Aztecs look to continue offensive surge against Lobos

Jesse Matthews celebrates Mekhi Shaw's touchdown. (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU players head over to sing the fight song after its win over SJSU. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Game Details

 

Date: Friday, November 18, 2022

 

Time: 6:45 pm PT

 

Channel: Fox Sports 1

 

Betting Line: SDSU -14.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)

 

Location: University Stadium (Albuquerque, NM)

 

Records: SDSU 6-4 (4-2), New Mexico 2-8 (0-6)

 

Series: SDSU 28-15

 

The San Diego State Aztecs play their final road game of the season against New Mexico on Friday night. The Aztecs’ conference championship hopes are still mathematically alive but on life support. One San Diego State (4-2) loss or one Fresno State (5-1) win in the last two weeks of the season would crown the Bulldogs as West Division champions and propel them to the Conference Championship game.   

Already bowl-eligible after securing their sixth win of the season against the Spartans, the Aztecs will look to extend an eight-game winning streak against the Lobos. 

It’s been a difficult season for head coach Danny Gonzales and the tenth youngest team in the nation (72% underclassmen). After starting the season 2-1, the Lobos lost their next seven games and are winless in six conference games. 

They will recognize twelve seniors on Friday night for their contributions to the program in their final home game of the season.  

One major area for the Lobos’ downfall has been the disparity between first and second-half performances. New Mexico has actually outscored its opponents by seven points in the first half but has been outscored by 121 points in the second half. 

SDSU won last year’s matchup, 31-7, behind 203 rushing yards in Rocky Long’s first game against his former team. Long is currently the defensive coordinator for the Lobos.

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU

Offense

The 34-point outburst against a formidable SJSU defense finally gave viewers a look at the potency of a balanced offense led by Jalen Mayden. 329 yards of total offense (268 passing and 61 rushing) and three passing touchdowns earned Mayden Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week. 

Tyrell Shavers celebrates his 66-yard touchdown. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I think (Mayden) had a great day,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “The big plays that we had as well as the time of possession +19 minutes, red zone, and third down conversions, were really good.” 

Mayden is completing 66% of his passes (91 of 138) for 1,253 yards, eight touchdowns, and four interceptions. Seven of the touchdowns and all four interceptions have come in the past four games. 

Since taking over as quarterback on October 8th, Mayden leads the conference in passing yards per game (250.6) and second in yards per completion (13.77).  

Jordan Byrd continues to lead the team in rushing with 364 yards and three touchdowns, but Jaylon Armstead (308 rushing yards on 47 carries) has taken over as the lead back for the past two games (29 total carries) since returning from an ankle injury. 

“We would like to rush the ball a little more efficiently,” said Hoke. “We want more consistency in the rush game.”

Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers continue to be a one-two punch at the wide receiver position, adding 32 catches (for 367 yards) and 30 catches (for 477 yards), respectively. The duo leads the team with three touchdown receptions each. Shavers’ 66-yd touchdown reception against UNLV is the longest receiving touchdown of the year for the Aztecs. 

A third consistent receiving option has emerged in walk-on Mekhi Shaw who caught his first career touchdown against SJSU. Shaw has caught 22 passes for 223 yards on the season. 

The much-maligned offensive line faced its stiffest test of the season and passed with flying colors. After collecting 17 sacks in the prior two games, the Spartans’ defense only mustered two (for eight yards lost) against the Aztecs’ offensive line. Thomas Mirabella filled in for injured starting right guard Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli and played a solid game. 

Paying attention to the Aztecs’ overall season rankings in offensive statistics has become irrelevant, given the large disparity between the first five games under former OC Jeff Hecklinski and QB Braxton Burmeister and the last five games under OC Jeff Horton and Mayden. In the last five games, the Aztecs are in the top half of FBS in total offense, passing offense, and third down conversions, but most importantly, hold the fifth-best time of possession average in the country (34:37).


Defense

In the third year under Gonzales and Long, the Lobos’ defense has made strides in becoming a consistent force in the conference. They currently rank 41st in total defense (355.8) and 26th in passing defense (192.1) which would be their best rankings in those categories since 2007. 

They rank 90th in rushing defense (163.7), however, and against Air Force last week allowed 428 rushing yards. While the Falcons employ a triple-option rush offense and only passed the ball twice, they gained 100 more yards on the ground than their season average.

The Lobos’ biggest improvement defensively has come on third downs. UNM is 27th nationally, only allowing their opponents to convert 33.1% (46 of 139) of their attempts. Perhaps the most astonishing stat of the season is that the Lobos have only allowed six third-down conversions that required seven-plus yards and only four that required eight or more yards.

“They play hard,” replied Hoke when asked why the Lobos’ third down defense is so formidable. “That’s what makes any defense good. Their coach gets them playing hard, and it’s one thing he’s always been able to do.”

Linebacker Cody Moon leads the team with 83 tackles (fourth best in the conference) and 6.5 tackles for loss. Moon and defensive end Justin Harris share the team lead with 3.5 sacks.   

Safety Jerrick Reed II, a Preseason All-Mountain West selection, is third on the team with 71 tackles playing the wolf position (equivalent to warrior at SDSU). His 11 pass breakups are the most by any player in the conference, and his two forced fumbles are tied for the team lead.

The biggest surprise for the Lobos’ defense in 2022 is true freshman safety A.J. Haulcy, who plays the lobo position (equivalent to aztec at SDSU). After starter Tavian Combs was declared out for the season with an injury, Haulcy stepped in during the third game against UTEP and made an immediate impact with an interception and a forced fumble at the goal line. 

Haulcy has 77 tackles, second best on the team, and is tied for the most by a freshman in the country. He also has three tackles for loss, two interceptions, three pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. 

Key matchup: Jaylon Armstead, Running Back, vs. Cody Moon, Linebacker

Jaylon Armstead has assumed the top spot at running back. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The weakness of the Lobos’ defense has been allowing 163.7 rushing yards per game. The Aztecs’ offense under Mayden has attacked defenses through the air primarily with quick, intermediate routes. Although they have rushed for decent yardage, the Aztecs have been unable to spring a 100-yd rusher since Jordan Byrd’s 115 yards in week four against Toledo. Armstead has come the closest, rushing for 72 yards against UNLV two weeks ago. While the Aztecs continue to give carries to five different running backs throughout a game, Armstead has proven to be the most productive. Against the weak Lobos’ rush defense, this may be the best opportunity for Armstead to reach the 100-yd mark for the first time. To do it, he will need to find open holes and make defenders, like the leading tackler for the Lobos, miss in space.

When New Mexico has the ball: Advantage – SDSU

Offense

The Lobos offense has been one of the worst in the country this season, ranked last in total offense (239.5ypg) and third-worst in scoring offense (14.7ppg). 

“Our kryptonite right now is offense,” said New Mexico head coach Danny Gonzales on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “We are not good on offense. We are ok on defense. If we can score points, move the ball and possess the ball, we would be a lot better on defense.” 

Like SDSU, New Mexico made changes to its offensive staff in early October, relieving offensive coordinator Derek Warehime of his duties and appointing quarterbacks coach Heath Ridenour as the interim offensive coordinator for the rest of the season. Unlike SDSU, it has yet to make a positive impact on the offensive output.  

Sophomore quarterback Justin Holaday has yet to throw a touchdown and completed only 26 of 59 passes for 222 yards (one interception). The previous starter Miles Kendrick threw three touchdowns (all in the first two games of the season) and seven interceptions before Holaday took over. Three touchdown passes is the fewest by any team in FBS this season and would be the fewest in a full season since Army in 2017 (two). 

“(Holaday has) earned the opportunity to be the starting quarterback and build everything around him,” said Gonzales, noting that while he was banged up a bit in the last game, he is expected to start against SDSU. 

Running back Nate Jones leads the team with 466 rushing yards on 108 carries (two touchdowns). Sherod White is tied for the team lead with three rushing touchdowns with Kendrick but has only rushed for 128 yards on 34 carries. 

Holaday has rushed for a touchdown but only amassed 135 net rushing yards after subtracting 79 lost due to sacks. 

The Lobos have allowed 3.6 sacks per game, 124th in FBS. Gonzales expects starting right guard Shancco Matautia back for this game, which would allow their most productive offensive line unit to play together for the first time since week three. 

“They scare you a little more than you think because of the triple-option aspect of what they are running,” said Hoke about the Lobos offense. “They went through the same thing coordinator-wise, but it’s really about the triple-option … it’s different from Air Force or Navy, but more like what Army did.”

Luke Wysong (27 receptions for 256 yards, one touchdown) and Geordon Porter (19 receptions for 303 yards, two touchdowns) are the only receivers with greater than 100 yards on the season.

While the offense has not performed well all season, it has been especially deficient recently. In its last 53 drives over five games, the Lobos offense has scored only one touchdown while allowing the defense to score two on turnovers. Add in eight made field goals, and they have scored on only nine of those last 53 drives. 

Jonah Tavai and Keshawn Banks converge on the ball carry. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Defense

Defensive lineman Jonah Tavai returned for a super senior year to build off his excellent 2021 season and play alongside his brother, Justus, a transfer from Hawai’i. Tavai has not only elevated his play to a high level in the conference, but his statistics are as good as any defensive lineman in the country. Tavai is first in quarterback pressures (58) and hurries (38), tied for fifth in sacks (9), and tied for 14th in quarterback hits (10). 

“Air Force is really disciplined and good in what they do (upfront defensively), but so is San Diego State, except they are a little bigger, faster, and stronger,” said Gonzales comparing their last opponent’s defensive line to their next.

Linebacker Michael Shawcroft continues to lead the team with 63 tackles and is second behind Tavai with ten tackles for loss.  

Dallas Branch and Dez Malone are tied with a team-high two interceptions. Both of Branch’s picks have come in the past two games. 

The Aztecs’ red zone defense (scores allowed on only 65.62% of trips) is the best in the country. Their total defense is now up to 39th (351.1), and sacks are up to 34th (2.6). Over the last four games specifically, the team is only allowing 44.5 rushing yards and 291.5 total yards per game as their pressure on the quarterback has intensified. 

“We really take pride in that we want to be the best defense in the country every year,” said senior linebacker Caden McDonald on Tuesday. “So when our head coach says, well, I think they have the better defense (as Hoke did last week about SJSU), of course, that lights a fire under all of us.”

Key matchup: J.C. Davis, Left Tackle, vs. Keshawn Banks, Defensive End

Banks, a native of Rio Rancho, NM, is making a return trip home and would love nothing more than to put on a show for his friends and family. After being named to the Preseason All-Conference team, Banks had 13 tackles and zero tackles for loss through the first six games. In the last four games, Banks has 11 tackles, five tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. He has become the disruptive force the Aztecs hoped he would be consistently throughout the season. Despite the Lobos allowing 3.6 sacks per game this year, Davis has been terrific this season, only allowing one sack and earning a 97.7 pass-blocking efficiency grade per Pro Football Focus. With the majority of Banks’ snaps coming at right defensive end, these two should be matched up frequently on Friday night. With the rest of the offensive line having to contend with the Tavai and McDonald brothers rushing from various alignments and angles, Banks’ ability to win his one-on-one matchups with Davis would make it extremely difficult for the Lobos offense to move the ball at all. 

Jordan Byrd returns a touchdown against SJSU. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU

The Aztecs’ special teams struggled against Fresno State and UNLV before rebounding well against SJSU. Jordan Byrd returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to spark 38 unanswered points, and Jack Browning made both field goal attempts after missing two the prior week. Browning has made 14 of 17 field goals overall, and his 45.76ypp average is the best in the conference and ninth in FBS.  

New Mexico punter Aaron Rodriguez’s 44.05ypp average is fourth in the conference and 29th in FBS. Placekicker Luke Drzewiecki has made nine of 12 field goal attempts but made seven of his last eight after taking over permanently for a struggling George Steinkamp. Christian Washington is third in the conference in kickoff return average (behind Byrd and Terrell Vaughn from Utah State) and one of three players with a return touchdown. Washington is a true freshman from Helix High School in San Diego.

 

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article said New Mexico’s defense has only allowed five third-down conversions when the offense needed five or more yards and one conversion of seven or more yards. The correct statistics are: the Lobos have only allowed six third down conversions that required 7 or more yards and four that required eight or more yards. It has been corrected in the article. 

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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
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.

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