Aztecs manhandled by Air Force 49-10

Josh Nicholson scores SDSU's only TD on the night. (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU was no match for Air Force on Saturday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Colorado Springs has some of the most unique weather in the world. One minute, it can be sunny; the next, the sky can open in a downpour. This scene played out at Falcon Stadium about two hours before kickoff.

A warm, bright day gave way to flashes of lightning and gusts of wind. The stadium stopped allowing fans into the game, instructing them to head back to their cars. SDSU and Air Force players headed back into the tunnel as the contest entered into an official weather delay.

As quickly as it descended on the Air Force Academy, the storm exited. With about sixty minutes to the scheduled kickoff, the teams reemerged from the locker rooms to warm up. The wind delayed the scheduled flyover by a pair of F-16s, but ten seconds before kickoff, they sped over in spectacular fashion.

Possessions figured to, at a minimum, heading into the contest. Both teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation in time of possession. Air Force’s offense held the ball for 36:38 minutes every game. The Aztecs were four minutes behind them at 32:28.

Holding true to their identity, the teams only had two and a half combined drives in the opening quarter. SDSU received the opening kick, but after only five plays, punted the ball to Air Force.

Head coach Brady Hoke said in Tuesday’s press conference that the first drive for Air Force is usually productive because it takes time for the defense to adjust to the speed the Falcons run their offense with. AFA scored on three of four opening drives heading into this game. Taking over at their own 12-yard line, AFA appeared ready to make it four out of five scores.

Air Force’s QB dominated SDSU. (Don De Mars/EVT)

After two inside runs to soften up the defense, starting QB Zac Larrier burst off the edge for 41 yards for a first and ten from SDSU’s 37. The Aztecs’ defense stood up with three terrific tackles for loss. A trio of defenders met RB Michel Emmanuel two yards behind the line of scrimmage on first down. Davaughn Celestine dropped TB John Eldridge for a two-yard loss before Marcus Ratcliffe ended AFA’s drive by tackling Larrier for a loss of four.

Amazingly, it was the only time SDSU would stop AFA all night.

On its second drive, SDSU got into AFA territory on an eight-yard screen to TE Cameron Harpole. Harpole broke a pair of tackles after the reception. Two plays later, the Aztecs faced fourth and four feet at the Falcons 45. Hoke initially kept his offense on the field.
After calling a timeout, Mayden snuck the ball for an Aztecs’ first down.

Three consecutive runs by Kenan Christon set up another fourth and one. Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley brought back up tackle Drew Azzopardi for a sixth offensive lineman. It was Azzopardi’s first snap of the season. RB Jaylon Armstead converted a two-yard gain for a first down. It was the final play of the first quarter.

“Trying to steal possessions,” Hoke said when asked why he went for it on fourth down. “I told the team that stealing a possession is converting on fourth down. Because of their time of possession … that’s an important matter for us.”

SDSU started with the ball in the second stanza with first and ten at the Falcons 33. Three plays later, they found the end zone. Showing the explosive speed coaches have raved about for two years, Joshua Nicholson caught a short pass from Mayden and did the race with his feet. He broke one tackle before gliding in for the score.

SDSU led 7-0 just 1:26 into the second quarter. The 17-play drive took 9:32 of game time. Both were season-longs for the Aztecs.

Air Force immediately responded. Larrier took a run 34 yards on the second play of the drive. Four plays later, AFA had its own fourth-down magic. Larrier found WR Cade Harris for 28 yards to keep the drive alive. Larrier rolled to his right and found Harris on a broken play. After a false start moved the ball from the three to the eight, Harris took a toss to tie the score 7-7.

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Building off its offensive momentum, AFA’s defense forced a three-and-out. As they had on multiple third downs early, the Falcons pressured Mayden without bringing extra blitzers. P Jack Browning, standing near his own goal line, connected on a 39-yard kick to give the Falcons its best field position at its own 47.

Aside from the game’s first drive, SDSU never stopped Air Force. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The Falcons moved the ball on the ground with a pair of passes mixed in for their second touchdown of the game. Taking their first lead of the game, 14-7. Emmanuel finished the drive with a pitch from Larrier for an easy score. AFA held the ball for 5:04.

Championship drives take place at the ends of each half. SDSU, attempting to enter into the conversation for a birth in the Mountain West title game, failed to execute a skillful drive to close out the second quarter.

Air Force, in staking claim to its place as the top team in the conference, scored again. Larrier took his first two carriers for 11, then 15 yards. Aided by a hold by DT Samuela Tuihalamaka, AFA took the ball into the red zone. A blown coverage where no defender lined up to cover WR Jared Roznos resulted in a 26-yard gain. Emmanuel finished the drive to give AFA a 21-7 lead.

With its title game aspirations slipping away, SDSU made a late surge into AFA territory. Taking over with only 43 seconds, the Aztecs got a 22-yard run and a seven-yard reception by Christon to take the ball past midfield.

Two plays later, Myden converted a seven-yard pass to Brionne Penny on fourth and three to keep the drive alive. Hoke sent Browning out for a 56-yard attempt, but a five-yard false start penalty by Azzopardi sent Browning back to his own 49. Instead of attempting a Hail Mary, Hoke elected to let Browning try a 61-yarder.

“There was a pretty good wind going that way,” Hoke explained on why he allowed Browning to attempt such a long field goal. “It was really strong earlier. I’ve seen Jack do it. Jack’s got a hell of a leg.”

Browning nailed the kick as time expired to give the Aztecs some momentum. They trailed 21-10. It was the longest-made field goal in Aztecs history, the longest ever made in Falcon Stadium, and set the MW record as well. It was tied for the 20th longest in NCAA history and matched the longest kick this year.

SDSU moved to 2-4 on the year. (Don De Mars/EVT)

At the midway point, Mayden had thrown for 108 yards on 9-of-18 attempts. He found seven different receivers, with Mark Redman (27 yards) and Christon (18) the only Aztecs with two receptions. Christon paced SDSU with 39 yards rushing on seven attempts. Armstead had 19 on six carries. Zyrus Fiaseu led the team with five tackles. Cedarious Barfield and Cody Moon each had four.

SDSU only registered tackles for loss on AFA’s first possession. After giving up scores on three of four drives, the Aztec’s defense needed to make adjustments to have a chance at the upset.

The last time the Falcons had scored more than 27 points against SDSU was October 11, 2008. On Saturday, it took them one drive into the third quarter to top that mark.

A slow, methodical drive started at their own 25. Five consecutive runs and a pair of grinding first downs lulled the Aztecs to sleep. On the sixth play, Larrier found Harris uncovered on a play-action pass for a 54-yard score and a 28-10 lead only 2:56 into the game.

“Crucial,” Hoke said when asked how important Harris’ score in that moment was. “You want to stop the run. You really would like for them to throw the ball more, but not the way they threw it, not the way they caught it (tonight).”

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Mayden was reluctant to run the football on Saturday night. He had multiple chances to move to the chains but elected to throw to barely open receivers. None of the passes found their targets. On the Aztecs’ opening drive, he chose to throw to walk-on freshman Leo Kemp instead of making the easy play for a first down. Browning kicked the ball back to the Falcons.

Another broken coverage on the back end by the Aztecs gave AFA a huge 35-10 lead. Larrier found WR Jared Ramos for a 54-yard score. Celestine was the closest defender.

On the subsequent play for the Aztecs, Mayden threw a careless interception into the waiting arms of backup corner Trey Williams. Williams returned it up the middle, past Mayden, and into the endzone for a 30-yard pick-six and a 42-10 lead.

Browning, the lone bright spot for the Aztecs on the evening, blasted a 54-yard punt after another three and out for SDSU.

Air Force scored on six straight possessions. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The past two years, SDSU has employed a 3-4 against AFA and held the triple option in check. They played a 3-3-5 this game until the Falcons’ final possession of the third quarter. It did not matter.

The Falcons marched from their own 15 for another score. Air Force pulled Larrier in favor of Jensen Jones. AFA’s backup QB led a 16-play, 85-yard drive, capping it with a keeper for a three-yard touchdown. The Falcons led 49-10.

After holding SDSU on downs in its own territory, AFA ran out the clock to secure a 49-10 victory.

Mayden finished with 122 passing yards on 13-24 passing. Christon had 58 yards on 14 carries. Redman led the team in passing with two receptions for 27 yards. Fiaseu led the team with nine tackles.

“As a whole group, as a whole team, we have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re competitors or not,” DE Garret Fountain said postgame. “(The seniors) have to start with ourselves first and doing our job. We’re not living up to the way we work here as a program, and it starts with us as players. We have to hold each other accountable. It’s lacking right now, so we’ve got to figure that out.”

The Aztecs moved to 2-4 on the season and 0-2 in conference. They have a bye week before taking on Hawaii on the road on October 14.

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