Getting Off the Field
Statistics have taken over sports and society. While numbers never lie, they also never tell the truth. They always require interpretation, an explanation, if they are to make any sense. The story of Saturday’s game can be told best by examining the Wildcats drive chart.
Arizona only had two possessions the entire night that was longer than four plays. These occurred on the final two drives of the game. SDSU had ten drives over four plays. The results were as expected. The San Diego State Aztecs had a 37:34 to 22:26 edge in time of possession.
It was not their offense, however, that was most responsible for this edge. SDSU’s longest drive of the night was only 3:52. The advantage was provided because the defense suffocated the Wildcats and kept getting the ball back for the offense.
The defense gave up 49 yards on the ground and 179 yards through the air. It held Arizona to only one third-down conversion in 13 tries. Saturday was the rare occasion where a team’s defense dominated the time of possession.
“Our kids take a lot of pride,” Hoke said. “Our players take a lot of pride in our culture. In being tough. They know that’s a standard, an expectation.”
Point Guard of the Offense
When asked what he was looking for in a QB during spring camp, Aztecs’ offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski described his ideal signal-caller as “the most dangerous player on the field” and “a point guard” who is able to distribute the ball all over the gridiron. During the first half of Saturday’s game against Arizona, Jordon Brookshire masterfully filled this role.
His ten completions went to six different receivers. He completed screen passes, short passes, intermediate routes, and most importantly, the deep ball. His 40-yard connection with Ethan Dedeaux for a touchdown late in the second quarter put the Aztecs up 35-7 and gave the final outcome the feeling of inevitability.
As long as SDSU has a player of Greg Bell’s talent in the backfield, they will be a run-first offense, and for good reason. The hometown hero was sensational. He rushed for 125 yards on only 17 carries, but if the offense is going to become dangerous, it must take advantage of what opposing defenses are forced to do to stop the Aztecs’ rushing attack. Saturday night, it did just that.
Arizona stacked the box playing eight players near the line of scrimmage. There are three ways to beat this tactic, and all were on display Saturday. 1. The offense’s tailback can make the extra defender miss in the hole. 2. The passing game can take advantage of one on one coverage and throw the ball downfield. 3. The offense can run screens to their playmakers.
As much as anything, Brookshire was chosen as the starter because the plays in offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski’s playbook worked better when he was under center. Screens and play-action passes were sniffed out too easily when the other QBs played. Brookshire’s ability to disguise the offense’s designs is an underappreciated skill. Saturday, he made three NFL-type throws – the deep pass to Dedeaux, a 15 yard gain to Bellinger, and a deep ball to Matthews – the rest were dinks and dunks, but they were wildly important in keeping Arizona off balance. All of his throws were the right plays that Aztec QBs have missed far too often in recent years.
“I think this (offense) can be very dangerous,” Brookshire said postgame. “We have so many playmakers, so many guys. First of all, we have a great o line. I have so much time back there to do what I need to do, go through my reads. As well as how many receivers we have. We have so many guys we can go to. We can go to our backs as well. There’s just so many guys that are dangerous with the ball in their hands. That’s something we aim for as an offense.”
Putting the Special Back in Special Teams
There is a narrative in college football. When Group of Five teams compete against Power Five teams, the latter has an advantage in the depth of their football team. Where these superior numbers show up during the game is in the third phase, special teams. If this story has any merit across the country, it certainly did not on Saturday. The Aztecs had a decisive advantage in the kicking game.
One of the top highlights of the game was Kaegun Williams’ punt block. Williams lined up on the right side of the defensive formation and rushed to the punter unblocked. He was able to enter unscathed because of the attention Arizona paid to Trenton Thompson, who has two career punt blocks. At the snap, the Aztec team captain beat his man forcing Arizona’s tight end Bryce Wolma to pick him up, which freed Williams. The punter held the ball a second too long, and Williams made the play. Tyrell Shavers scooped the pigskin out of the air and took it for a score.
It was more than just this play, however, where the Aztecs’ advantage on special teams emerged. SDSU punted seven times, only one was returned, and the Wildcats gained four yards. UA punted 11 times. Five of them were returned for 57 yards, an 11.4-yard average. Field position was in SDSU’s favor all night. Arizona started only one possession past their own 30-yard line the entire night. On their final drive, they started on their own 36. SDSU, in contrast, began drives at their own 32, 35, 44, 31, and on Arizona’s 21 following Patrick McMorris’ first career interception.
“I think the willingness of our running backs – we were talking about Kaegun (earlier) – but they are all involved in special teams,” Hoke said. “And our wide receivers, Dan Bellinger, he’s on our punt team. So all those guys – Lakalaka and Trent Thompson and Hawkins – that makes the difference. What makes the difference is for the younger guys. They see, ‘Oh, that guy’s a starter. He’s starting, but he’s on special teams.’ It’s a message and an expectation and a standard that goes from one guy to the next.”
Daniel Bellinger is Rewarded
Jordon Brookshire’s interception against New Mexico State was the most replayed and dissected play from a week ago. On the INT, Brookshire underthrew an open Jesse Matthews, but what caught the eye of armchair quarterbacks was Bellinger breaking wide open on the opposite side of the field. Without exaggeration, if Brookshire had delivered the pass, the tight end could have walked the final fifteen yards to the end zone.
When the passing game struggles, as it has for a long time at SDSU, these missed opportunities happen frequently. Credit Bellinger and the rest of the pass-catchers because they have rarely allowed frustration to impact the rest of their game. Bellinger is a willing and skillful blocker whose effort in this aspect of the game never wanes. Saturday, the tight end from Las Vegas was finally rewarded for his patience.
Bellinger led the Aztecs with three receptions and 113 yards. It was the first time an Aztec tight end had gone over 100 yards since Gavin Escobar did it against UNLV in 2012.
Throughout the spring and into fall camp, Bellinger worked on becoming dangerous after the catch. That work was evident against the Wildcats. On the team’s second possession, the Aztecs faced a third and two at their own 12. Brookshire found Bellinger behind the line to gain. Arizona’s three defenders converged, attempting to stop the play before the first down. With a perfect block by wide receiver Ethan Dedeaux, Bellinger was off to the races. He was caught 56 yards downfield at the Aztecs 32. He stiff-armed and fought with the defender for an additional 17 yards after contact.
Later in the first half, Brookshire found Bellinger on a screen. With Arizona in zone coverage, a DB was in the area when he caught the ball. Bellinger deftly spun away from the defender, raced twenty yards, and evaded the final Wildcat with a dive into the end zone.
Both plays were set up by the same motion. Bellinger moved across the formation and faked a trap block on the backside defensive end. In either man or zone, it is difficult for an LB or DB to see what he is doing, so it creates space in which to work. It only becomes explosive, however, when you have a player like Bellinger, who can turn it into a big play.
Following the game, Hoke mentioned getting Bellinger involved in the passing game was one of the Aztecs’ keys. If he can emerge as a consistent threat, the offense can be very dangerous. It remains to be seen if that will happen going forward, but for one night in the desert, Bellinger was rewarded for his patience and exceptional character.
“Bellinger, he’s a great guy,” Brookshire said. “Love him at tight end. Any time he is in the game. Any time I can get him the ball, it’s something I love to do. Whenever he’s open, that’s some guy I like to go to.”
– Defensive end Cameron Thomas had a great game. The havoc he wreaked will not show up in the box score. On his best series of the night, Arizona had the ball first and 18 from their own nine. They called a screen that was set up perfectly. Thomas was able to get back into the play and bring them back down for only a five-yard game. On the next play, Thomas added a quarterback sack.
– If you had Tyrell Shavers’ first touchdown coming on a blocked punt, you win the office pool.
– Is there anything Segun Olubi cannot do? He carved a role on the team as a hard-hitting, pass-covering linebacker last year. Yesterday, he was successfully blitzing the QB up the middle, looking a lot like Aztec greats Kyahva Tezino and Calvin Munson. Olubi also had a great game covering punts on Saturday.
– Patrick McMorris had another standout game. He was quick to praise the front six for making his job easy, but the new Aztec is making a name for himself at the position.
– Keshawn Banks again showed his instincts as a playmaker. On Arizona’s first possession of the second half, it faced a 3rd and two. Banks broke through the line and stopped the back for a four-yard loss.
– While Greg Bell praised his offensive line for the huge hole on his 55-yard touchdown run, the play showed what made him great. He was able to make two defenders miss on his way to the end zone.
– On that same play, Bell scored the TD, William Dunkle lived up to his nickname “Dunkzilla.” He mauled the defensive lineman at the point of attack before handing him off to center Alama Uluave. Dunkle then found a defender on the next level to block, which helped spring his running back.
– Noah Tumblin and Noah Avinger rotated every two possessions. Tumblin started the first half, Avinger the second. On Avinger’s first series, he missed a tackle that turned into a touchdown. Credit the coaches for sticking with the young corner. It would have been an easy knee-jerk decision to replace him after the mistake. Instead, he was back out there the next series. He and the team will be better for it down the road.
– Bell had a couple of opportunities to block this game. He was the lead blocker on a reverse to Jordan Byrd and led the way on Jordon Brookshire’s TD run. He filled this selfless role as well as he does the starring one.
– Jalil Lecky earned a few snaps with the first team line. On his first play, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix called a zone blitz, dropping Lecky into coverage. He is a lineman trapped in a linebacker’s body, so dropping him is one way to take advantage of his unique skill set.
– Brookshire was efficient on the deep ball. On four attempts, he had one completion and one pass that would have been completed except for defensive pass interference. He did not attempt a throw the other two plays.
– Penalties continue to haunt the Aztecs. Cleaning that up continues to be on top of Hoke’s To-Do List.
– SDSU received nine votes in the Coaches Poll released Sunday. Not sure when ballots were due, but count Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch as a believer in the Aztecs. “They out-schemed us. They did a heck of a job. They played extremely hard, and they made it very hard on us. Hats off to Brady and his staff and to that team. They’re a very good football team. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast, and it showed up tonight. They did a very good job.”
– Arizona received six votes in the AP poll released Sunday. The Wildcats have lost their last 14 games, so either their inclusion on some ballots is a mistake or a clever protest of the voting system.
– San Diego State recorded its 12th-highest pass efficiency (213.15) in a game in its Division I history (since 1969) (min. 15 attempts).
– Brookshire improved to 3-1 as a starter at SDSU.
– Tayler Hawkins played in his 46th consecutive game.