Aztecs and Spartans set for a defensive slugfest

Cooper McDonald (55), Caden McDonald (54) and Michael Shawcroft (46) are key components of one of the best LB units in the Mountain West. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Brady Hoke leads the Aztecs against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Game Details

 

Date: Saturday, November 12, 2022

 

Time: 7:30 pm PT

 

Channel: Fox Sports 1

 

Betting Line: SJSU -2.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)

 

Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)

 

Records: SDSU 5-4 (3-2), SJSU 6-2 (4-1)

 

Series: SDSU 23-20-2

 

The San Diego State Aztecs host the San Jose State Spartans on Saturday night in a pivotal game in the Mountain West standings.  

At 4-1 in the conference, the Spartans are tied with Fresno State atop the West Division but do not hold the tiebreaker due to a loss against Fresno State. The Aztecs are in worse shape with two conference losses, including one against the Bulldogs. The winner of this game will keep hope alive while still needing help from other teams in the conference to move ahead of Fresno State. 

“It’s awesome to be playing games in November that matter,” said Spartans’ head coach Brent Brennan on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. 

Seven of the 12 players named to the Mountain West Preseason All-Defense Team will be on the field in this game. 

The Aztecs will look to extend a four-game home winning streak and become bowl eligible for the 13th consecutive season.  

Last year’s Friday night matchup with SJSU was tied at six at the end of regulation. After both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime, the Aztecs held the Spartans to start the second one and scored a walk-off touchdown on a pass from Lucas Johnson to Jesse Matthews

The Spartans are playing with heavy hearts this season after running back Camdan McWright was tragically killed in an accident near campus on October 21.  

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SJSU

Offense

The Aztecs’ offense has made drastic changes in several key statistical areas over the last four games after the emergence of quarterback Jalen Mayden. Most notably, the two areas the team ranked dead last in the country after five games (passing yards and third down conversions) have become strengths of the team in the past four.

Jalen Mayden surveys the field against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Passing for 246.3 yards per game is a 180.7-yard improvement from the putrid 65.6 the team was able to muster in the first five games. SDSU’s 40.4% conversion on third downs is a 220% improvement from 18.2% over the same period. 

Despite their total number of yards per game increasing to 374.5 over the last four games from 258.4 over the first five, the team only scored 1.3 points more per game. Finding ways to finish drives and score touchdowns instead of field goals is the number one goal heading into this matchup.    

Mayden has completed 74 of 114 passes for 985 yards, the most by any quarterback in the Mountain West over the last five weeks. His 13.31 yards per completion is also the best in the conference during that period. Four of his five touchdown passes have come in the last two games. 

“The number one thing we really harped on was to continue to take what the defense gives you,” said SDSU QBs coach Ryan Lindley after practice on Tuesday when asked about Mayden’s progression. “He’s doing that, and he’s doing it well. Every team is going to be different in how we want to attack them. But he’s shown that he’s pretty versatile for us.” 

Jaylon Armstead made his triumphant return to the backfield and rushed for 72 yards on 14 carries. Fifty-six of those yards were on the final game-sealing drive that ate up the remaining 5:41 of the clock. Armstead’s 8.2ypc is 3rd best in FBS this season.

Tight end Mark Redman caught three passes (from a team-high seven targets) for 39 yards against UNLV. His 24-yd touchdown catch was his first touchdown as an Aztec. 

Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers continue to be a one-two punch at the wide receiver position, adding 28 catches (for 310 yards) and 26 catches (for 366 yards), respectively. Both lead the team with two touchdown receptions.    

Jalon Armstead breaks a tackle against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Defense

SJSU returned nine starters from last year’s excellent defense, six of whom earned All-Conference recognition in 2021. 

The defense has continued its strong play through eight games, ranking 10th in FBS in scoring defense (16.38), 20th in total defense (316.88), 28th in passing defense (196.50), and rushing defense (120.38), fourth in sacks (3.62), and 6th in tackles for loss (8.13). 

The Spartans recorded a gaudy 17 sacks in the past two games.

“That speaks to the quality and the care factor of our defense,” said Brennan on Tuesday when asked about the high sack total. 

Four players have earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors already this season. 

Junior defensive end Viliami Fehoko, a First-Team All-Mountain West player in 2020 and 2021, leads the team with 15 tackles for loss (first in MW), seven sacks (third in MW), two forced fumbles and five quarterback hits. He is second on the team with 51 tackles. Against Nevada two weeks ago, he tallied 12 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and two sacks. He is one of the top candidates to win Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2022. 

His sidekick, senior defensive end Cade Hall, has been just as good. Hall, who shared the Preseason Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honor with SDSU’s Patrick McMorris, is second on the team with ten tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks (fourth in MW). 

Senior linebacker Kyle Harmon, whose 133 tackles last year were third-best in the country, leads the team with 64 tackles in 2022. Like Fehoko, Harmon was a First-Team All-Mountain West player in 2020 and 2021 and on the Preseason All-Defense Team in 2022. 

Senior linebacker Alii Matau is third on the team with 4.5 sacks after collecting three against Colorado State last week.

In last year’s game, The Aztecs were able to contain Hall and Fehoko, holding them to a combined five tackles and two tackles for loss, but Matau and Harmon both had eight tackles each (Matau added two tackles for loss). Fehoko had a better performance against the Aztecs in 2020, with two tackles for loss, two pass breakups, three quarterback hits, and a fumble recovery. 

Senior cornerback Nehemiah Shelton leads the Spartans with two interceptions.  

Key matchup: Josh Simmons, Right Tackle vs Viliami Fehoko, Defensive End

SDSU’s offense takes the field for the first time against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Any offense that wants to be successful against the Spartans’ defense has to neutralize the two dominant defensive ends that have the ability to throw any offensive game plan out the door. While Hall has the higher accolades, Fehoko has been the more disruptive player. Despite being listed as a defensive end, Fehoko has been playing more standing up as an outside linebacker, exclusively on the left side of the defense. Per Pro Football Focus, 87% of Fehoko’s snaps this year either have come over or outside the right tackle. That puts the responsibility on redshirt freshman Josh Simmons to make sure Fehoko is not in the backfield on runs or pass attempts. The ultra-talented Simmons has flashed in moments this year, but inconsistency and penalties have plagued him to this point. 

When SJSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU

Offense

SJSU is 76th in FBS in scoring offense (27.13), 86th in total offense (369.63), 27th in passing offense (280.38), and 126th in rushing offense (89.25). While the statistics do not reveal a balanced offense, the Spartans have a good enough rushing attack with their backs and quarterback that defenses must respect it. 

As a team, the Spartans are second in the country with only five turnovers, with four of those committed by the offense. 

SJSU quarterback Chevan Cordeiro has 11 passing and seven rushing touchdowns on the season and leads the conference with 2,224 passing yards. He has completed 177 of 294 (60%) passes and only thrown two interceptions. 

After three years at Hawai’i, Cordeiro transferred to SJSU at the start of 2022 and transitioned seamlessly. According to Brennan, offensive coordinator and QBs coach Kevin McGiven told him he has never seen another quarterback absorb and apply an offense this quickly before.  

This will be the fourth year in a row the Aztecs’ defense will play against Cordeiro. In the prior three games while at Hawai’i, Cordeiro completed 45 of 85 passes for 455 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Aztecs sacked him 12 times, including seven in 2020, and held him without a rushing touchdown.   

(We have) had success against him at Hawaii, so we want to go back to that theme a little bit,” said SDSU defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix following practice on Tuesday. Mattix acknowledged, however, that the skill and talent level around Cordeiro at SJSU is a little better than he had at Hawai’i, which has helped unlock his full potential. 

“He is playing differently now … when we played them, I think you could see the frustration at times in the game getting to him a little bit. We had a spy for him at times because he was a big scrambler. Now, people aren’t getting to him as much, and he’s not scrambling as much. He is still scoring some rushing touchdowns but not scrambling as much, and I think he feels like he could just sit back and be a quarterback.”


Senior running back Kairee Robinson leads the team with 447 rushing yards (4.6ypc) and nine TDs. 

Three wide receivers on the two-deep are Nevada transfers, with two starters in their first season at SJSU. Elijah Cooks (6’4) leads the team with 43 receptions for 701 yards (second in MW) and four touchdowns. 

Justin Lockhart (6’2), who is the godson of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, is second with 26 receptions and 428 yards. 

Mattix compared the high-quality skill level of the wide receivers in the conference to a “Murderers Row” after playing against Fresno State and UNLV recently and now having to match up against the talented Spartans’ receivers. 

“(Cooks) is an elite receiver,” he said, adding, “maybe not the speed that the NFL people want, but his body control and his ability to go up and catch it (make him) a great football player.” 

Cooks played against SDSU in 2019 while at Nevada, catching a touchdown pass and finishing with three receptions for 20 yards. Lockhart caught 12 passes for 76 yards (no touchdowns) in the last two years against SDSU.

Tight end Dominick Mazotti has come on strong the past four games and become one of Cordeiro’s favorite targets. After only catching two passes for 15 yards in the first month of the season, Mazotti has 19 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games. 

Defense

Michael Shawcroft wielded the Aztec shield on Saturday and was flanked by Caden McDonald. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

SDSU’s defense has picked up its play over the last three weeks as documented in EVT’s state of the defense article, and is starting to look more like what fans have been used to for the past decade. In addition to the improvements in generating pressure and red zone defense, upgraded cornerback play has led to game-changing plays. 

“They are always good,” said Brennan about the SDSU defense. “They always play super hard. It’s the best defense we have played this year. We have epic battles with (SDSU).” 

Senior linebacker Michael Shawcroft continues to guide the defense with a team-high 63 tackles (20 more than the second-highest player) and ten tackles for loss. 

“(Shawcroft) has played an amazing game,” said SDSU defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix. “I don’t know if there’s a more valuable member of our team. Just some of the injuries that Mike’s had to endure and then just still being able to have that Aztec warrior mindset and Aztec warrior toughness … it’s a pleasure to get a chance to coach him because not only is he sharp on a football field as far as performance, but mentally knowing what an opponent is doing and putting himself in (the right) position. I think he probably shows up to games, maybe 75, 80 percent (healthwise). He is such an amazing warrior,r and we’re lucky to have him on our team.”

Shawcroft had eight tackles, three tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in last year’s game against the Spartans. 

The other half of the Preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year is safety Patrick McMorris. While McMorris has not made the same impact on the field as he did a year ago, he is still second on the team with 43 tackles and leads the team with five pass breakups. The recent personnel changes (moving Caden McDonald to SAM linebacker and Cedarious Barfield at boundary warrior in place of an injured CJ Baskerville) have potentially unlocked McMorris to become the same player that was all over the field last season. Against San Jose State in 2021, McMorris had 12 tackles and three pass breakups. 

Key matchup: Chevan Cordeiro, Quarterback vs Patrick McMorris, Safety

SDSU’s special teams downs a punt against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Defending against a dual-threat quarterback that has the weapons on the outside to beat a defense deep and at the intermediate level, it will be imperative for McMorris to recognize run versus pass and cover multiple areas on the field. While the Aztecs have historically held Cordeiro in check, his growth as a quarterback has been evident on his new team. If the Aztecs again utilize a spy against Cordeiro as they did in prior years, McMorris could play that role or would need to cover the responsibilities of the linebacker who does. Earlier this season, Mayden played the spy role for Mattix’s defense before he moved back to quarterback. 

Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU

After ranking first in ESPN’s special teams’ efficiency rating for most of the season, SDSU dropped to third (77.7) behind South Carolina (80.0) and North Carolina State (78.5). 

The ranking slip was due in part to two missed field goals (50, 48) by Jack Browning and a dropped snap on a punt attempt that led to a turnover of downs. Browning has made 12 of 15 field goals on the season and will look to regain his form against UNLV. 

SJSU placekicker Taren Schive has made nine of 14 field goals (long of 43) and all but one of his 27 extra-point attempts. The Spartans used two different punters in last week’s game and throughout the year, both junior college transfers in their first year in the program. Travis Benham averages 40.7ypp with 11 downed inside the 20, while Alex Weir averages 44.8ypp with four downed inside the 20. 

Running back Shamar Garrett is the primary kick returner for the Spartans. While he has not returned a kickoff longer than 32 yards this year, his resume includes a 98-yd kickoff return for a touchdown in 2020. 

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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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