Aztecs’ coaches shine in Brady Hoke’s swan song

Josh Hunter delivers a block on a kickoff. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Brady Hoke joined his captains for the coin toss. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Jeff Tedford is an excellent football coach. A two-time Pac-10 coach of the year, he is the all-time winningest coach for the University of California, Berkeley. Tedford boasts double-digit win totals in three of his four seasons leading Fresno State’s program.

He entered Saturday’s contest needing wins in the Bulldogs’ final two games to make it four seasons with at least ten wins in his five years in Fresno. Tedford will not reach that mark because Brady Hoke and his assistants outcoached him and his staff in the Aztecs’ 33-18 victory.

As with most contests, the Battle for the Old Oil Can came down to a handful of critical plays. The fingerprints of SDSU’s staff could be seen on each one.

On the first, FSU had the ball on SDSU’s 40 with a little over four minutes left in the first quarter. The Bulldogs were threatening to extend their 7-3 lead. Tedford elected to keep his offense on the field on 4th and 2. The Bulldogs brought senior WR Erik Brooks in motion; he was the main option.

At the snap, Aztec safety Marcus Ratcliffe faked the blitz before masterfully dropping into the passing lane. He knew Brooks was the intended receiver, shaded that way immediately, read QB Mikey Keene’s eyes, and recorded the game’s only turnover. He returned the interception 29 yards and set up SDSU’s second field goal of the night.

Coaches put their players in position to succeed. In this case, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix designed and called the perfect defense at the perfect time.

“Kurt’s a great coach,” Hoke said postgame when asked about the defensive game plan. “He really does a nice job. I don’t know if there’s anybody who works harder at it. He’s done a great job.”

After the defense forced a pair of 3 and out’s to begin the second quarter, SDSU took over at its own nine. Five plays later, the game’s next critical play occurred.

Marcus Ratcliffe returned an interception. (Don De Mars/EVT)

With the ball on its own 30, facing a 3rd and 2, QB Jalen Mayden lined up in the pistol. FBs Leo Kemp and Nick Gardinera flanked Mayden, and RB Jaylon Armstead stood two yards directly behind the signal caller. This formation, used throughout the year, had earned SDSU numerous first downs in short-yardage situations by handing Armstead the ball with a pair of fullbacks leading the way. Saturday, the staff added a wrinkle.

The play’s design was a read-option of FSU senior LB Levelle Bailey. If Bailey stayed home and forced Mayden to hand off, Kemp would pull and trap Bailey, preventing him from sneaking back into the play. If Bailey attacked Armstead, Mayden would keep the ball, and as Kemp pulled, he would avoid the LB and lead the way for his QB.

Designed and executed to perfection, Mayden and Kemp perfectly read Bailey’s move inside. Mayden pulled the ball back and bounced outside. Kemp dipped his shoulder as if to hit Bailey, which pulled the second level inside even more, but at the last moment, raced past him and into the open field.

The only player who possibly could have caught Mayden was SR LB Tuasivi Nomura. Kemp, in a heady move for a true freshman, whirled back and, instead of blasting Nomura for what would have been a sure penalty, did just enough to stop his momentum.

“Really, I’ve got to tip my hat to (RB) coach (Jimmy) Beal,” Mayden said. “He’s been trying to get that in because it was just a running back run (before tonight). (There) was no quarterback-designed pull in there, so he finally introduced it. You saw what happened today. Everybody crashed in, thinking it was going to be the same run play we always do. I pulled it, and there was no one there, and I told Leo, ‘get out of the way and let me run.’”

SDSU won critical play No. 3 in the third quarter. After moving deep into FSU territory, the Aztecs had first and goal at the seven. Two carries by Armstead set up 3rd and goal from the one. Momentum is huge in sports, and a goalline stand would have swung it in the Bulldogs’ favor.

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Instead, using the same formation described in play No. 2, Armstead pounded his way in for the score. Gardinera sealed off Bailey, who stayed home in case Mayden would pull the ball again. That created a hole that Nomura stepped into. Kemp, with a full head of steam, knocked the LB back into the endzone, and Armstead did the rest.

The final critical play of the night once again utilized the same jumbo package, this time on 1st and goal from the five. Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley dialed up another wrinkle off the base formation.

At the snap, Mayden faked the handoff to Armstead. Seven FSU defenders engaged the run. Lindley had TE Cameron Harpole, who started on the left of the formation, run a 15-yard crossing route to the back of the end zone. Gardinera went into the flat. As he had each time, Kemp pulled, but instead of hitting someone, slipped into the front of the end zone. With three receivers at different levels but only two defenders, the Bulldogs had to pick their poison. They covered the first Aztecs they saw, Harpole and Gardinera, but had no one close to Kemp.

“It was out of that formation that we do that power (run) out of,” Mayden said. “I called it in the huddle, ‘Ya’ll, this is going to be a touchdown because we’ve been running it up the middle the whole time.’ The moment I pulled it, the defensive end took the guy in the flats, and (Kemp) just slipped behind him. He’s been working hard all year and been real consistent. I’m really proud of him.”

On a night when San Diego remembered Hoke’s coaching legacy, he and his staff reminded everyone of the excellence Hoke has shown over his 41 years in the profession.

Moral Victories

Saturday’s performance left many wondering where that level of play had been all year. SDSU dominated a team that is tied for the second most wins in the conference and spent time this year ranked in the national polls. If the Aztecs had played with any semblance of the skill they showed against FSU, they likely would have won close contests against Boise State, Utah State, and Nevada and reached bowl eligibility.

But, at a program that paces all California schools in wins since 2015 and is in the top 20 nationally in that category during the same time period, moral victories do not matter. On the field, that is.

Brady Hoke escorted the team captains to the coin toss. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“It always is, and especially, the senior class,” Hoke said when asked if it’s rewarding to see his players grow over the year. “We started in August, really this team started in January, and we talked about championships, and we talked about our seniors; winning for our seniors. That’s what we’ve always done, and it’s gratifying when you’re able to do that.”

Throughout the season, Hoke spoke of his disdain for describing a team’s performance as “quitting.” Whatever words are used to describe the listless, going-through-the-motions manner in which some athletes compete when their opponent has broken their will, it is important to note that aside from a portion of its contest against Air Force, a lack of competitive spirit has not been the problem for SDSU in 2023.

Following last week’s game against San Jose State, LB Cooper McDonald could not explain why the team was unable to solve its tackling problems despite working at it for months. Mayden, likewise, had no answer for the assignment mistakes that popped up for the offense at the most inopportune times throughout the year. The long-term value McDonald, Mayden, and their teammates gained from seeing their work finally paying off is immeasurable.

“It’s always been that one thing (that’s gone wrong),” Mayden explained. “I can’t look back and see a team that’s truly stopped us. It’s always been us stopping ourselves. The points on the board, it does feel good to come out with that victory and put that senior season to an end in a good manner.”

Part of the California State University system’s mission statement reads, “to advance and extend knowledge, learning, and culture, especially throughout California. To provide opportunities for individuals to develop intellectually, personally, and professionally.” By mentoring the student-athletes in their care, Hoke and his staff fulfilled that mission in 2023.

Cameron Harpole had a terrific game against Fresno State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Cameron Harpole’s Coming Out Party

Among the players who transferred from SDSU midseason, the Aztecs missed tight end Jay Rudolph most. They did not replace his physicality, especially as a blocker.

A December graduate, Rudolph left to keep his redshirt season intact. It will allow him to transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. A three-time Mountain West Scholar Athlete, Rudolph will likely end his collegiate career with a master’s degree.

The emergence of TE Cameron Harpole also forced his decision. If Rudolph stayed, he would have split snaps with his understudy. On a team starved for playmakers at the skill position, Harpole’s WR athleticism was thought to be a weapon for a struggling offense.

Despite the added snaps due to Rudolph’s departure, Harpole did not make the hoped-for sizable impact in the passing game. He had one catch in four different games that amounted to just 23 total yards.

Against FSU, Harpole tripled his season high for receptions while doubling his total yards on the year. More than just the final 46 yards, which was the fourth-highest by a tight end this season, the types of receptions he made and the opportunities Lindley designed for him show his potential.

SDSU opened the game in the jumbo power formation that they found so much success with throughout the game. Before the snap, however, Mayden’s skill position players spread out, with Harpole lining up outside of the set to the left. Running a route along the sideline, Mayden delivered a jump ball that Harpole should have caught. The incompletion showed Harpole’s importance in the game design.

On the next possession, Harpole caught a screen, made tacklers miss, and created an explosive 20-yard gain. In the third quarter, Harpole brought in an NFL-type reception. Mayden threw Harpole open. The TE was running toward the post, but Mayden threw outside. Harpole had the body control to turn and make the grab. Harpole had a mismatch against LB Malachi Langley, who was called for pass interference on the play, that he took advantage of. The 21-yard catch set up SDSU with 1st and goal from the seven.

Harpole’s final reception, a five-yard gain, came on 3rd and 2. It occurred inside SDSU territory. This time he beat DB Cartlon Johnson. Had he not made the play, the Aztecs likely would have punted. With only an eight-point lead, the outcome would have been in doubt.

Three catches resulted in three first downs. 33 of his 46 yards came after the catch. If Harpole’s career arc rises from here, remember the Fresno State game as the contest in which he broke out.

Keion Mitchell recorded the only tackle for loss for the Aztecs against Fresno State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Quick Takes

– Hoke praised the kickoff coverage unit after the game. In a day and age when returns are going away, watching that aspect of football entertained. SDSU dominated that phase on Saturday. On its final kickoff, FSU had enough and called for a fair catch.

“We talked about it before the game, ‘when we kick off, we’re going to make a statement,'” Hoke said postgame. “And those guys on the kickoff team – I want to go back and watch every one of them because – they went down the field and they made a statement. They made a statement for our football team that we were going to be tough, we were going to do everything that we could as a team to get that Oil Can back.”

– Snapdragon Stadium’s ground crews saved their best for the final game of the season. The endzones were decorated with gray Aztec Hieroglyphs as the backdrop to the “San Diego State” and “Aztecs” written in fonts matching SDSU’s jerseys. As much as the university wants to be a good landlord to its soccer tenants, that should not come at the expense of producing the best designs for the stadium’s primary tenant.

– The announced crowd for the game was 22,000, even. Whatever the actual number at Snapdragon on Saturday, it was a nice crowd considering the holiday weekend and the 7:30 pm kickoff. The school gave free tickets to season ticket holders and reduced the price of seats for this game. It showed what the Wave and others have found, San Diegans want to come to Snapdragon Stadium if the price is right.

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– Best complaint overheard on the night: fans bemoaned the lack of available heaters. Those are likely on back order along with the canopies.

– DE Keion Mitchell had a monster sack. It was the only tackle for loss by the Aztecs on the night. From spring practice to now, his motor and size have caused problems for scholarship athletes. The sophomore defensive lineman’s performance has likely earned him a full ride somewhere. The new staff would be wise to consider him for one when they arrive on The Mesa.

– Backup QB Tobin O’Dell continued to show his physical attributes. Lindley used him as a runner. He finished the game with 21 yards on three carries. His 7.0 yards per carry were the highest on the team. Mayden finished second with 6.9. Like Mitchell, a scholarship should be in O’Dell’s future, too.

– A third walk-on with an impact on the game was senior CB Arnold Escano. Lauded for his work ethic all year, he has turned into a good special teams player for the Aztecs. Escano nearly blocked a punt, but the pressure forced a short kick by FSU’s Caron King.

– S Josh Hunter continued his impressive play. His hit on the opening kickoff set the tone for the game. He did not play in the second half Saturday. He looked to have injured his arm or shoulder.

– WR Baylin Brooks showed the ability to make people miss. Adding that to his arsenal should make him a star in the coming years.

– Showing the seniors’ video tributes on the big screens throughout the game was a nice touch that enhanced the in-game experience.

– FSU QB Mikey Keene’s 190 yards was his lowest total this season, where he completed a full game. His season high occurred in the Bulldogs’ first game against Purdue. He had 366 in that contest.

– The Old Oil Can is back in San Diego. At the conclusion of the game, the Aztecs sprinted to the southeast corner of the stadium. The trophy was placed in front of the visitor’s section.

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