The San Diego State Aztecs beat the New Mexico State Aggies 28-10 to begin their 2021 schedule.
Head coach Brady Hoke mentioned two things every time he spoke to the media in the week up to tonight’s game against New Mexico State. One was that the Aggies have highly talented players at the skill positions on offense, and two, a football team’s greatest improvement comes from game one to game two in the season. Both proved to be very true in the first half, as the Aggies looked like they were the team that should have been a 31 point favorite heading into the contest.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of fun,” commented coach Hoke in his post-game press conference when talking about the first half.
The Aztecs recovered in the second half after trailing 10-0 at halftime and won their opening game of the season against the Aggies, 28-10, at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, CA.
Running back Greg Bell rushed for a career-high 161 yards on only 20 carries and one touchdown while playing with a heavy heart. News of the passing of Chris Thompson, his high school football coach at Bonita Vista High School, stunned and saddened Bell when he found out from teammate Noah Tumblin this morning. Tumblin played for Thompson at Mira Mesa High School.
Starting quarterback Jordon Brookshire struggled in the game, only completing 6/19 passes for 76 yards and one interception. He did run for an 18-yard touchdown late in the third quarter as he beat the defense around the corner and dove for the last few yards into the end zone after being tripped by a trailing defender.
The Aggies took a 10-0 lead into halftime after a 31-yard field goal by Ethan Albertson and an 8 yard TD catch by Dominic Gicinto. The secondary, which is incorporating three new starters, looked shaky against the Aggies wide receivers in the first half. Quarterback Jonah Johnson picked apart the secondary with quick, short throws in the flats, which allowed the receivers to gain yards after the catch in the open field. After the Aztecs started taking those short throws away, he was able to find receivers down the field against man-to-man coverage. Johnson was 21/31 for 214 yards in the first half.
The Aztecs’ best drive of the first half ended on a Greg Bell fumble at the Aggies ten-yard line on the first play of the second quarter. The remaining Aztecs’ drives in the half were derailed by penalties after the Aztecs did not commit one in the first 22 minutes of the game.
The biggest one was a holding call on lineman Chris Martinez on the second to last play of the half when Brookshire was able to scramble and find Kobe Smith down the left sideline that would have given the Aztecs a first down at the Aggies 30 yard line.
The Aztecs came out firing in the second half, needing only three plays to score a touchdown on a Greg Bell 23 yard run to make it 10-7. The following two plays from scrimmage saw the team’s trade interceptions. The teams committed another turnover each later in the quarter before Brookshire’s TD run gave the Aztecs a 14-10 lead.
On the ensuing possession, senior linebacker Andrew Aleki picked off Johnson and ran it back 25 yard for the touchdown. San Diego State now has 13 interceptions returned for a touchdown since 2015.
Running back Jordan Byrd added a 43-yard touchdown run on the second play of the fourth quarter to make the score 28-10.
The Aztecs’ defense closed out the game and held the Aggies scoreless in the second half. Coach Hoke credited the second-half shutout to defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix’s halftime adjustments that “gave them trouble…and helped confuse the quarterback.”
The Aggies fell to 0-2 on the season and have now lost nine consecutive games against the Aztecs.
Starting cornerback Dallas Branch was unable to play in this game which allowed true freshman Noah Avinger to get his first college football start. Avinger became just the third Aztec true freshman to start on defense since 2009. The prior two were also in the secondary, CB Leon McFadden in 2009 and safety Tariq Thompson in 2017. Avinger and Tumblin alternated drives in the first half, but Tumblin played the majority of the second half.
Coach Hoke stated after the game that he was proud of both of them. “Both played very aggressive…Noah [Tumblin] showed some pretty good ball skills,” Hoke added. Tumblin led the team with four pass breakups.
Despite the poor offensive and defensive performance in the first half, punter Matt Araiza had a monster performance. He ended the game with a 56.8 average yardage per punt over nine punts, including a long of 77 yards and five downed inside the 20. Coach Hoke reiterated that Araiza is a “definite weapon for us” and helped “flip the field.” Araiza did not attempt a field goal in the game.
In EVT’s game preview article, three keys to victory were outlined for the Aztecs.
- Do not underestimate the opponent
The Aztecs began the game playing soft coverage in the secondary and were getting soundly beaten by the skill position players of the Aggies. Heading into halftime down 10-0, coach Hoke could not have been pleased with the performance of his team on both sides of the ball. However, the team’s effort and dominance in the second half shows the quality leadership the team possesses to not let the poor first half and penalties derail the final outcome of the game.
- Win the turnover margin
While the turnover margin was even at three, the Aztecs were able to return one of their interceptions for a touchdown. It was an uncharacteristic game for the Aztecs, as they have been one of the best teams in college football over the past several years in limiting turnovers. They had committed one or less in 17 of their last 21 games prior to this contest.
- Dominate the running game on both sides of the ball
The Aztecs rushed for 252 yards in this game and are now 48-2 in the last 50 games they have rushed for at least 200 yards. The Aztecs only allowed 48 yards rushing to the Aggies as their offensive attack was much more focused on moving the ball through the air.
Next up for the Aztecs is a two-game stretch against Pac-12 teams, starting on the road at Arizona next Saturday night at 7 pm in Tucson, AZ.
- Aggies wide receiver Dominic Gicinto, who caught 7 passes for 64 yards and the only TD in the first half for either team, left the game near the end of the 2nd quarter with an apparent hand or wrist injury and did not return.
- The announced attendance for the opening game was 10,112, although actual fans in the stands seemed to be less than half that amount.
- Aztecs played a very undisciplined game, committing four unsportsmanlike and personal foul penalties, two of which were by offensive lineman William Dunkle on back-to-back plays; overall, the Aztecs committed seven penalties for 66 yards.
- Aztecs defense collected five sacks and nine tackles for loss in the game.
- Aztecs have now won twelve games in a row at home against non-conference opponents and seven games in a row in home season openers.