San Diego State (3-4, 1-2) broke their four-game losing streak, defeating Hawai’i (2-5, 0-2), 41-34, at the Clarence T.C. Ching Complex in Honolulu.
“I thought the way we responded to adversity, the guys did a nice job,” said head coach Brady Hoke postgame. “Our team is pretty resilient.”
It was a game of runs, with the Aztecs scoring the first 17 points of the game and the Rainbow Warriors scoring the next 17 to tie it up. Twenty-one points by the Aztecs, including 14 unanswered early in the fourth quarter, helped turn the game around after they fell behind at the start of the 4th quarter.
The Aztecs made a few starting lineup changes as they emerged from a bye week full of evaluations and assessments.
On defense, Deshawn McCuin started at warrior safety in place of Davaughn Celestine, as he did earlier in the year against UCLA. Drew Azzopardi made his first career start at RT, shifting Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson from RT to LT in place of Christian Jones. Dean Abdullah started for the second straight game at RG in place of Myles Murao.
The much-maligned defense came out fired up, not allowing the Rainbow Warriors to convert a first down on their first three drives. On several occasions, the defensive line tipped or deflected passes. Hawai’i converted one first down on their fourth drive, but that was it. On the fifth drive, McCuin intercepted a pass and returned it 70 yards for the score. It was the Aztecs’ first interception return for a touchdown since Andrew Aleki’s against UNLV in November 2021.
Hoke spoke about McCuin’s speed and football savvy being something the staff liked about him, and they had been waiting for him to be a bigger part of the defense.
“It’s really about finding who we are,” said LB Zyrus Fiaseu postgame about improvement during the bye week. “We had to make adjustments here and there and who was going to step up to the plate and find out who we really are. So that bye week, it was really about work, find yourselves, do what we had to do, and it really helped.”
After the first 3-and-out, Eric Butler came off the edge and blocked Matthew Shipley’s punt, giving the Aztecs’ offense the ball at the 13. Unable to get a first down, the Aztecs had to settle for three points on a Jack Browning field goal.
The offense, however, was injected by a familiar energy source with the return of WR Mekhi Shaw. After missing the prior three games, Shaw recorded a career-high 126 receiving yards (on six receptions).
“It’s good to be back,” Shaw said postgame. “Took things day by day to get my body right and worked a lot during the bye week.”
“He’s a big part of our team, period,” answered Hoke when asked about Shaw’s return. “We missed him the last three weeks. We are glad he is back.”
On the Aztecs’ third drive, Shaw caught a pass from Jalen Mayden on the left sideline, made his defender miss, and raced inside the five for a 30-yard gain. When the Rainbow Warriors took their first lead of the game, 24-20, to start the fourth quarter, Shaw found himself behind the secondary, caught a pass from Mayden, and ran to the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown. The play was the Aztecs’ longest offensive play of the season.
“Looked like they were in a cover 2 look, so I slipped outside the corner and the safety; it might have been a blown coverage. I don’t know what he was doing, but it allowed me to take it to the house,” Shaw noted about the big play.
Another new wrinkle coming off the bye week was the utilization of redshirt freshman running back Lucky Sutton. After not receiving a carry through the first six games of the season, Sutton took a carry and scored from the 1 in the first quarter for his first career touchdown. Later, he scored from two yards out, finishing with 23 yards on seven carries.
Hoke said getting Sutton and fellow redshirt freshman RB Sheldon Canley more involved was something they keyed on during the bye week.
The contest pitted one of the worst pass-rushing defenses versus one of the worst pass-protecting offenses in the nation. Only four FBS teams had allowed more sacks (25) than Hawai’i, and only 12 FBS teams had fewer sacks (8) than SDSU this season. While the Aztecs were able to put pressure on Brayden Schager and deflect passes early in the game, they were unable to bring him down once in the first half and only once in the second half.
From the sixth drive on, Schager was able to shred the Aztecs’ defense with a deep passing attack. He finished 29/47 for 427 yards and three touchdowns.
Mayden had an efficient day, completing 18 of 24 passes for 221 yards. His interception in the second quarter was his sixth of the season. Mayden also added 53 rushing yards.
Cam Davis led the team with 53 rushing yards on ten carries.
Jack Browning had a stellar day punting, booting a 56-ypp average, including a career-best 66-yarder in the second quarter. He also added a 63-yarder earlier in the game, which tied his career-long at that point in the game. His day as a kicker was not as sharp, connecting from 22 and 24 yards out but missing a 50-yard attempt wide left.
Matthew Shipley made both his field goal attempts of the night from 46 and 47 yards out and had a 48.3 ypp average on three attempts.
The announced attendance was 10,309.
“It was definitely a business trip, no more, no less,” remarked Shaw postgame. “No time to go to the beach. Came here on a mission to win this football game, and that’s the only thing that was on the forefront.”
The Aztecs return to Snapdragon Stadium next Saturday night for their only home game in October. They will kick off against Nevada at 6 p.m. PT.
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.