Analysis of SDSU’s victory over Towson

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

When Kobe Smith was two years old, he broke a family rule by running inside the house. One look from his aunt stopped Smith dead in his tracks. “I’ll be your best friend,” he said to avoid getting in trouble. They have been best friends ever since. His aunt is a retired teacher of 36 years who lives in Baltimore and was in attendance Saturday. True to form, as Smith approached the player’s tunnel at halftime, his aunt yelled, “Hey, best friend.” Smith instantly turned and, with a smile, greeted his family. It was a sweet reminder that football is just one part of a player’s life.

Smith was not in uniform against Towson because he was involved in a serious car accident just six days earlier. He was on his way to the post-game examination that all players go through after each contest. Near the corner of Montezuma and 55th, Smith’s car t-boned into another vehicle. While an investigation is ongoing, preliminary information indicates Smith was not at fault. The driver of the other vehicle was taken to the hospital. Smith was treated and assessed at the team facility. The accident could keep Smith out of the lineup for four weeks.

“San Diego State coaches and representatives were there, and that’s how I was kept abreast of what was going on with my son,” Julia Boyer, Smith’s mother, told EVT. “Those coaches, they’re a top-notch, class act, and they let me know what was going on with Kobe throughout the whole process.”

SDSU wide receiver coach Hunkie Cooper was the first person Smith contacted about the accident. Cooper’s handling of the situation is a reminder that a position coaches’ duties extend far beyond recruiting and player development. Cooper has been cultivating a relationship with Smith and his family for years, which allowed him to be depended upon in their moment of need. Cooper’s care would have happened outside the eye of the public, but Smith’s mother wanted it to come to light.

“I never questioned what (Coach Cooper told me) at all because I have 100% confidence in what he tells me about my son,” Boyer said when asked how the relationship Cooper has built with her family impacted the situation.

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

Daniel Bellinger Photo Series

Football is a very violent game—the photo series highlights just one sequence for tight end Daniel Bellinger. On the play, which went for a minimal gain, Bellinger was knocked to the ground, attempted to get back up, collided with Greg Bell, and a host of Towson players crushed Bell with Bellinger underneath him. What makes Bellinger special is he replicates the elite effort he showed on this one play for most of the game. Every player is able to show great energy at the beginning of the game, but follow Bellinger on any play, and this is what you will see.

Much has been made about Bellinger’s leadership of the young tight ends in the programs, and for good reason. The photos illustrate what it means to be a tight end at SDSU. This is Bellinger’s legacy. Previous tight ends started it, Bellinger continued it, and all the young tight ends in the program will be better because of it.

Picking on Noah Avinger

When Noah Avinger is working out for NFL teams leading up to the NFL draft in four years, remember this game against Towson. Avinger made a huge leap during the game. The Tiger’s game plan was very apparent Saturday. Target Noah Avinger early and often.

The first handful of plays in every game are scripted. Bill Walsh is credited with bringing this innovation to the game. Scripting the first 15 or so plays serves to focus an offense’s players the night before the game. It allows the coaches to lay the foundation for what they will run later. Most of all, it allows teams to test the mettle of certain players on defense. Avinger was the subject of Towson’s experiments.

The first play of the game lined up at their own seven-yard line. Towson ran some shifts and motion, hoping Avinger would give a little cushion to wide receiver Caleb Smith. He did, and they completed a quick curl route. The true freshman came up, made a tackle, and limited the gain to three yards.

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

Play two had the same aim as play one: test Avinger as a tackler. The Tigers ran a quick toss to Avinger’s side. Avinger attacked the ball carrier, ate up one blocker, and freed Segun Olubi and Patrick McMorris to finish the play after four yards.

On third and three, Towson designed a play-action pass, sending Avinger’s man on a slant across the field as the quarterback bootlegged away from the fake handoff. The quarterback found tight end Jason Epps for an easy first down. The play ended up going 18 because Avinger did not wrap up after leaving his man and bounced off the much bigger Epps. The common denominator is each of these three plays was Towson forced Avinger to be in the middle of the action.

Following Lucas Johnson’s interception, the Tigers attempted a deep pass against Avinger. The young corner made a great play to dislodge the ball from the receiver’s hands and cause the incompletion. Towson went deep again on the next play. This time, Avinger covered the wrong zone and allowed a receiver to get behind him. The play resulted in a 49 yard gain.  Two plays later, they scored a touchdown with a pass thrown to Avinger’s side of the field.

Just before the half, the Tigers called a timeout with nine seconds left. Their coach, free to call any play in their playbook, chose to attack Avinger. It worked for the score. Avinger was unable to defend the jump ball.

Avinger did not perform horribly during the first 30 minutes, but he was targeted frequently, and Towson had enough success to stay in the game. In the second half, Avinger more than responded. The Tigers opened with a quick toss to Avinger’s side. With McMorris lined up closer to the line of scrimmage, he took on the blocker, which left Avinger free to make the tackle. He closed fast on the ball carrier and delivered a blow for a one-yard loss. It was another scripted play putting pressure on SDSU’s corner.

After the punt block and return for a touchdown put the Aztecs up by 14, Towson needed a score to stay in the game. On second and nine from their own 44, an injured player gave Towson coaches a timeout to dial up a big play. As they had all game, they chose to attack SDSU’s true freshman cornerback. They called a max protection set, sending only two players out for passes. With help over the top, Avinger played underneath the receiver perfectly, which allowed him to be in position to make a spectacular interception. It was his first career pick and essentially sealed the game. It was just one play, but with it, Avinger announced to the conference that he is a legit player. 

Credit: Twitter: @GoAztecs

The league took notice. Avinger was named the Mountain West Freshman of the Week Monday morning. The freshman from Cerritos, California, finished with three tackles, .05 tackles for loss, a pass breakup, and an interception.

“Noah’s been a guy who’s done a nice job, practice-wise,” Hoke said following the game. “He’s very competitive, a highly recruited young man, who’s gifted. He’s done a great job. I think coach Sumler has done a great job in how he’s handled him and coaches him.”

Hurry Up Defense

Three times in the last two games, SDSU’s defense has faced offenses in hurry-up situations. All three drives ended in touchdowns. The first two were in the final five minutes against Utah. The third occurred Saturday. Towson went eighty yards in 1:40.  Following the game, coach Hoke pointed to getting the correct “rotations” into the game as one of the keys to shoring up the defense. It will be interesting to see what changes that will mean going forward because, during those three drives, all of SDSU’s top defenders were on the field.

The only non-starters in the game were linebackers Michael Shawcroft and Seyddrick Lakalaka. Shawcroft, who was a coverage linebacker a year ago, played the first drive against Utah and was in the game against Towson. Lakalaka played the second drive against the Utes. Otherwise, all of SDSU’s best defensive players were on the field.  

Against Towson, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix rushed three, four, and sometimes more. He mixed up the looks his defense gave Towson’s offense. Three times he even had a linebacker playing deep center field — Caden McDonald twice and Segun Olubi once. It did not really matter what scheme Mattix called. The results were the same, lots of space for opposing receivers.

Coach Hoke dubbed Mattix the best coach he has ever worked with, so a solution is likely on the way. With four opponents, who rank in the top 58 in average numbers of plays from scrimmage among their final eight games, the bye week is the perfect time to put together a new package to address the situation. 

One fix, on paper, would be to put an additional defensive back in the game by dropping Trenton Thompson into a linebacking role in place of Shawcroft/Lakalaka. Thompson’s spot could be filled by the top backup safety or by bringing in Avinger at corner and sliding Tayler Hawkins to safety. Hawkins would be used to cover receivers in the slot.

Hawkins, of course, is an important part of this conversation. He was hurt early in the first hurry-up drive against Utah, so he has not played fully in any of these three drives. Perhaps, a return of SDSU’s top corner will be enough by itself to fix the first clear flaw in a Kurt Mattix defense at SDSU. 

“I’m going to address (the hurry-up defense), I can guarantee you that,” Hoke said postgame. …“That has been one of our Achilles’ (heel). That has been, for us, what has hurt us.”


Quick Hits

– Pregame, Hoke was more animated with his players than he has been in previous games. Increasing intensity and energy appeared to be the general message.

– Jordon Brookshire still had a noticeable limp, though it was improved from last week. Also, unlike last week, he participated in pregame drills with the QBs.

– The QBs are a very tight group. It is very evident they enjoy each other’s presence.

– All five captains walked in together for the first time this year, heading to the coin toss. In the previous three games, only four of the five walked onto the playing field before the rest of the team. Since only four are permitted at the center of the field, Daniel Bellinger watched the coin toss from near the 50 painted on the field next to the Aztecs’ sideline.

– SDSU cornerbacks do a great job getting their heads turned around at the right time on deep passes.

– Credit Towson. They completely went away from their identity against SDSU. It was the first game they passed more times than they rushed. “San Diego State is a great, tough football team,” Towson head coach Rob Ambrose said postgame. “We were a little overmatched. We knew we had to do things a little differently, just wasn’t good enough to get the win.  After last week, to be down a score at halftime, there is confidence to be gained from that.”

– #34 true freshman CJ Baskerville looks like a player. Tall and fast, he appears first in line to replace Trenton Thompson at Warrior safety next season. He was singled out by Hoke as a player who benefited from playing time on Saturday. He nearly had an interception, but a pass interference took it away.

– #83 Mekhi Shaw earned the first start of his career. His whole family was on hand, including his younger brother Jalen Shaw, a potential SDSU recruit.

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

– Defensive lineman Jonah Tavai writes “Mom Dad” on the tape along his arm. When he makes a great play, he hits the tape as an ode to his parents.

– #2 Matt Araiza is unbelievable as a punter. What a weapon he is! He also added another tackle yesterday. When the PA announcer said his name, it was one of the loudest eruptions by the fans all game. Araiza leads the Aztecs in special teams’ tackles. He also was perfect on two field goals from 48 and 36.

– The opening kickoff was angled away from Jordan Byrd. Given the two touchdowns, he scored later in the game, that was a good strategy.

– Greg Bell and Kyron White were injured in subsequent plays. With Bell in the injury tent, there was no room for White, who had to settle for a spot on the sidelines. White was receiving treatment throughout the game on his lower left leg.

– Garret Fountain is quite the playmaker. After recording two sacks in limited time against Utah, he added a fumble recovery yesterday. Fountain leads the team with three sacks on the season.

– Poor tackling was an issue early in the game.

– Tyrell Shavers continued to receive a lot of snaps. He was on the field the most among the receivers.

– Perhaps it is Lucas Johnson’s prowess as a runner that hurts him in the play-action passing game. In scrimmages during spring and fall camps, Johnson was buried by Vai Kaho on two play-action passes. Saturday, Johnson took a nine-yard sack when Keyvone Bruton immediately hit him after faking the handoff. It might be a coincidence, or it might be a play that only works when other QBs are in the game.  

– What a weapon the blocked punt has turned into for the Aztecs. Against Arizona, SDSU overloaded the left side of the punting formation. Yesterday, it was the right side. Expect a big return soon as teams have to stay back to guard against the block.

– Overall, the game had the feeling of an exhibition. Sixty-four players played for the Aztecs. In the scope of the season, Saturday’s game basically functioned like a scrimmage. 

Note: An earlier version of this said Kobe Smith was on his way to practice. He was on his way to the practice facility. It has been updated in the story.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.

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