Aztecs become bowl-eligible with offensive explosion against Spartans

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

After the first three possessions of the game, the Aztecs’ defense had given up two touchdowns, and the offense had turned the ball over. Down 14-0 after only averaging 16 points a game in their last three home games, things looked grim for the Aztecs.

The third-best special teams unit in the country per ESPN’s special teams’ efficiency metric gave the team the spark it needed. Jordan Byrd returned a kickoff 95 yards for his third career kickoff return touchdown that sparked 38 unanswered points by the Aztecs on the way to a 43-27 victory. 

Byrd’s three career kickoff return touchdowns are tied for the second most in program history, trailing Rashaad Penny’s seven. SDSU’s 14 kick return touchdowns are the most in FBS since 2015.

We didn’t start the game the way we would have liked to, but we came together,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke postgame.  

After allowing 104 yards and third down conversions on all five attempts on the Spartans’ way to two touchdowns on the first two drives, the Aztecs’ defense stiffened, only allowing 18 yards and zero third down conversions (in four attempts) the rest of the half. 

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“That doesn’t sit really well,” said Hoke about the first two defensive drives. “(Mattix) is unbelievable how he prepares as a coach to call a game. They changed their tendencies, so it took those two drives for him to then change his game plan. That’s really what happened.”

With seven of the 12 players named to the Mountain West Preseason All-Defense Team on the field, points were expected to be hard to come by. For one night at least, the Aztecs’ offense clicked on all cylinders. 

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Jalen Mayden completed 17 of 22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns while adding 61 rushing yards. After throwing an interception on the first drive of the game, Mayden regrouped with help from his teammates.

“Everybody is picking me up (on the sidelines),” said Mayden postgame. He also credited the coaches for providing him with solid pre-snap reads that allowed the passing game to flourish tonight. 

Tyrell Shavers led the Aztecs with 111 receiving yards (on four catches), including a 66-yd touchdown catch in the second quarter. Mekhi Shaw (five catches for 64 yards) and Jesse Matthews (four catches for 57 yards) also caught touchdowns. 

Shavers beat his man in press coverage and caught a soft toss from Mayden before outrunning the defenders to the end zone for his touchdown that gave the Aztecs their first lead of the night. 

Shaw’s first career touchdown came from a catch over the middle that required him to make two defenders miss in open space. Shaw kept that drive alive with an 18-yd reception over the middle on a third and 16 reception.

“He is working his tail off in practice and it is showing,” said Mayden about Shaw. 

Running back Jaylon Armstead, who came in with an 8.2ypc average (third best in FBS), rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries and scored his first rushing touchdown of his career from three yards out.

The Aztecs extended their home winning streak to five and became bowl eligible for the 13th consecutive season.  

The Spartans finally broke the Aztecs’ 38-pt streak when quarterback Chevan Cordeiro found Skylar Loving-Black for a 32-yd touchdown pass to make it 38-20 (two-point conversion attempt failed). 

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Cordeiro, who entered the game with the highest passing yardage in the conference and 27th best in the country, struggled to move the ball after the first two drives. He completed 19 of 33 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns while adding a three-yard touchdown run. He threw only his third interception of the season, hauled in by cornerback Dallas Branch in the fourth quarter.

Kairee Robinson led the Spartans with 32 rushing yards (on nine carries) and four receptions (for 24 yards). 

Cooper McDonald led the Aztecs with seven tackles while adding two tackles for loss (one sack). 

Jonah Tavai had three sacks, including one in the end zone with less than a minute remaining in the game for the first safety for SDSU’s defense since October 4, 2013. Tavai passed Cameron Thomas for third all-time on SDSU’s sack list with 22.5. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila holds the record with 34 sacks. 

The Spartans’ 223 yards of total offense were 147 yards less than their season average. 

The SJSU defense, which came in only allowing 16.38 points per game (tenth in the country), was ineffective after an interception by Michael Dansby on the first defensive possession. After collecting 17 sacks in their last two games, the Spartans only had two tonight. 

All-Conference defensive linemen Cade Hall and Viliama Fehoko only combined for 0.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Kyle Harmon led the Spartans with ten tackles and added two tackles for loss and one sack. 

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

All week, Hoke told the media and his own team that he believed the Spartans’ defensive line was the best in the conference. Postgame, he admitted that he knew that statement would be a motivating factor his both his offensive and defensive lines. 

“I think the guys we got are pretty doggone good, and we talked about them being the best all week, so sometimes that ticks guys off on both sides,” he said.  

Starting boundary warrior safety CJ Baskerville and starting right guard Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli missed the game due to undisclosed injuries. Cedarious Barfield and Thomas Mirabella started in their place, respectively. Backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister also missed the game. 

Jack Browning performed kickoffs again after Jarrett Reeser handled those responsibilities last week. He made field goals from 22 and 31 yards out after missing both attempts last week. 

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

The six-yard line hashmark on the Spartans’ side of the field was painted blue in honor of Camdan McWright, the Spartans’ running back, who was tragically killed in an accident near campus on October 21st.

“Brent (SJSU head coach) and I talked before the game, and he was very … gracious and thanked us for doing that,” said Hoke postgame. We wanted to show support for them and our condolences.”

The Aztecs travel to Albuquerque for their final road game of the season against New Mexico (2-8) on Friday night. The Lobos are winless in six conference games this season. 

With the victory, the Aztecs stay alive in the West Division race for one more week, although one Fresno State win or one San Diego State loss in the final two games of the season clinches the spot for the Bulldogs.

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