The SDSU Aztecs only allowed an average of 55 rushing yards in the past five games entering tonight, the best in the nation during that stretch. Air Force entered with the nation’s leading rush offense (336.4 yards per game). Something had to give.
After the game’s first two plays, the Falcons already had 69 rushing yards. Five plays in, Brad Roberts, the leading rusher in the Mountain West and sixth in the nation, had 75 yards (on five carries) and a touchdown.
“That first drive is always a little bit of a problem because that speed that you have tried to mimic in practice is never there,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke postgame.
By halftime, the Falcons racked up 184 rush yards and possessed the ball nearly double that of the Aztecs (19:44 to 10:16).
At the end of the game, the Falcons had 271 rushing yards (to the Aztecs -1), held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, and defeated the Aztecs 13-3.
The loss snapped the Aztecs’ nine-game winning streak against the Falcons.
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The Aztecs’ offense, which scored 26.3 points and passed for 255.8 yards per game, was held scoreless in the first half on 76 total yards. After Jack Browning missed a 45-yard field goal on the Aztecs’ first drive of the game, the remaining three drives of the half ended on Browning punts.
The second half did not start well for the Aztecs as a botched snap by Alama Uluave was recovered by Air Force at the SDSU 13. The defense held in the red zone, only allowing one yard on the three plays before Matthew Dapore nailed a 30-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
For the second straight home game, Jordan Byrd gave a spark to the Aztec offense with a great kickoff return. This one was returned to midfield but drew a personal foul penalty for a late hit to give the Aztecs the ball at the Falcons’ 40. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, the drive stalled in the red zone, and Browning’s 26-yard field goal put up their only points for the night.
Air Force’s defense was ranked in the top six in four major statistical categories, but it was difficult to tell from afar how much their offense’s rushing attack and ball possession factored into their gaudy numbers. After watching them dismantle the red-hot Aztecs’ offense, those doubts can be squashed.
“Air Force came out to play,” said center Alama Uluave postgame. “They watched the film, made adjustments (that) other teams didn’t. We weren’t as clean and crisp as we usually were.”
The Falcons held the Aztecs to only 187 total yards, eight first downs, and, more importantly, 0 for 10 on third-down conversions. Last week, the Aztecs held New Mexico to 0 for 11 on third downs, but they were victimized by the donut this week.
When asked how the offense played so poorly after a really hot six-game stretch, Hoke cited “dumb penalties,” specifically four false starts that ruined good field position.
“Any time you get knocked back, (it) gets you out of rhythm. We didn’t execute really well, whether it was running routes … pass protection … being a little impatient at the quarterback position. It’s a combination of everything.”
Jalen Mayden only completed 16 of 31 passes for 188 yards and two interceptions. Jordan Byrd led the way with only 17 rushing yards (on six carries).
Brionne Penny caught three passes for a career-high 63 yards, all in the game’s final six minutes.
The Falcons did not attempt a pass in the first half (they only attempt seven per game). On Haaziq Daniels’ first pass attempt in the third quarter, he was hit by Jonah Tavai and came up hobbling. Jensen Jones replaced him at quarterback and handed off twice before Air Force punted the ball back to SDSU. Daniels returned to the game on the next drive.
Daniels’ lone completion of the night was a big one. Facing a 2nd and 15 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Daniels found David Cormier near the right sideline for 14 yards to set up a 3rd and 1, which Roberts converted with a 22-yard run. That drive set up Dabore’s 32-yard field goal that gave the Falcons a two-score lead at 13-3.
Roberts rushed for 187 yards (on 35 carries), while John Eldridge III added 53 yards (on 12 carries).
Dabore missed two of his four field goal attempts on the night (57, 44).
Air Force entered the game with an 81.8% fourth down conversion rate, 2nd best in the country. On their first fourth down of the game, the Falcons went for it from their own 37, and Roberts rushed for four yards for the first down (only needed one).
Later in the first half, the Falcons faced another 4th and 1, this time from the SDSU 2. Foregoing a 19-yard field goal, the Falcons once again handed off to Roberts, but linebacker Vai Kaho rushed into the backfield on the snap and took him down short of the line to gain.
Two SDSU personal foul penalties kept the drive alive for the Falcons instead of setting up punts on fourth down. One of which was a targeting penalty on linebacker Zyrus Fiaseu that ended his night early.
Similar to last year, the Aztecs switched up their defensive alignment against the Falcons to defend against the triple-option. Kyron White started in place of Davaughn Celestine and played a boundary linebacker role instead of boundary warrior.
“It’s a different defense when you play triple-option football (so) because of (White’s) speed and his physicalness, we thought we could use him at (boundary linebacker), and it really went pretty well,” said Hoke postgame. “I think he did a nice job.”
“Our guys stepped up (after the first drive),” said defensive lineman Jonah Tavai postgame. “The way that we finished that game, I’m really proud of our defense.”
Down ten points with six minutes remaining, the Aztecs made a final push to get back in the game. But back-to-back interceptions by Mayden in the end zone sealed the victory for the Falcons. Two false start penalties (four total for the game) after a 1st and Goal at the Falcons’ 7 hurt the offense’s chances to put points on the board.
Jayden Goodwin led the Falcons with seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and one interception. Trey Taylor picked off the final interception.
Michael Shawcroft and Jonah Tavai led the Aztecs with 12 tackles each. Shawcroft added two tackles for loss and a sack.
In front of the announced crowd of 25,223, the Aztecs honored 17 players on Senior Night in a pregame celebration on the field with the players’ families. Five of those players, including Jesse Matthews, Michael Shawcroft, and Patrick McMorris, have an extra year of eligibility remaining due to the COVID-19 exemption and have yet to decide whether they will return next year.
Hoke praised his senior leaders, who had to overcome COVID, playing in Carson for two years and persevering through a rough start and offensive coaching change earlier this year.
“They’ve had a lot on their plate, and I think they’ve learned a lot,” he said. “All of that has taught them to be resilient and to be tough.”
Uluave, one of the seniors playing his final collegiate home game, said he loves San Diego State (“I’m an Aztec for life”) and echoed Hoke’s sentiments.
“Having to go through all those issues really makes you appreciate a home stadium. This game wasn’t only just for us seniors but for those past two classes who didn’t have a chance to finish their careers off in San Diego. I’m forever grateful for the coaching staff that has made me the player and man that I am today.”
CJ Baskerville was in uniform for the first time in a month, did not start but played in the game for the Aztecs. Cooper McDonald injured an ankle in the first half and did not return. Thomas Mirabella started in place of Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli for the fourth straight game.
Braxton Burmeister entered the game as a wide receiver for one play in the second half. He ran a deep route, but the pass was thrown incomplete short in the direction of Kenan Christon.
The Aztecs now await bowl selection on December 4 to find out where and when they will be headed for their final game of the season.
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.