The SDSU Aztecs were down 13-3 midway through the second quarter to the Boise State Broncos. The defense had given up two touchdowns already, and the struggling offense faced a 4th and eight on its own 27.
Earlier this season, the Aztecs utilized a fake field goal against Hawaii for a 13-yard touchdown run by holder Jack Browning. Their second fake kick attempt did not work out as well. On the aforementioned 4th down, linebacker Garrett Fountain took the direct snap and ran to the right with blockers in front of him and a lot of open space. Broncos safety Alexander Teubner snuck in and tripped up Fountain four yards short of the first down marker and gave the Broncos the ball at the Aztecs 31-yard line.
“[The play] should have worked, but we missed an assignment,” recalled Aztec head coach Brady Hoke postgame. “You have to have my back,” he repeatedly tells the defense when he decides to go for it and is not successful.
Staring at a potential 20-3 deficit late in the second quarter, the Aztecs’ dream of winning their 22nd conference championship was slipping away.
The defense had their coach’s back, holding the Broncos to only a field goal to keep the game within two scores, 16-3. The Aztecs scored the next 24 points of the game and won 27-16 to clinch the West Division and a berth in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game.
“We won the Aztec way,” said Hoke in his postgame press conference. “The leadership [the team showed] at halftime is what you love as a coach.”
San Diego State reached 11 wins for the first time in its program history in regular-season play, excluding championship or bowl games.
The comeback began after former starter Jordon Brookshire was inserted into the game for an injured and mostly ineffective Lucas Johnson. Johnson completed only 9 of 20 passes for 95 yards and was unable to finish drives. The Aztecs had the ball inside the Broncos 40 on three consecutive drives and only came away with three points.
Brookshire came out firing on the first play. After the Boise State secondary had been sitting on the quick, short throws to the outside receivers all half, offensive coordinator Hecklinski dialed up a stop and go route by Jesse Matthews on the outside. Brookshire threw it up, and Matthews came down with it for a 30-yard reception, which seemed to jump-start the Aztecs offense.
Matthews stated postgame that the offense realized the secondary was playing aggressively on the short throws and that the double-move would be the plays later in the game. Brookshire also commented postgame that the deep play call on his first snap “got me into the flow really quickly.”
After a 17 yard catch and run by tight end Daniel Bellinger, Brookshire went back to Matthews, who caught the pass at the 16-yard line, spun around the defender’s tackle attempt, and ran the final yardage untouched for the score to make it 16-10.
Matthews finished with nine catches for 133 yards, his first 100 yard game of the season and fourth of his career. “We have been saying Win 22 here for a long time, and it’s exciting to now have a chance to play for it,” said Matthews postgame.
After the Aztecs’ defense forced a Broncos punt, Brookshire, again, led the offense down the field after starting on their 42 with 28 seconds left in the half. Two completions, one to Elijah Kothe for 16 and one to Tyrell Shavers for 22, set the Aztecs up for a 37-yard field goal by Araiza to make it 16-13 at halftime.
Brookshire completed 5 of 7 passes for 114 yards on his two drives in the first half. He finished the game 11 of 15 for 192 yards and no interceptions.
Brookshire is currently listed third on the depth chart behind Johnson and true freshman Will Haskell, but Hoke went with Brookshire instead. Hoke alluded that Johnson was already battling an injury heading into the game, and Brookshire had been advised as early as Monday that he may be needed at some point in this game.
When asked postgame about the decision to play Brookshire over Haskell, Hoke noted that Brookshire had been “practicing a little better” lately. Hoke would not provide specifics in response to a follow-up question regarding why Haskell was not dressed or on the sideline but stated that he “was fine” and “not suspended.”
Brookshire’s biggest pass of the game came on the opening drive of the third quarter. Facing a 4th and 1 from midfield, Brookshire faked the handoff to Greg Bell and looked for a wide-open Bellinger down the left sideline. Bellinger made the grab for a 38 yard gain, giving the Aztecs a red-zone opportunity. The second 4th and one conversion of the drive was Greg Bell’s two-yard touchdown run, his eighth of the season.
The onslaught continued. Patrick McMorris picked off his second pass of the game after the pass was deflected by Caden McDonald and returned it to the Broncos 43 yard line. After a spectacular Jesse Matthews extended catch for 27 yards, Brookshire ran it in for a 16-yard touchdown to put the Aztecs up 27-16 after 24 unanswered points.
The Aztecs have owned the third quarter this season, outsourcing opponents 103-34.
The start of the game was miserable for the Aztecs in all three phases. The teams exchanged three and outs on the first three drives of the game before the Aztecs collected a few first downs and reached the Broncos 31 yard line facing a 3rd and 5. However, a bobbled snap forced quarterback Lucas Johnson to throw the ball away. And with Jack Browning, the usual Aztec holder on field goals, ill and unable to play today, backup kicker David Delgado’s hold on an attempted 48 yarder with the laces facing the kicker led to a wide right miss.
The Broncos took the ensuing drive 69 yards in six plays and scored the game’s first points on a 20-yard pass from Hank Bachmeier to tight end Kurt Rafdal. True freshman safety CJ Baskerville bit on the play-action at the snap, which allowed Rafdal to get behind him, streaking into the end zone.
The Aztecs’ promising drive to match the Broncos touchdown was thwarted once they reached the Red Zone after three straight incompletions forced a 31-yard attempt from Araiza, which he made.
Patrick McMorris intercepted the first pass of the Broncos drive, giving the Aztecs offense the ball to start the drive at the Broncos’ 39. It was McMorris’ second career interception. But two incompletions and a two-yard run led to a Matt Araiza punt in lieu of a 56-yard field goal attempt.
The Broncos wasted no time taking advantage, going 80 yards on ten plays in just over two minutes and scoring on a 13-yard touchdown pass to star wide receiver, Khalil Shakir. Shakir had been shut out until this drive but caught a 19-yard pass for a first down to start the drive and ended it with the touchdown catch. The Broncos missed extra point attempt kept the score at 13-3.
Taking an eleven-point lead into the fourth quarter, the Aztecs defensive line dominated the rest of the way. The Broncos drove into Aztecs territory to start the fourth quarter looking to get within one score. After converting a 4th and 3 from the Aztecs 39 to keep the drive alive, Jonah Tavai took over. Tavai, a Senior Day honoree, sacked Bachmeier on 3rd and 6 forcing the Broncos to punt from the 39 this time, given the 14-yard distance for a first down.
On the next Broncos possession, Tavai sacked Bachmeier on back-to-back plays to force another Broncos punt on 4th and 20 with seven minutes remaining in the game.
“[I can] never complain about that,” said Tavai postgame about collecting a career-high three sacks on Senior Day. But he immediately credited his defensive linemates for creating the openings with their twists and stunts and also the secondary for covering well to give him time to get to the quarterback.
Cam Thomas joined the sack club on the first play of the next Broncos drive, sacking Bachmeier from his blind side.
The defense closed out a masterful second-half performance with a Dallas Branch interception off backup quarterback Jack Sears. Sears previously committed to the Aztecs as a transfer from USC before de-committing and eventually signing with Boise State.
Bachmeier completed 21 of 40 passes for 222 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, but only 48 of those yards came in the second half. Running back George Holani, coming off three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, was held to 70 yards on 20 carries but added six catches for 52 yards. Shakir caught six passes for 74 yards. The Broncos were eliminated from playing in the conference championship game with the loss to the Aztecs.
The Aztecs honored 32 seniors before kickoff on Senior Day. Given the one-year COVID-19 exemption granted to student-athletes, 24 of those honored seniors could elect to return for one more season next year.
The Aztecs will host Utah State in the conference championship game next Saturday, December 4, at Noon on Fox.