Aztecs primed to defend triple-option against Falcons

LB Michael Shawcroft makes a tackle. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

Aztecs leave the field after warmups. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Game Details

Date: Saturday, November 26, 2022

Time: 6:00 pm PT

Channel: CBS Sports Network

Betting Line: Air Force -2 (BetMGM Sportsbook)

Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)

Records: SDSU 7-4 (5-2), Air Force 8-3 (4-3)

Series: Air Force 19-18

The San Diego State Aztecs conclude their regular season schedule at home against the Air Force Falcons on Saturday night. 

Both teams are eliminated from winning their respective divisions and playing in the conference championship game, but a victory in this matchup would propel the victor to a more lucrative bowl invite. 

The Aztecs bring a three-game overall winning streak and a five-game home winning streak to Senior Night, where close to 20 seniors will be recognized for their contributions to the program. 

SDSU rides in having won the last nine contests against Air Force, the longest by any team against the Falcons currently. The last four wins, however, have only been by a combined 17 points. 

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU

Offense

Tyrell Shavers runs after the catch against the Lobos. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

The Aztecs’ offense played its best game of the season last Friday against New Mexico, averaging its highest yards per play (7.2) and recording its highest total yards against an FBS opponent (459). Quarterback Jalen Mayden threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns, both to former walk-on and current scholarship athlete Mekhi Shaw.

Running back Kenan Christon became only the second Aztec to rush for over 100 yards this season, pitching in 102 yards on ten carries. His49-yardd touchdown run came on 4th and 1. 

Over the last six games with Mayden as the starter, the offense is scoring 26.3 points per game (67th in FBS), passing for 255.8 yards per game (39th), converting 42.4% of third downs (43rd), and possessing the ball for 34:37 (5th). 

Add to those improved statistics the offensive line’s ability to pass protect and greatly reduce false start and holding penalties, and the Aztecs would be undefeated in those six games if not for five turnovers and a botched onsides kick recovery attempt in their contest against Fresno State. 

Defense

Statistically, the Falcons have one of the best defenses in the country. They rank 3rd in passing yards allowed (153.8), 3rd in total defense (262.7), 4th in first down defense (149), and 6th in scoring defense (14.18). 

The defense has held its last three opponents (Army, New Mexico, and Colorado State) to an average of 187 yards and 10.3 first downs per game. 

While the defense greatly benefits from the offense’s ball control running game that minimizes the number of plays the defense plays, it is still quite impressive to be in the top six in the country in four major categories. 

Another benefit to Air Force’s defensive metrics is this year’s conference schedule which does not include Fresno State and San Jose State, two of the three highest-scoring teams in the conference (excluding Air Force). Boise State, the second-highest scoring team in the conference (29.09), scored 19 against Air Force in a five-point victory. 

Senior linebacker Vince Sanford, named to the Preseason All-Mountain West Team, had a career-high four sacks (five tackles for loss) last week against Colorado State.His 15 career sacks rank sixth in program history.  Sanford leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sack,s and seven quarterback hurries on the season. 

Safety Trey Taylor and inside linebacker TD Blackmon lead the team with 61 tackles. Blackmon is second with nine tackles for loss. Cornerback Camby Goff leads with three interceptions (no other player has more than one) and nine pass breakups (no other player with more than three).  

Key matchup: Mark Redman, Tight End vs TD Blackmon/Alec Mock, Linebacker

For the second straight week, the Aztecs are playing a great pass defense which allows less than 200 passing yards per game. New Mexico allowed 192 yards per gam,e and Mayden surpassed that mark in the first half alone. While Shaw caught both touchdowns and 120 yards, Redman made timely catches (five receptions for 66 yards). With the Falcons’ secondary keyed in on the Aztecs’ trio of explosive receivers and the outside linebackers focused on stopping the run and harassing Mayden, Redman may have one-on-one opportunities with the two inside linebackers for big plays down the field. 

When Air Force has the ball: Advantage – Air Force

Offense

Caden McDonald awaiting the snap. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Any discussion of the Air Force offense begins and ends with the triple-option, a staple of all three service academies. The Falcons run it best, evidenced by their FBS-leading 336.4 rushing yards per game average, 34.5 yards better than one of their counterparts, Army. They also lead the country with a 36:00 time of possession average.  

Air Force scores 29 points per game, third best in the conference. They don’t pass very often (seven attempts per game), but when they do, they average 22.2 yards per completion, the best in the nation. Defenses are so focused on stopping their run game that play-action or set dropback passes can yield big results due to defenders being out of position to stop the Falcons’ rushing attack. 

Their rush offense continually puts them in short yardage third and fourth down situations, which result in 46.9% (21st nationally) and 81.8% (2nd) conversion rates, respectively. 

Air Force’s 582 rushing yards against Northern Iowa in the season opener (one of five games they rushed over 400) was the 6th most in program history and the highest since 2011. 

Fullback Brad Roberts leads the conference and is sixth in the nation with 1425 rushing yards (5.2ypc) and 14 touchdowns. John Lee Eldridge III adds 648 rushing yards (8.4ypc) and four touchdowns. 

Quarterback Haaziq Daniels is in the mix as well, rushing for 584 yards (5.2ypc) and seven touchdown while passing for 719 yards (35/74), six touchdowns, and two interceptions. 

David Cormier’s 12 receptions, 370 yards, and four touchdowns make up roughly half of the receiving production for the entire team. 

Lastly, the Falcons do not beat themselves, turning the ball over only 13 times in 11 games, 28th in FBS. They are in the top six in fewest penalties (4.1) and penalty yards (30.6) per game. It is impressive for a team that rushes the ball so often to minimize holding penalties across the offensive line, tight ends, and wide receivers. 

Defense

Cooper McDonald attempts to knock down a pass attempt. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Similar to the offense, the Aztecs’ defense flipped a switch midway through the season. Over the last five games, they are allowing 17.2 points per game (17th in FBS), 275 total yards per game (8th), and 55 rushing yards per game (1st, while tripling their sacks from 1.3 to 4 per game.

Against a triple-option offense, the Aztecs should not expect many sacks, but dominating the point of attack and accumulating tackles for loss, either on dives up the middle or pitches to the outside,e will be a focus this week. Ultimately, the Aztecs will give up yards, but playing gap-sound, fundamental defense collectively will prevent breakout runs and a high third-down conversion rate.

In last year’s contest, the Aztecs held the Falcons under 200 rushing yards after they entered the game leading the nation by averaging greater than 300. They employed a 4-4 defense to better manage the point of attack, which could mean the use of both McDonald brothers at the same time this time around. 

Michael Shawcroft continues to lead the defense in tackles (65) and is second withten0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Jonah Tavai leads with 11.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Patrick McMorris is second with 55 tackles and tied for first with five pass breakups. 


Key matchup: Brad Roberts, Fullback vs Justus Tavai, Defensive Tackle

The best way to defend the triple-option is to take away one of the three options the team does well. The simplest and first option is to hand the ball off to the fullback up the middle. SDSU head coach Brady Hoke spoke both last year and this week about the importance Roberts has in their success. In last year’s game, the Aztecs keyed on Roberts and held him to only 27 yards on seven carries. Daniels, the quarterback, led the team with nine carries. The Aztecs feel if they take away the first option and force Daniels to run east and west, their defense has the best opportunity to slow the Falcons down. The defensive interior, and particularly the defensive tackle, has the primary purpose to blow up the FB dive. Dominating the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball and pushing the center and guard backward will be vita,l and the bigger Tavai brother will have that task.  

Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU

Jack Browning kicks off against New Mexico. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

SDSU’s Jack Browning has made 16 of 19 (84.21%) field goal attempts. His 46 yards per punt average is the best in the conference and 22nd in FB,S and 27 punts downed inside the 20 is 3rd in FBS. Return specialist Jordan Byrd’s 8.4 punt return average and 26.63 kickoff return average are at or near the top in the conference, along with his pair of return touchdowns. 

Sophomore kicker Matthew Dapore has connected on 13 of 16 (81.3%) field goal attempts for Air Force, including three made from 50+ yards out. Punter Carson Bay has struggled, averaging only 39.4 yards per punt and only two of 24 punts over 50 yards. The Falcons typically do not attempt returns in special teams, totaling three punt returns and four kickoff returns all season. 

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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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