After a disappointing loss to Fresno State last week, the San Diego State Aztecs return home from a two-game road trip to play the UNLV Rebels on Saturday on Homecoming Night.
“It’s heartbreaking,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said about the loss. “We got to be a little more consistent in some areas, and then we got to finish the game.”
This week’s matchup pits teams with identical overall (4-4) and conference (2-2) records so far in 2022. Both face an uphill battle to win the West Division, needing to win out their four remaining games and hope for additional losses from rivals above them in the standings. The loser of this game will be eliminated from contention and will struggle to become bowl eligible.
SDSU has won seven of the last eight matchups between the teams, including a 28-20 victory in Las Vegas last year. UNLV is coming off a bye week with an extra week of preparation.
In Marcus Arroyo’s third year as head coach, UNLV’s four wins are double their combined total from his first two years. The Rebels’ started the season 4-1, including two conference victories against Utah State (34-24) and New Mexico (31-20). UNLV’s fortunes have soured since then, with three consecutive losses before their bye week.
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When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The changes in the offensive coaching staff and the insertion of quarterback Jalen Mayden after the Boise State game have paid immediate dividends for the Aztecs’ offense. Through their first five games, the Aztecs averaged 12.4 first downs, 65.6 passing yards, 258.2 total yards, 28:21 time of possession, and 18.2 third-down conversion percentage. In the three games since the changes, they averaged 20 first downs, 256.3 passing yards, 394.3 total yards, 33:11 time of possession, and 44.2 third-down percentage.
Mayden has completed 55 of 85 passes for 769 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Both interceptions and a lost fumble on a sack came in the most recent game against Fresno State. Mayden continues to be a dual threat for opposing defenses, rushing for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
Mayden cites the trust and confidence he has in his teammates with helping his growth over the past three games.
“I used to think that I had to do it all on my own but trusting the guys around me and believing in them is where I felt like my game jumped up,” he said.
“As far as moving forward on what I think I can do better, it’s just a sense of urgency. Sometimes I feel like I stay in the pocket a little too long, but just knowing that timing and getting the ball out as quick as I can is something for me to be better at.”
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone was an area the offense needed to improve after only scoring one touchdown in seven red zone trips in Mayden’s first two starts. Against Fresno State, the Aztecs scored touchdowns on both red zone trips.
The offense also reached the Fresno State 34 or better (without reaching the red zone) on five different drives. On the first two, they scored touchdowns from 28 and 26 yards out. The final three, however, resulted in zero points due to self-inflicted wounds (personal foul penalty at end of the first half, interception, and a fourth down stop.)
The Aztecs improved slightly to 122nd in FBS (up from 124th a week ago), averaging 8.38 penalties per game, although the eight penalties in the game, four from right tackle Josh Simmons, came in crucial moments. Hoke has continued to ride Simmons in the starting lineup despite his 12 penalties on the season, hoping the redshirt freshman overcomes his inconsistencies and eliminates the mistakes. We will see if that continues or whether sophomore Joey Wright or redshirt freshman Christian Jones gets an opportunity at right tackle.
Last Saturday, the Aztecs rushed for 158 yards against Fresno State, 76 of those yards came from Mayden and punter Jack Browning on a fake punt. Chance Bell (ten carries for 41 yards) and Kenan Christon (12 carries for 34 yards) received the majority of the workload on the ground, but neither was able to break free consistently or for any runs longer than 15 yards.
Christon made his mark in the passing game, catching two passes for 75 yards and a touchdown on creative plays that seemed missing from the SDSU offense the past three years.
Jaylon Armstead is still making his way back into the fold after a severe ankle injury, dressing the past two games, but has yet to receive any carries. Hoke said on Tuesday that he was not yet at 100% but getting closer and could be in play at running back on Saturday.
Tyrell Shavers leads the team with 316 receiving yards (on 22 catches) and two touchdowns.
Key Player – Jesse Matthews, Wide Receiver, 6-0, 190lbs
Matthews leads the team with 23 receptions but for only 226 yards (9.8ypc). He finally caught his first touchdown last week after being shut out of the end zone in the first seven games. Given his production in the latter half of 2021 and the expected emergence of the passing game with transfer quarterback Braxton Burmeister, Matthews’ slow start had to be frustrating for him and the team. As seen last year, he is a receiver that can get streaky and pile up numbers in bunches. Matthews’ breakout game of 2022 is coming, and playing against the defense he torched for nine receptions, 75 yards, and three touchdowns last year could just be what the doctor ordered.
UNLV is 75th in FBS in total defense (384.25), 44th in passing defense (212.50), 82nd in rushing defense (171.75), and 104th in tackles for loss (4.75.) But looking closer at their defensive performance shows a huge disparity between their first five games (22.4ppg allowed) and their last three (42ppg allowed).
The defense has been best at forcing interceptions, tied for sixth in FBS with 12. Five players account for all 12 interceptions, led by Nohl Williams and Cameron Oliver (3), followed by Austin Ajiake, Jerrae Williams, and Jordyn Morgan (2). Oliver returned two of his three for touchdowns, becoming the first Rebel with more than one in a season since 2001.
Ajiake, a super senior linebacker, leads the Mountain West with 87 tackles and also leads the team with eight tackles for loss and tied for first with three sacks.
Fred Thompkins is second on the team with 44 tackles (nearly half of Ajiake’s total), and Williams has 4.5 tackles for loss to go with his two interceptions.
Key player – Adam Plant Jr., Defensive End, 6-5, 260lbs
The hometown hero returned to Las Vegas in 2020 as a transfer after one season at TCU. He has 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks this season, also forcing one fumble. Plant, Jr. missed the Air Force game due to injury but returned to collect eight tackles against Notre Dame in UNLV’s last game. In two prior games against SDSU, Plant, Jr. has 12 tackles, three tackles for loss, and one sack. Against an SDSU offensive line that has been inconsistent and struggled with penalties, Plant, Jr. will be looking to continue his great play.
When UNLV has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
Starting quarterback Doug Brumfield rocketed out of the gates in 2022, leading the Rebels to four wins in five games. He completed 106 of 155 passes for 1,231 yards, eight touchdowns, and only two interceptions. In those five games, the Rebels averaged 37.8ppg.
At the start of the sixth game against San Jose State, Brumfield was knocked out of the game with a head injury and has not played since. In those three games, the Rebels only averaged 11.7ppg. Brumfield is expected to return against SDSU and try to rekindle the magic he and the offense had earlier in the season.
“He has a great arm, lefty, he’s good in the pocket, and he can move,” said SDSU safety Patrick McMorris when describing Brumfield, who has also rushed for 137 yards and five touchdowns.
McMorris added that it is a bit different facing a quarterback that is left-handed. “When you’re in the back, it’s shoulders that you’re looking at, so it’s a different feel when you have a righty and a lefty.”
For the first part of the season, Liu Amavae (right-handed) handled the scout team quarterback duties, but left-handed DJ Ralph has taken over and likely provided the defense great preparation for facing Brumfield.
Hoke described UNLV as a very physical team, pointing to a 1-2 punch of running backs that carry the load for them. Aidan Robbins leads the team with 591 rushing yards on 125 carries and eight touchdowns, while Courtney Reese rushed for 359 on only 48 carries, a high 7.5ypc.
Their leading receiver heading into 2022 was Kyle Williams, who has caught 22 passes for 270 yards and four touchdowns. But injuries have kept him off the field for most of the past few games, and he is expected to miss this week’s game.
Key player – Ricky White III, Wide Receiver, 6-1, 195lbs
With Williams’ injury bug, the Michigan State transfer has become the Rebels’ number-one receiver. He leads the team with 37 catches and 485 yards and is tied with Williams with four receiving touchdowns. His 37 catches are sixth-best in the Mountain West. One of his four touchdowns was a 72-yd pass from Brumfield in the opening game of the season, and is the only wide receiver to start every game for UNLV in 2022. Given the Aztecs’ issues defending explosive receivers this season, it will be imperative to keep White from making plays in space and on deep attempts.
Over the last two weeks against Nevada and Fresno State, the Aztecs have ten sacks, 19 tackles for loss, and 68 quarterback pressures while allowing only 16 rushing yards per game. All four statistics are dramatically improved from the Aztecs’ performance in the first six games of the season.
“I thought we played very physical on the line of scrimmage,” said Hoke referencing the seven sacks, 36 quarterback pressures, and -3 rushing yards allowed against Fresno State.
They also improved their red zone defense, holding the Bulldogs to four scores (three touchdowns and one field goal) on eight trips (50%.) In the previous seven games, the defense allowed 13 touchdowns in 19 red zone trips (68.4%.)
Michael Shawcroft continues his stellar all-around season after another dominant performance. His team-leading 52 tackles are 16 more than the next-highest total, and 8.5 tackles for loss is first on the team.
“He’s an instinctive football player,” said Hoke about Shawcroft. “He has a great feel for the game. He studies the game, and the preparation that he puts in, I think, is second to none.”
McMorris echoed his coach’s sentiments about Shawcroft, stating, “he studies the playbook, watches the offense and what they do, and I feel like he just fits perfectly in our defense and in our scheme.”
If Shawcroft is not the MVP of the defense, Jonah Tavai would be next in line. Tavai’s 5.5 sacks lead the team, and eight tackles for loss are second. The ability of Tavai and the defensive line to continually harass quarterbacks without having to bring multiple blitzers allows the secondary to play to their potential.
For the fourth time this season, the Aztecs changed their starting lineup in the secondary. Cedarious Barfield started at boundary warrior in place of CJ Baskerville. At first glance, the move made sense as a way for the defense to match up with Jake Haener and the Bulldog’s quartet of talented wide receivers.
When asked on Tuesday whether that move was specific to matching up against Fresno State, Hoke dismissed that notion, adding that Barfield “earned that right” to start. Baskerville was second on the team with 36 tackles after seven games but had one of the team’s highest missed tackle rates per Pro Football Focus (PFF.)
Key player – Dez Malone, Cornerback, 6-2, 200lbs
The sophomore has quickly become one of the most consistent defenders for the Aztecs in his first year of game action. His 70.5 overall defensive grade is third best on the team, while a 74.4 coverage grade is second best per PFF. For most of this season, opposing offenses have been attacking the Aztecs out of the slot and down the middle of the field. With UNLV’s best receiver, Ricky White, lining up 80% of the time out wide, the game should see plenty of Malone and White matched up throughout the game, and Malone will need to continue his great play.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
SDSU’s Jack Browning sustained an injury from a tackle at the conclusion of his 33-yd run on a successful fake punt against Fresno State on Saturday night. While Browning was able to perform a punt in the fourth quarter following the injury, he was unable to kick an extra point or the ensuing kickoff immediately after the fake punt.
Hoke said on Tuesday that Browning was getting better every day but was unsure if he would be ready to perform all three phases of the kicking game against UNLV. Transfer Jarrett Reeser stepped in for Browning on the placekicking duties against Fresno State.
“I feel good with Reeser on kickoffs,” said Hoke, despite mentioning his only kickoff went out of bounds. “He’s got a strong leg. He’s a lot like Jack mentally as to how he approaches the game.”
SDSU still has the highest-ranked special teams’ efficiency metric at 82.4 in the country, despite its poor performance on Saturday. In addition to a dropped fair catch by Jesse Matthews recovered by Fresno State and the failure to recover the onsides kick attempt, the Aztecs committed holding penalties during their two punt returns in the first half. The entire special teams unit will be a focus during practice this week, and expect the Aztecs to regain their dominance in that aspect.
Placekicker Daniel Gutierrez is a perfect six for six on-field goal attempts this season with a long of 50. Punter Marshall Nichols’ 42.23 yards per punt average is seventh best in the Mountain West, with eight of 40 punts downed inside the 20.
Nohl Williams is UNLV’s primary kick and punt returner, but he has only been able to return seven kickoffs for a 24.57 average and three punts for 28 yards. UNLV has not returned a punt for a touchdown in 21 years, the longest drought in the nation.
Date: Saturday, November 5, 2022
Time: 4:00 pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: SDSU -6.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 4-4 (2-2), UNLV 4-4 (2-2)
Series: SDSU 21-10
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.