Aztecs hold off Rebels, 28-20, one step closer to clinching West division

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Credit: SDSU Athletics

The San Diego State Aztecs defeated UNLV, 28-20, and moved one step closer to clinching the West division and earning a berth in the conference championship game. The Aztecs are now 10-1 on the season, 6-1 in conference play. 

After a dreadful third quarter for the Aztecs in which the Rebels cut an 11 point halftime deficit to one, the Aztecs utilized great field position to score on Jesse Matthews’ third touchdown of the night to extend their lead to eight with 3:33 remaining. Matthews is the first Aztec with three touchdown receptions in a game since Colin Lockett had three in the 2011 New Orleans Bowl. He finished the game with nine receptions and 75 yards. 

After a frustrating season for Matthews so far, he noted how important it has been for him to stay patient and follow the motto of “put the work in, and the results will show.” 

Before Matthews’ touchdown, it appeared the drive would turn into only three points, as kicker Matt Araiza was sent on for a 30-yard field goal on 4th and 1. But after a timeout, coach Hoke sent the offense back on the field, and Greg Bell ran it two yards for a first down. SDSU has now converted 9 of 12 fourth-down attempts this season. 

“It may have been a dumb decision,” coach Hoke stated postgame since a field goal would have made it a four-point game. “I don’t know if we could have stopped them [from scoring a touchdown],” so he decided to go for seven instead. 

It paid off as Johnson found Matthews for his third touchdown catch of the game to put the Aztecs up eight with 3:33 remaining. 

The Aztecs are now 6-0 in one-score games this season. Matthews credits the team’s attitude and being mentally tough for their ability to close out games. “No matter what happens throughout the course of the game, we expect to win,” he said postgame.  

After Matthews final touchdown, linebacker Seyddrick Lakalaka picked off quarterback Justin Rogers’ pass attempt on fourth down to seal the victory for the Aztecs. It was the second interception of the game for the Aztecs. 

Quarterback Lucas Johnson was 12 of 14 for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Both touchdowns to Jesse Matthews came in the final 2:31 of the first half after the Aztecs offense had been held scoreless, and they were down 10-7. Johnson finished 18-of-24 for 192 yards. 

Greg Bell rushed for 58 yards on 17 carries. The Aztecs defense was able to contain reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week, Charles Williams, to only 35 yards on 16 carries after he rushed for 266 yards last week against Hawaii. 

After the Rebels took the opening drive of the game 72 yards on ten plays for a 21-yard field goal by Daniel Gutierrez, the Aztecs defense got them on the board. Linebacker Andrew Aleki intercepted a deflected pass from Friel and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown to give the Aztecs their first points of the night. Cornerback Tayler Hawkins played the pass attempt well, forcing the receiver to mishandle it, then tipped the ball up with his left hand right into the hands of Aleki. “I was in the perfect spot and the perfect time,” noted Aleki postgame. It was his second interception returned for a touchdown this season. 

Credit: SDSU Athletics

After Friel was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, backup quarterback Justin Rogers immediately led them on a five-play, 92-yard drive to take a 10-7 lead. Rogers was 3/3 for 91 yards on the drive, including a 36-yard pass throw to a wide-open Charles Williams running a wheel route from the backfield followed by a 43-yard pass to another wide-open receiver, Zyell Griffin, for the touchdown. The Aztec defense rarely has miscommunication issues but now has allowed two long touchdowns to wide-open receivers in the past two games.

The Aztecs answered on the ensuing drive, going seven plays for 59 yards and scoring on a four-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Jesse Matthews. Quarterback Lucas Johnson found Elijah Kothe for a 37-yard pass down to the UNLV 11 yard line to set up the scoring play. 

The Rebels drove to midfield near the end of the first half and faced a 4th and 2 on the SDSU 46 yard line with 54 seconds remaining. But a pass to the right flat to wide receiver Steve Jenkins was defended well by Patrick McMorris and dropped. 

Instead of being conservative and running out the first-half clock, the Aztecs played it aggressively, converting their own 4th and 2 at the UNLV 46 on a pass to BJ Busbee for nine yards. 

After driving the ball to the UNLV 24 with 12 second remaining, the aggressiveness continued as Johnson found Matthews down the right sideline for a touchdown. Matthews got behind the first level of the Cover 2 defense, and the safety was late to get over before the ball arrived. Matthews said postgame that the primary option on the play was a short pass to Tyrell Shavers, but Johnson saw him open away from the safety.  

The Rebels dominated the third quarter, scoring ten points on their two drives to get within one point, 21-20. The first drive went six plays for 94 yards and scored on an eight-yard pass to tight end Gio Fauolo. An 80-yard catch and run by Steve Jenkins, who beat Noah Avinger, got the Rebels to the goal line. The second drive went ten plays and 60 yards but stalled on the four-yard line when a pass attempt into the end zone on third down was broken up by cornerback Dallas Branch. 

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Both of the SDSU drives in the quarter ended with sacks on Lucas Johnson on third down. The first one was initially ruled a fumble and recovery by UNLV but overturned on replay that showed Johnson’s knee was down before he lost the ball. A couple penalties hurt the drives as well. 

It appeared the Aztecs turned the corner as Jordan Byrd took a handoff for 47 yards into the red zone and almost for a touchdown until he was tripped up by the last Revel defender. But, the drive ended on a tipped pass to BJ Busbee and intercepted by cornerback Ricky Johnson as the ball fell into his hands as he lay on the ground. 

The defense forced two consecutive three and outs before the final Aztecs scoring drive to put the game away. 

Rogers completed 15 of 21 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort. His favorite target was wide receiver Steve Jenkins, who caught five passes for 176 yards.

True freshman safety CJ Baskerville made his first start of the season after filling in for an injured Cedarious Barfield for most of last week’s game against Nevada. 

SDSU’s final regular-season game of the year is at 9 am on Black Friday against Boise State. A win against Boise State or a Fresno State loss to San Jose State on Thursday will clinch the division for the Aztecs. 

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