Aztecs beat Wolf Pack, 23-21, take control of West Division

Credit: SDSU Athletics

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Credit: SDSU Twitter

The SDSU Aztecs defeated the Nevada Wolf Pack, 23-21, on Matt Araiza’s 35-yard field goal with 1:21 remaining in the game. The Wolf Pack advanced the ball to midfield but were unable to complete passes on third and fourth down to extend the drive. 

“It was a team win,” said Aztec head coach Brady Hoke postgame. “All three units worked together.” 

The Aztecs broke a three-game losing streak to the Wolf Pack and took sole possession of first place in the West Division with a 5-1 conference record. The Aztecs will play in the Mountain West Championship game on December 4th if they win their two remaining conference games. 

The Aztecs improved to 9-1 on the season, while the Wolf Pack fall to 7-3.

While understanding the position this win puts the Aztecs, coach Hoke reiterated that the team has “more work to do.”

The drive that led to the game-winning field goal started at the Aztec 30 yard line and went 12 plays and 53 yards. Quarterback Lucas Johnson made three huge passes on the drive, including a six-yard completion to wide receiver Jesse Mathews on a 4th and four to start the drive. 

“We had to stick together…we know it takes all 11 to get the ball down the field,” said Johnson postgame when asked what the offense’s mindset was to start that drive. He acknowledged that the defense and special teams has carried the team at times this season, and the offense was “happy to deliver.”

After a rocky first drive for Johnson, which saw him underthrow a double-covered receiver on second down and overthrow an open Daniel Bellinger on third down, Johnson executed a 99-yard drive for a touchdown on the second drive. 

Coach Hoke spoke this week about the lack of explosive plays (20 yards or greater) for the offense the past three games that they needed to change. On a 2nd and one from their own 9-yard line, Greg Bell ran it up the gut, broke through the second level, and was finally brought down after a 50 yard gain. Later in the drive, Bell converted a 4th and one from the Nevada 19 yard line on a 9-yard run. 

After the drive stalled at the 5-yard line, Matt Araiza’s field goal attempt was blocked, but a defensive holding call on defensive lineman Dom Peterson gave the Aztecs a first down at the 2. Johnson rolled out on a bootleg and found Daniel Bellinger wide open in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. 

The Aztecs have won eight consecutive games when scoring first. 

The Wolf Pack answered immediately on an 85-yard drive to tie the game on a 28-yard catch by Tory Horton on the first play of the second quarter. Horton beat cornerback Noah Tumblin down the left sideline and caught an accurate pass from Carson Strong in stride in the end zone. The drive was aided by a Trenton Thompson pass interference on a deep pass to Romeo Doubs.

The Aztecs utilized a lot of quick, short throws to gain yardage and keep the chains moving in the first half, and keeping the Nevada offense off the field. The early success in the passing game helped Lucas Johnson develop confidence which he was able to carry over for the entire game. Johnson was 10 of 15 for 58 yards in the first half, in which the Aztecs passed (18) on more plays than they ran (16). 

He finished the game completing 21 of 34 passes for 176 yards. Johnson “was decisive and didn’t make dumb throws,” according to coach Hoke, who stated this was probably Johnson’s best game as an Aztec. 

Credit: SDSU Twitter

Greg Bell led the way with 16 carries for 104 rushing yards, his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season and ninth time in 17 games as an Aztec. Chance Bell ran extremely hard, breaking many tackles on second and third efforts, and finished with 55 rushing yards and a touchdown on the Aztecs’ first drive of the second half. The Aztecs hold a 22 to 4 rushing touchdown advantage against their opponents this season. 

The Aztecs held a 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter before Nevada’s high-powered offense clicked. Strong led an 80-yard drive in less than three minutes culminating in a five-yard touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs, cutting the Aztec lead to three. After the Aztecs extended the lead to six, Strong found Doubs again for a touchdown, this time for 54 yards, as he got behind the Aztec secondary and was wide open, giving Nevada a one-point lead. 

Strong completed 34 of 48 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. The Aztecs covered his receivers well, which forced Strong to check down or throw the ball away at times in the first half. Strong and the rest of the pass offense got going in the middle of the third quarter as he was able to find holes in the secondary that were not present up to that point. 

Coach Hoke credited his defensive coaching staff for installing a game plan that included disguising coverages that he thinks worked out really well. He also praises the effort that his front three (Cam Thomas, Jonah Tavai, and Keshawn Banks) played with all game. The game plan included utilizing Tavai in a nontraditional stand-up role at the line of scrimmage instead of with his hand on the ground, which coach Hoke stated: “gives him momentum when he starts his rush.”

Nevada star tight end Cole Turner missed the game, still recovering from a head injury from the prior game. His absence was felt by the Nevada offense. 

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Warrior safety Cedarious Barfield sustained an apparent injury on the first drive of the game and was replaced by true freshman CJ Baskerville. While Baskerville had received limited playing time this season (50 snaps entering this game), this was his first appearance playing the majority of the game and showed why he was highly recruited by multiple Power 5 schools. 

With his first two punts of the game, Araiza tied an FBS single-season record with his 32nd 50-yard punt of the year. He broke the record on his fourth punt of the game, his 33rd 50-yard punt of the year. In addition to the game-winning field goal, he also connected on-field goals from 48 and 39 but missed a 56-yard attempt to end the first half. 

The Aztecs played their cleanest game of the year, with zero turnovers and committing only two penalties for 20 yards. To play so disciplined and error-free in a game of this magnitude is a testament to the coaching staff and the players.

The Aztecs will travel to Las Vegas next to take on the UNLV Rebels on Friday night at 830pm. 

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