Aztecs look to continue Pac-12 dominance in season opener

SDSU enters the field at the 8/20 scrimmage. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

SDSU warms up before their scrimmage on 8/20. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

The San Diego State Aztecs open their 100th season of football and Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday against the Arizona Wildcats. The game is the second leg of a home-and-home series that started last year with a game in Tucson. SDSU defeated Arizona 38-14 behind a dominant first-half performance taking a 35-7 lead into halftime. 

The Aztecs are 7-2 against Pac-12 teams since 2016. After wins against Arizona and Utah last year, the .778 winning percentage is the highest against the conference (minimum of six games played) of any team in the country. SDSU is followed by Notre Dame (.700), USC (.673), Washington (.667), and Utah (.642). 

While SDSU is reloading after a historic 12-2 season and losing nine players to the NFL, the Wildcats have rebuilt a roster under second-year head coach Jedd Fish that lacked talent suitable for a Power 5 conference program last season. The Wildcats added 50 new players since the end of 2021, 11 via the transfer portal and 39 from high school. The additions are headlined by Washington State transfer quarterback Jayden de Laura, the 2021 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman Player of the Year, and All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. De Laura threw for 2,796 yards and 23 touchdowns for the Cougars in 2021.  

“We looked at him awfully hard when he came out of high school,” Hoke said during his weekly press conference with the media when asked about de Laura. “(We) thought we had a decent shot at it. (He is) very athletic, a really good decision maker, and extends plays.” 

De Laura is not the only Wildcat newcomer the Aztecs recruited heavily. True freshman offensive lineman Jonah Savaiinaea from Honolulu (who played at the same high school as de Laura) chose Arizona over many schools, including SDSU, and has already earned a starting spot on the line at right guard.  

Braxton Burmeister takes a snap from Tommy Mirabella. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU

Offense

For the past decade, the head of the Aztecs’ offense has been the star running back behind a dominant rushing offense. While SDSU still intends to run the ball early and often, they might finally have the talent in the passing game to open up the playbook that fans have long desired. Virginia Tech (and previously Oregon) transfer Braxton Burmeister won the starting quarterback job pretty early into spring camp, and wide receivers Jesse Matthews and Mississippi State (and previously Alabama) transfer Tyrell Shavers look to establish a potent 1-2 punch in their second year together. Chance Bell finally gets his opportunity to be the lead back after putting on 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason. As last season progressed, the Aztecs’ rush offense stalled while the pass offense began to show signs of sustained success, culminating in a 38-24 victory in the Frisco Bowl. Was that game a preview of the 2022 Aztecs offense or an anomaly?

Key Player – Alama Uluave, Center, 6-2, 305lbs

The Aztecs entered fall camp with two returning starters on the offensive line and looking to fill three openings with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. That became further complicated when the team moved Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson, the returning starter at right tackle, to left tackle one week into fall camp. In essence, that now means the team has new starters at four of the five offensive line positions. Uluave remains the one constant.

The super senior, likely the most irreplaceable player on the entire roster, is responsible for getting the line in position and calling the protections out pre-snap. With Burmeister under center and the depth at running back, tight end, and wide receiver, the Aztecs’ offense will only hit their ceiling if the offensive line can do their job, which starts with Uluave. Against a Wildcats defense that struggled mightily last year, establishing a running game early should open up the passing windows down the field. 

Defense

The Wildcats return a handful of defensive starters and hired Johnny Nansen as their new defensive coordinator. Nansen was previously the defensive line coach at UCLA for the past two years. He takes over a defense that was 101st in scoring defense, 99th in rushing defense, and 130th in red zone defense. However, the most astonishing statistic for Arizona in 2021 was the fact their defense only forced six turnovers (four interceptions and two fumbles recovered) for the entire season, the third worst in FBS. Nansen looks to bring in a more zone-centric defense (last year’s defensive coordinator played an attacking man coverage scheme) that could lead to fewer big plays allowed and more turnovers forced. In last year’s matchup, the Wildcats’ defense allowed three plays of at least 40 yards in the first half to the Aztecs. Defensive lineman Kyon Barrs earned Preseason All-Pac-12 Second-Team honors, while cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace earned Honorable Mention. 

Key player – Christian Young, Safety, 6-3, 225lbs

Young has played multiple positions in the secondary and at hybrid linebacker for the Wildcats. In 2021, he made 68 tackles, second best on the team, including a career-high 15 against USC. A former track star in high school, Young is one of the fastest players in the conference and was named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List. Young will be called upon to help support the front six with stopping the run, containing Burmeister when he decides to roam out of the pocket, and covering tight ends and slot receivers over the middle of the field.   

Caden McDonald rushes the passer as Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson attempts to block him. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

When Arizona has the ball: Advantage – SDSU

Offense

The biggest difference for the Wildcats from last season is their overhaul at the offensive skill positions. In addition to de Laura, the team also brought in WR Jacob Cowing from UTEP via transfer, one of the best in the nation last year. They also landed five-star WR Tetairoa McMillan (highest rated recruit in program history) and four-star TE Keyan Burnett. Both are from Servite High School in Anaheim, CA. At 6-5 and 6-6, respectively, McMillan and Burnett are going to be difficult to defend by any secondary in the country, especially in the red zone, with their height advantages over smaller defenders.

The offense’s weakest group is the offensive line. While they added Savaiinaea and return multiple starters, the group did not function well last year and will need to make drastic improvements for success in 2022. If the offensive line cannot block the front six of the Aztecs, the upgraded skill position players will not have a chance to show off their talents in the passing game.

Key player – Jacob Cowing, Wide Receiver, 5-11, 175lbs.

The UTEP transfer caught 69 passes for 1,354 yards (ninth in FBS) and seven touchdowns in 2021 on his way to First-Team All-Conference USA honors. Like Young, Cowing was also named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List. Fish called Cowing the program’s most important addition of the offseason. 

Defense

The Aztecs lost four starters from the 12th-best defense in the country last year, including All-American and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Cam Thomas. They replaced two starters by bringing in transfer defensive linemen Justus Tavai (Hawaii) and linebacker Cooper McDonald (Washington). Both transfers are brothers of fellow Aztec defensive starters within their own position groups. The losses in the secondary will be replaced by two sophomores, Noah Avinger and CJ Baskerville, who played and started multiple games as true freshmen last year.

The vaunted 3-3-5 defense looks to be loaded with depth and talent across the three defensive levels and continue its dominance. The front six will try to expose the weaker Wildcast offensive line much like they did last in last year’s matchup. Getting pressure on de Laura and making him uncomfortable, and moving him off his spots will provide the secondary the edge they need to keep the talented receivers at bay. 

Key player – Cedarious Barfield, Safety, 5-11, 195lbs.

It’s hard not to pick one of four Aztec defenders named to the Preseason All-Mountain West team, but while all four should play a major role in the game plan, the matchup could be decided by Cowing versus Barfield in the slot. A large portion of Cowing’s production from last year at UTEP was catch and runs over the middle of the field. Listed as the Wildcats’ starter at WR-F, he and Barfield should be matched up frequently. Barfield, a former cornerback at SDSU, moved to boundary warrior safety last year and officially moves to field warrior safety this season to utilize his coverage skills in that role. 

Jack Browning attempts a field goal. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Special Teams: Advantage – Arizona

After last season’s historic performance, it is hard to imagine that SDSU would square off against a team with a decidedly better special teams unit. But Arizona appears to be that team. Kyle Ostendorp finished fourth in the nation last year with a 49.2 yards per punt average, and his longest punt (71 yards) came against SDSU. He earned Preseason First-Team All-Pac-12 honors after earning First-Team in 2021, along with being named to the Ray Guy Award Watch List. Kicker Tyler Loop was perfect in all 12 field goal attempts in 2021, although his longest field goal was only 42 yards. 

In contrast, The Aztecs bring Jack Browning to the forefront as their starting kicker and punter. He has yet to attempt a kick in a Division I game. Browning also comes off a shaky spring camp and a recent fall scrimmage where he missed both of his field goal attempts. The return of Jordan Byrd gives the Aztecs’ special teams unit a jolt with his kickoff and punt return skills as he looks to fortify his Preseason All-Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year notoriety. 


Game Details

Date: Saturday, September 3, 2022

Time: 12:30pm PT

Channel: CBS

Betting Line: SDSU -6.5 (BetMGM)

Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)

Records: SDSU 0-0 (12-2 in 2021), Arizona 0-0 (1-11 in 2021)

Series: Arizona 10-6

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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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