. Keshawn Banks blew up a few plays with his typical instinctiveness. Michael Shawcroft and Seyddrick Lakalaka had ten combined tackles. Segun Olubi led the team with eight stops. What stood out about Saturday’s game, however, was the production throughout the two-deep.

Kahi Neves added three tackles. Jalil Lecky was active and disruptive, and Garret Fountain turned in his best game as an Aztec. In the first quarter, McDonald went to the locker room, favoring his right shoulder. In his place, Fountain had two third-down sacks that ended a pair of drives. McDonald returned in the second quarter.

“We knew coming into the game that they were going to have a good offensive line, that they were going to be physical,” Thomas said postgame. “We were relentless this game, and we prepared really well, and it all just paid off in the end.” 

… “I think we are a really well-coached group, and come game time, that really pays off. We have a lot of players that can step up and play a huge role in this defense.”

Hats off to Utah

In the week leading up to the game, Whittingham reminisced on his memories of playing the Aztecs. Referring to the stadium formerly standing in Mission Valley as “The Murph,” Utah’s head coach waxed eloquent about playing against teams led by Doug Scovil, Ted Tollner, and Tom Craft. Whittingham spoke with the same down-to-earth, breath of fresh air manner that has been his trademark since taking over at Utah for Urban Meyer in 2005.

The program he has built with the Utes is as unique as the man who leads it. Tough, physical, unafraid of playing close games, Utah is a perennial power in the West. Under his leadership, Utah has taken the mantle from BYU as the premier football program in the state. He accomplished this with a “We’ll play anybody anywhere” attitude that flies in the face of convention in college football.

Most power programs try to create an uneven playing field off the gridiron to gain an advantage on it. In lieu of playing on the road, Power Five programs frequently use their extra millions to pay schools to come to their field, which artificially inflates their win totals. Credit Utah for traveling to Carson to play SDSU on the road, though not everyone in the Bee Hive State was pleased.

The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article this week “Why did Utah football agree to play a road game at San Diego State?  Perhaps, anticipating Saturday’s outcome, the author bemoaned the risk Utah took in playing a good Group of Five program on the road.

Before abandoning the bravado that their athletic department was built on, however, Utah might want to look at the problems their current Pac 12 South Division rivals USC and UCLA are having. When programs act entitled off the field, their teams usually play entitled on it.

The Emergence of Tayler Hawkins

Hawkins’ emergence as a top college corner is one of the better developments for the Aztecs. His ability to replace Darren Hall’s role in the defense this quickly is surprising. He looks bigger, faster, stronger, and more athletic than at any point in his career at SDSU. For a player who has given his all for the team – working his way back from a serious knee injury to contribute on special teams his freshman season – his success is well deserved.

A converted safety, Hawkins is a very versatile defender. He is the special DB who is as adept against the pass as he is against the run. In this regard, he is like a knight in chess, whose unique movements give an element of unpredictability to the otherwise static characteristics of the other pieces. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix is able to line up Hawkins against the run or pass, zone or man, with or without help, and the result is typically the same, a checkmate to the offense’s designs.

Talented corners create incompletions simply by the threat of their playmaking ability. Quarterbacks, aware of who they are going against, try to be too perfect with their throws, which leads to more balls hitting the turf. Saturday, Hawkins created a few of these.

On the series following his interception, Utah had the ball second and ten on SDSU’s 48. They tried a deep ball, and Hawkins nearly got a second pick of the night. On third and ten, Hawkins was beat on a post move, but the quarterback, worried about Hawkins, threw a more difficult ball than was necessary, and the receiver was unable to make the catch.

Hawkins was injured late in the game, and his absence coincided with Utah’s first sign of life on offense. Without the ability to shut down one side of the field, SDSU had to broaden their coverage, and holes that had not been there all game suddenly emerged.

“I give (Hawkins) a lot of credit,” coach Hoke when asked if Hawkins absence keyed Utah’s offensive spark. “Hawk has had a heck of a year to this point. Hopefully, knock on wood. He’s going to be ok.”

Energy in the tunnel

There was a noticeable difference between the way Utah and SDSU entered the field after intermission. The Aztecs were loud and highly energetic. The players looked and sounded like all they wanted was to get back on the field. In contrast, the Utes were subdued. It was unclear if the Utes were simply more workman-like in their approach or if they were not ready to play. The answer became evident quickly.

“Probably the most disappointing thing in the whole game,” Whittingham said, “as I look back on it, is the way we came out in the second half and gave up two quick scores. That’s inexcusable. We had a really good session at halftime, painted a picture of what needed to happen, and we came out and just laid an egg in the first part of the second half.”

Whittingham is one of the best, most experienced coaches in the nation. If he says halftime went well, it did. What changed for Utah coming back onto the field with SDSU is they were intimidated. It could be seen in the glazed eyes and low energy of their team as they emerged from the tunnel for the second half.  

Quick Takes

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

A handful of recruits were treated to quite a game Saturday. Drew Azzopardi, Xavier Van, Brayden Bockler, Colton Joseph, Misael Sandoval, and a few others were in attendance.

– Brady Hoke took some time out of his pregame ritual to go and meet some of the recruits and their families on the sideline.

– In addition to the position coaches, Dominic Gudino came out to chat with a few of the offensive line recruits. It is another example of how the former team captain continues to benefit the program.

– Pulling out all the stops for the recruits was a slick video of the new stadium.

– Jordon Brookshire did not participate in warmups with the quarterbacks.

– Michael Shawcroft’s cast was significantly smaller. His fingers were visible emerging from his cast.

– In trying to prevent Greg Bell from breaking off big gains, Utah stayed in their lanes and made sure defenders were available on the backside of plays. When they made a few tackles early in the game on Bell’s cutbacks, their sideline erupted as if they caused a turnover. 

– Noah Tumblin received the vast majority of snaps at corner opposite Hawkins. He appears to have pulled ahead in the competition.

– Tyrell Shavers spent a lot of time on the field Saturday. SDSU is still searching for the go-to person on the outside.

– Wide receiver Mekhi Shaw played down the stretch. Coaches raved about his spring, and it has translated to playing time.

– Lucas Johnson showed why he stayed in the QB competition as long as he did. His running ability is special, as his 87 yards rushing would indicate.

– Johnson also showed why he ended up losing the QB competition. He had too many balls batted at the line of scrimmage, and he threw an ill-advised pass across the field to Jesse Matthews that could have been intercepted.

– On that throw, Matthews was, somehow, called for offensive pass interference. To call the penalty terrible would be an understatement.

– The last time Matt Araiza missed two field goals in a game early in a season. He lost the punter job. This year, he is punting so well, it is difficult to see SDSU replacing him there. They might be willing to give another kicker field goal duties, except the second-best field goal kicker on the team David Delgado from Hilltop High, was injured in fall camp. Look for Araiza to continue kicking in all three areas.

– Before the Arizona game, Kurt Mattix spoke about preparing for two quarterbacks every week in case of injury. He pointed to the San Jose State game last year as an example of why that was important. Coach Hoke made nearly an identical comment postgame Saturday. The coaching staff is clearly searching for a way to have multiple game plans on defense heading into a game.

– Jordan Byrd has 20 touches for 266 all-purpose yards this season. He has rushed five times for 67 yards, caught four passes for 27 yards, returned two kickoffs for 126 yards and nine punts for 46 yards. He is tied for second on the team with two touchdowns.

– Sefo Mailangi might be the fastest defensive lineman in the country. On Jordan Byrd’s kickoff return, he passed every Ute on his way to celebrate with Byrd in the end zone.

– If SDSU’s defensive line did not have enough going for it, La’Roi Glover was with the team during warmups.

– One Aztec great in attendance who had to like what he saw was Kyahva Tezino.

– Ronnie Hillman did not lead the team, as the honorary captain, onto the field because he was late to the game. He was stuck in LA traffic.

– SDSU’s Men’s Basketball team received their championship rings on Saturday. Jordan Schakel, who played travel ball with Kobe Smith on Cali Supreme, was in attendance.  

– Brookshire was not playing, but he was active during timeouts interacting with every unit on the team.

– The last two weeks, up 14, SDSU tried for the big play to go up three scores. Against Arizona, Brookshire found Ethan Dedeaux for a touchdown. In the third quarter Saturday, Johnson attempted a deep ball to Shavers that resulted in pass interference. If not for a missed field goal, it would have led to a three-score lead as well.

– Since this was a nationally televised game on CBS Sports Network, timeouts were especially long. Fortunately, there were many willing dancers in attendance who graced the scoreboard screens during pauses in the action.

– For anyone thinking of buying tickets for next week’s 12:30 pm kickoff against Towson, the shade side of the field is the visitor’s side.

– The SDSU logo and painted end zones were a welcomed addition. They were much nicer than the white outlines during the opening game.

– The end of the game felt like it was back in San Diego. When the third overtime started, and the teams switched sides, droves of fans relocated closer to the action.

– The new overtime rules caught many by surprise, however, and scores of fans watched the end of the game from the stadium concourse.

– Part of the reason SDSU has a 7-2 record against the Pac-12 is they have found ways to hold onto leads down the stretch. Four of their wins in the stretch have been nail biters. 

1.  2016: An interception by Damontae Kazee sealed the win over Cal. The Golden Bears should never have been in the game, but a recovered onside kick let them back in.

2. 2017: The infamous Blackout Game against Stanford saw SDSU ahead the entire game until late. It took a game-winning drive to retake the lead and earn the win.

3. 2018: Arizona State’s Hail Mary had to be knocked away to seal the win because the refs and the review booth somehow did not see Chase Jasmin’s knee on the ground but instead called a fumble.

4. 2021: SDSU needed a two-point conversion from Jesse Matthews to Lucas Johnson to win against Utah.

– It was not that long ago that SDSU lost games like the one to Utah. Notre Dame, Missouri, and Oregon State come immediately to mind.

– The only time Utah fans could be heard all night was with 1:30 seconds left in the game. They all started chanting, “Let’s Go Utah.” SDSU fans quickly drowned them out with a chorus of boos.

– JD Wicker was begging for a pass interference call in the first overtime. Standing behind the end zone, he had a terrific view of Daniel Bellinger getting mugged. Mimicking, taking a flag from his hip and throwing it, SDSU’s athletic director was as animated as the superfan in a cape standing ten feet behind him in the stands. The refs listened.  

– SDSU has some banged-up players. The schedule appears favorable to having a healthy group heading into conference play.

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