Aztecs aim for repeat victory against 14th ranked Utah

SDSU greets the Show just before kickoff against Idaho State. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Jaylon Armstead breaks through the line against Idaho State. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

The San Diego State Aztecs travel to Salt Lake City to take on the University of Utah. The Utes are ranked 14 in the AP Poll and 15 in the Coaches Poll. SDSU will be playing its first road game of the season. Saturday’s contest is a rematch of last year’s thrilling 33-31 overtime victory for the Aztecs in Carson. In the postgame, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham remarked, “(SDSU) 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.” 

SDSU was an eight-point underdog in last year’s game, and their win snapped Utah’s five-game winning streak in the series. 

As EVT writer Paul Garrison noted in his game analysis, it was the first time the Utes were held under 100 yards rushing since the 2018 season. 

“We were way out of sync in that game,” Whittingham said this week when asked to recall last year’s game. “It was not a good experience. We just didn’t play well. It was a loss that was very bitter. Frustrating.”

Following the defeat, the Utes named Cameron Rising as the starting quarterback and won every remaining game en route to their third Pac-12 South Title in four years and a Pac-12 championship before losing to Ohio State 48-45 in the Rose Bowl. 

Utah entered 2022 ranked 7th in the AP Poll, its highest preseason ranking in school history. After an opening game loss to Florida in the Swamp, they dropped but still have their sights set on playing in the College Football Playoff. 

Utah had 13 players earn Preseason All-Pac-12 honors. Six of them were selected to the First-Team, three on offense (RB Tavion Thomas, TE Brant Kuithe, and OL Braeden Daniels) and three on defense (DE Van Fillinger, CB Clark Phillips III, and S Cole Bishop.) 

Despite the loss to Arizona two weeks ago, SDSU’s 7-3 record is still the highest win percentage against Pac-12 schools since 2016 (minimum of six games played), tied with Notre Dame.  

Jesse Matthews runs after the catch. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – Even

Offense

The story of the Aztecs’ offense through the first two games is their lack of balance. After rushing for 380 yards against Idaho State, SDSU has accumulated more than three times as many yards on the ground (550 yards) than through the air (170 yards).  

Four players, including quarterback Braxton Burmeister, have rushed for at least 77 yards. Despite starting running back Chance Bell’s upper arm injury early in last week’s game (his status is uncertain for this game), the remaining stable of backs did not miss a beat. 

“380 yards rushing is a good day, but we want to be more balanced. That has been one of the things we’ve worked on this week,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said in his weekly press conference. 

Burmeister has completed 20 of 36 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. In the first game against Arizona, he was constantly flushed from the pocket due to defensive pressure and was unable to find receivers down the field. Against Idaho State, he was able to stay in the pocket, but his throws were inaccurate. 

“A lot of it is timing,” said Hoke when asked about the issues in the passing game. “Timing can get disrupted. The receiver can get pressed at the line of scrimmage, that disrupts timing. We can cut a guy loose in protection. That disrupts your timing. I know the timing is getting closer as we go.”

Wide receivers Tyrell Shavers and Jesse Matthews lead the team with five receptions each (no other player has more than two) for 46 and 42 yards, respectively. Shavers has the only two receiving touchdowns. Matthews, who finished the final five games of 2021 as one of the most productive wide receivers in the country, has yet to leave his mark in 2022. 

Another area of emphasis for the Aztecs’ offense will be improving third-down conversions after only converting 7 of 25 (28%) through two games. “We need to get over that 50% mark,” said Hoke, adding, “we have to convert third downs, so that time of possession is better.”

In last year’s game, the Aztecs rushed for 204 yards, led by Greg Bell’s 119 on 33 carries (two touchdowns). Quarterback Lucas Johnson only passed for 44 yards but added 87 rushing yards himself, aided by a 54-yard run to start the third quarter. 

Key Player – Mark Redman, Tight End, 6-6, 250lbs

The transfer from Washington has two catches for 19 yards through the first two games of this season. Coach Hoke has raved about Redman’s abilities as a blocker and a pass catcher since the junior stepped foot on the Mesa in January. In a likely scenario where the Aztecs are going to utilize a ton of 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends), and the Utes are going to dedicate their front seven to plugging the gaps and running holes, there could be openings for Redman get behind the linebackers and find open zones in the secondary out of play action. 

Defense

The highly decorated Utah defense came into the season with several starters named on national watch lists. Despite losing linebacker Devin Lloyd, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft earlier this year, the talent level remains extremely high. Six of the 11 starters received Preseason All-Pac-12 recognition. Despite the accolades, the Utes’ defense struggled in their 29-26 loss against Florida, allowing 283 rushing yards (7.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns, including 106 yards and three touchdowns to quarterback Anthony Richardson. The defense also did not record a sack and only collected two tackles for loss. Bishop led the way with 12 tackles in the game from the safety position. 

Against Southern Utah, the defense bounced back, only allowing 85 total yards, and collected seven tackles for loss. While the competition level was downgraded by the FCS opponent, the performance across the two-deep was still very impressive. The Utes will undoubtedly sell out to stop the run and force the Aztecs’ passing game to have to perform well against their star-studded secondary to beat them.    

Key player – R.J. Hubert, Safety, 6-0, 198lbs

The senior free safety gets overlooked when playing next to two Preseason First-Team selections in the secondary, but Hubert has proven his value in both games so far this season. After not receiving much game action the past two years, Hubert began the season with eight tackles, a forced fumble, and a 47-yard fumble return against Florida. Against Southern Utah last week, Hubert returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. For a passing offense that has struggled mightily in 2022 through two games, the Aztecs must account for Hubert’s playmaking skills and prevent him from adding more turnovers to his resume.       

Cooper McDonald rushed the QB against Idaho State. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

When Utah has the ball: Advantage – Utah

Offense

Rising parlayed his exemplary performance starting with the SDSU game last year into a bevy of preseason accolades, including the Maxwell Award Watch List, an accolade given to the best player in college football. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 216 yards (one touchdown) and rushed for 91 yards but threw a costly interception in the end zone at the end of the game when Utah could have tied the game with a field goal. Against Southern Utah, Rising completed 17 of 23 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns in the first half before taking the rest of the game off. 

“(Rising) changed up the offense for Utah when he came on (last year),” said SDSU senior safety Patrick McMorris, who was ejected for targeting during last year’s game and was not on the field when Rising came in. “Their offense seems more elusive. I’m hoping to make a bigger impact, stop that run when he gets out, and to be able to be around the ball wherever he puts it.”

“(Rising) can run and get out of problems, extend plays. He’s a really good football player,” said Hoke.  

While the Utes’ offense is predicated on a tough, physical running game, their passing game focuses on their deep and talented tight end unit led by Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid (USD transfer). The tight ends have traded off 100-yard receiving games this season, with Kuithe catching nine passes for 105 yards and one touchdown against Florida and Kincaid catching seven passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Utah. 

“Tight ends will continue to be the focal point of our offense because they are so productive,” said Whittingham. “Those guys are often mismatched on safeties and linebackers. They are just impossible to cover for those guys.”

The wide receiver room lost some key players from last year and has yet to develop a strong rapport with Rising this season. “If the wideouts can become more explosive, that is really the final stage of the offense becoming what we want it to be,” said Whittingham.

Key player – Tavion Thomas, Running Back, 6-2, 238lbs

The Utes’ physical style is exemplified by Thomas’ bruising running style. The transfer from Cincinnati came to Utah last year and broke the school’s single-season touchdown record with 21. For the season, he rushed for 1,108 yards on 5.4 yards per carry and earned All-Pac-12 First-Team. In last year’s matchup with SDSU, he only received one carry for zero yards as he was behind starter Micah Bernard early in the season. Through two games in 2022, Thomas has rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns. If the Aztecs have any chance to pull off the upset, they will need to hold Thomas in check and force the Utah wide receivers to beat them.     

Defense

The Aztecs defense bounced back from a terrible performance against Arizona by shutting down Idaho State after allowing an opening drive touchdown. 

“Tackling was an issue, and we really emphasized that last week,” said McMorris. “I feel like tackling and getting to the ball are still our emphasis throughout this week.”

After allowing Arizona to convert 6 of 13 (46%) third down conversions, they held Idaho State to a 6 of 21 (29%) conversion rate.  

The big story for the defense was junior walk-on Davaughn Celestine, starting at field warrior in place of senior Cedarious Barfield, who struggled to cover the slot against Arizona. 

“Davaughn brings a little swagger for sure,” McMorris remarked. “He can get in and out of the breaks quick. He’s confident. He’s done everything right since he’s been here and for him to get the opportunity and make the most out of it is great to see.”

Celestine led the team with nine tackles and two pass breakups, and his energy was infectious in galvanizing the defense that looked uninspired and unprepared in the opening game. 

Despite only allowing seven points to Idaho State, the Aztecs still have many areas of improvement if they want to match last year’s success. 

“We have to do a better job at turnovers and get the ball back for our offense, and we haven’t done that much,” said Hoke after his defense did not force a turnover this past week after forcing two against Arizona. “We have to get more bodies around the ball and take advantage when the opportunities come.”

Additionally, the Aztecs have only three sacks through two games after averaging three per game last year. With the departure of All-American Cameron Thomas, SDSU will need more production from its super senior defensive linemen Keshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai

In last year’s game, the Aztecs held Utah to only 3.7 yards per play (including 2.3 yards per rush) and the Utes’ star tight ends to a combined ten catches for only 67 yards and zero touchdowns. 

Key player – Cooper McDonald, Linebacker, 6-3, 240lbs

The Washington transfer and younger brother of senior linebacker Caden McDonald came to the Aztecs with high expectations after starting ten games last year for a Pac-12 school. Replacing his brother’s role at SAM linebacker, the one in which the older McDonald earned All-Conference First-Team last year, put even higher pressure on the younger brother. Through two games, Cooper McDonald has notched eight tackles, one tackle for loss, and one quarterback hurry. Against a talented and powerful Utah offense led by a mobile quarterback, this could be the breakout game the Aztecs have been waiting to see from McDonald. He will likely be the fourth pass rusher for the defense who would like to get pressure with four or fewer without having to blitz additional linebackers and safeties and leave holes on the back end. 

Jordan Byrd returns a punt for a TD. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU

SDSU will have a large advantage in special teams and will look to exploit it to keep the game close. In last year’s matchup, both teams scored touchdowns on special teams in the first half, and both teams’ kickers missed field goals in the second overtime. Additionally, Matt Araiza missed a field goal in the fourth quarter that would have made it a three-possession game and likely sealed the victory in regulation. 

With the exception of one 15-yard punt against Arizona, Jack Browning has been nearly flawless as the new specialist for the Aztecs. He made all three of his field goals in the first two games and, against Idaho State, had five punts downed inside the seven-yard line, including two on the one-yard line. 


Jordan Byrd, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Utah last year, returned his first career punt for a touchdown against Idaho State. When asked on Tuesday what he plans to do for an encore to his performance last week, he said, “hopefully, I can get a kickoff return as well.” 

The Utes kicker, Jordan Noyes, has also connected on all three of his field goals this season, while punter, Jack Bouwmeester, had one punt downed inside the 20-yard line and a long of 48 over four punts.

Game Details

Date: Saturday, September 17, 2022

Time: 7:00pm PT

Channel: ESPN2

Betting Line: Utah -21 (BetMGM Sportsbook)

Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium (Salt Lake City, UT)

Records: SDSU 1-1, Utah 1-1

Series: Utah 17-13-1 (SDSU 33-31 victory in 3 OT in 2021)

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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America's Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.
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