The SDSU Aztecs held on late and defeated the Rainbow Warriors 17-10 on Saturday night in front of the first maximum capacity crowd allowed for a Hawaii home game in two years.
Hawaii marched down the field on the last drive of the game. Still, a poor decision by quarterback Chevan Cordeiro to throw it short of the first down marker inbounds with less than ten seconds remaining did not allow them to run a final play before the clock expired.
The Aztecs are now 8-1 on the season and 4-1 in conference play. Hawaii drops to 4-6 on the season and 1-4 in the conference.
The Aztecs used good field position on its second drive to score the first points of the game on a Greg Bell five-yard touchdown run. It was Bell’s seventh touchdown of the season. He finished with 77 rushing yards.
The Aztecs have won seven straight games after scoring first, including five times this year.
On their next possession, disaster struck for the Aztecs when quarterback Lucas Johnson was sacked by linebacker Darius Muasua, fumbled the ball, and was recovered by Hawaii at the SDSU 19 yard line. Hawaii wasted no time tying the game on the ensuing play on a short slant pass to Calvin Turner, who outran safety Trenton Thompson for the final 15 yards.
Johnson bounced back on the next possession, completing three of four passes for 27 yards and converting two consecutive third downs on his runs. The second conversion was a 17-yard scamper on 3rd and 14, the longest third down conversion for the Aztecs this season.
The drive stalled at the Hawaii 13 yard line on a 4th and 2. Coach Hoke called on the field goal unit, but instead of kicking a field goal, the Aztecs ran a fake as holder Jack Browning took the snap and ran down the left side untouched for the touchdown.
Coach Hoke noted they have been practicing that play all season and waiting for the right opponent to use it against. “Execution is something you worry about, but [Browning] is a really good athlete,” remarked coach Hoke. According to coach Hoke, special teams coach Doug Deakin studies two years of film on opponents to see whether there are holes in the kick coverage units they can expose, and they noticed how Hawaii overloads on one side in the field goal unit. “Unless they showed something completely different than what we saw [on film], we were going to attempt that fake at some point in this game.”
Johnson completed his first six passes of the game for 52 yards and finished 12 of 16 for 99 yards. Tight end Daniel Bellinger led the Aztecs with five catches for 41 yards.
“[Johnson] did a good job on a couple different drives,” said coach Hoke and thinks there are some things to build upon moving into the next game.
The Aztecs most important drive of the game started with 1:07 remaining in the third quarter from their own 21-yard line. They went on a 14 play, 57-yard drive that lasted 8:26 and ended on a Matt Araiza 39 yard field goal to give the Aztecs a 17-7 advantage. On the drive, Johnson completed 6 of 7 passes for 47 yards and had an eighth pass attempt to wide receiver Elijah Kothe draw a pass interference penalty.
Bellinger said post-game that the drive was critical to “keep our defense off the field” and burn time off the clock with the lead. He also noted that while he and the rest of the offense is frustrated with their lack of scoring the past couple weeks, it was important to contribute tonight to help the team win.
The Rainbow Warriors added a field goal of their own on the next possession to cut the lead back to seven with three minutes remaining in the game. The Aztecs gained one first down and forced Hawaii to burn all three of its timeouts before punting the ball back to them with 1:11 left in the game.
With Trenton Thompson’s interception in the second quarter, SDSU extended its streak of forcing a turnover to 22 straight games, the second-longest active streak in FBS. The Aztecs forced another turnover in the third quarter on a hit by Tayler Hawkins, which caused wide receiver Jared Smart to fumble the ball and recovered by safety CJ Baskerville. The Aztecs were unable to score off either turnover.
The defense bounced back after a poor performance last week by holding the Hawaii offense in check for most of the game. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro finished the game 19 of 34 for 175 yards, while the Rainbow Warriors only rushed for 85 yards.
“[The defense] understood what hurt us last weekend, which was the quarterback moving out of the pocket,” said coach Hoke. “We used a spy this week to help contain the quarterback and played the run really well.”
Matt Araiza booted a 79-yard punt towards the end of the second quarter, which set an NCAA single-season record of 15 punts of at least 60 yards. Araiza, who came into the game with the nation’s leading yard per punt average of 52.2, saw his average slightly dip after kicking five punts for a 49.6-yard average. Araiza also missed a 53-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter.
It was not a very clean game as both teams racked up plenty of penalty yards. The Aztecs committed nine penalties for 90 yards, while the Rainbow Warriors committed six for 65.
Tonight’s game marked the return of wide receiver Kobe Smith who missed the past five games after suffering injuries from a car accident. On one of his first plays from scrimmage, he was called for a holding penalty on a screen pass to Ethan Dedeaux.
Hawaii starting running back and leading rusher Dae Dae Hunter missed his third consecutive game after it appeared all week that he would be available to play in this game.
Right before the Aztecs took the field in Hawaii, Boise State completed its blowout victory at Fresno State, which once again allows the Aztecs to control its own destiny. If the Aztecs win their remaining three games of the season, they will win the West Division and play in the conference championship game.
“It’s always good when you can control the actions you want to control,” said coach Hoke after the game. “It’s a pretty good feeling being back in the driver’s seat, but we need to go 1-0 next week, or it will not mean anything,” said defensive end Keshawn Banks.
The Aztecs will look to go 1-0 when they host Nevada next Saturday night at 7:30 pm on Homecoming weekend.