Date: Saturday, December 24, 2022
Time: 5:00 pm PT
Betting Line: SDSU -7 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: T.C. Ching Athletics Complex (Honolulu, HI)
Records: SDSU 7-5 (5-3), MTSU 7-5 (4-4)
The San Diego State Aztecs head to Honolulu to play their final game of the 2022 season against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in the EasyPost Hawai’i Bowl.
The Aztecs, playing in their 12th bowl game in 13 years, will look to win their third straight bowl game for the first time in their Division I era.
The Blue Raiders will play in their 14th bowl game in school history, but only the 10th in the FBS era.
The teams have never met, but the Aztecs are 25-5 against current Conference USA members, including a victory against UTSA in last year’s Frisco Bowl. The Blue Raiders lost to UTSA in conference play this season, 45-30.
MTSU defeated Toledo, 31-24, in last year’s Bahamas Bowl. The Aztecs beat Toledo 17-14 in non-conference play earlier this season.
Both teams rallied from poor performances in the first half of the season to finish strong and become bowl eligible. SDSU won five of its last seven games after a 2-3 start, while MTS won four of its last five after a 3-4 start.
MTSU played a Mountain West team in non-conference play, defeating Colorado State, 34-19, in Fort Collins. They also won at then-ranked 25th Miami, 45-31.
Rick Stockstill, MTSU’s head coach, has the sixth most wins (108) by an active FBS coach at one school (Clemson’s Dabo Swinney leads with 161). Overall, his 108 wins put him at 21st among all active FBS coaches, with SDSU head coach Brady Hoke (101) two spots behind him at 23rd.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
Jalen Mayden rode his seven-game stretch as quarterback for the Aztecs to an All-Conference Honorable Mention. He passed for 1,721 yards, ten touchdowns, and seven interceptions while completing 63% of his passes.
Despite Mayden’s heroic efforts, the Aztecs’ offense only finished 117th in total offense (321.58 yards per game), 119th in passing offense (170.75 yards per game), and 109th in scoring offense (21.25 points per game).
Jesse Matthews led the team with 38 receptions (for 409 yards), while Tyrell Shavers led with 581 receiving yards (on 34 receptions). Both caught three touchdowns, tied for the team lead with Mekhi Shaw (29 receptions for 349 yards).
Matthews has yet to publicly announce his decision whether he will return to a super senior decision or enter the NFL Draft, stating his decision would likely come after the bowl game. If he elects for the draft, this will be his last opportunity to showcase as a Hometown Hero.
Tight end Mark Redman put up modest numbers (20 receptions for 224 yards and one touchdown), but these were still enough to earn Second Team All-Conference.
Running backs Jordan Byrd (389 yards, three touchdowns) and Chance Bell (204 yards) will also look to make their final games as Aztecs memorable after disappointing rushing seasons.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this game for SDSU is the progression of its young offensive line. Despite good stretches, the unit mostly disappointed as a collective, struggling to consistently open running lanes and fully protect its quarterbacks.
The line will be losing First Team All-Conference center Alama Uluave, but all other primary starters and backups are slated to return. Despite not being listed at center on any two-deep depth chart in 2022, junior college transfer Dean Abdullah is listed as the backup center for this game, a potential sign the staff may give him a shot for that role next year. Additionally, Thomas Mirabella, who started the final three games of the season at right guard in place of Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli, is listed as the starter, with Ulugalu-Maseuli now listed as his backup. Expect the Aztecs to rotate snaps across the line and provide the players an opportunity to make their cases for 2023.
The Blue Raiders play a conventional 4-3 defensive alignment, led by a strong group up front. Senior defensive end Jordan Ferguson leads the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss this season. He only needs one more sack to pass Erik Walden’s 22.5 career sacks atop the school’s leaderboard. His 22 sacks are tied for 13th among active FBS players.
The defense’s path to success, however, is forcing turnovers. After leading the nation in 2021 with 32 forced turnovers, the Blue Raiders have added another 25 this year (6th in FBS). Seventeen of those turnovers were interceptions, 3rd best in the country, and four were returned for touchdowns.
Cornerback Decorian Patterson’s team-leading six interceptions are 2nd best in the country in a player. He also added 12 pass breakups, 2nd best on the team.
While fellow cornerback Teldrick Ross only had one interception this season, his 19 passes defended led the conference, was 3rd in the country, and tied for 2nd in school history. Twelve of his pass breakups came in the final four games of the season. Ross’ 74 tackles is 2nd on the team behind safety Tra Fluellen (97).
Three of the top four leading tacklers for the Blue Raiders are from the secondary.
Their fifth leading tackler is freshman linebacker Devyn Curtis, who totaled 50 on the season while becoming just the 8th Freshman All-American in school history and the seventh under coach Stockstill.
The defense also excelled in another key statistical area, holding opposing offenses to only a 67.4% red zone conversion percentage (2nd in FBS).
But when they weren’t taking the ball away or holding in the red zone, they struggled to keep the opposition from marching down the field in the air. The Blue Raiders allowed 28.08 points (82nd in FBS) and 291.25 passing yards per game (129th).
Key matchup: Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson, Left Tackle vs Jordan Ferguson, Defensive End
As noted above, Ferguson needs one sack to break the school’s all-time record, and no doubt he will be looking to not just break the record but provide him some separation in case future Blue Raiders make a run for the top spot. The Aztecs’ much-maligned offensive line had begun playing better towards the end of the season until playing arguably their worst game to finish the regular season against Air Force. Expect the SDSU coaching staff to provide TEs and RBs to chip Ferguson as much as possible in pass protection, but BCD will likely have his share of one-on-one matchups with him. If he can neutralize Ferguson and give Mayden time to find receivers downfield, the Aztecs’ offense can return to their explosive ways.
When MTSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
MTSU was a middle-of-the-pack offense in 2022, averaging 29.17 points per game (59th) and 390.17 total yards per game (67th). They employ ten personnel (one running back and no tight ends) with four wide receivers starting and love to air it out (267.17 passing yards per game).
Quarterback Chase Cunningham threw for a career-high 2,920 passing yards (283/420) this season and can become just the second Blue Raider to top 3,000 yards in a season. He missed one game due to an injury and overall had 19 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions in 11 games. He only rushed for 143 yards but scored six touchdowns on the ground.
Wide receiver Jaylin Lane leads the team with 59 receptions and 829 yards and is tied with DJ England-Chisolm with four touchdown receptions. Against UTSA, Lane equaled his personal best with ten catches for a career-high 179 yards.
Izaiah Gathings (53/490/2) and Yusuf Ali (48/361/2) round out the top receiving threats for the Blue Raiders.
Running back Frank Peasant leads the team with 750 rushing yards (on 165 carries) and nine touchdowns. He is also a threat to catch it out of the backfield (26/276/2).
Similar to the offense, the Aztecs’ defense season can be split into two factions. Coming out of the bye week after six games, the defense turned it up a notch over the final six games, greatly improving its scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, sacks, and tackles for loss.
For the season, SDSU finished 27th in total defense (335.33 yards per game), 35th in passing defense (206.50 yards per game), 37th in rushing defense (150.67 yards per game), and 19th in scoring defense (20.17 points per game).
SDSU had three First Team, one Second Team, and three Honorable Mention All-Conference selections.
Defensive end Jonah Tavai (First Team) was also named a First Team All-American by Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report and a Second Team All-American by Associated Press and USA Today. Tavai led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
Linebacker Michael Shawcroft (Second Team) led the team with 77 tackles and was second on the team behind Tavai with 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Shawcroft, another Hometown Hero who is eligible to return for a super senior season, will likely be playing in his final game as an Aztec. Although he has yet to publicly announce his decision, all signs point to him hanging it up after the bowl game.
Third Team selections Dallas Branch (three) and Dez Malone (two) were the only players with more than one interception on the season.
SDSU’s defense finished 4th nationally in red zone defense, only allowing scores on 67.5% of red zone opportunities.
Key matchup: Gathings/Ali, Slot WR vs Celestine/Barfield, Warrior Safety
While MTSU’s best receiver lines up at Z on the outside and will likely be matched up against one of SDSU’s CBs, the slot receiver position has given the Aztecs a lot of trouble in 2022. The first game of the season was Arizona’s Jacob Cowing torching the Aztecs from the slot, while the Fresno State comeback in the fourth quarter brought back those images. With the insertion of Celestine at FW and Barfield back at BW, the Aztecs look to have cleaned up at that weakness. This matchup will test that theory.
Special Teams: Advantage – EVEN
SDSU’s punter Jack Browning and KR Jordan Byrd each earned All-American accolades this season. Browning earned Second Team by Pro Football Focus and Honorable Mention by College Football Network. Byrd earned an Honorable Mention from Phil Steele Magazine.
Browning also won Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year after leading the conference with a 46.0 yards per punt average (8th nationally) and 28 downed inside the 20 (tied-4th nationally). Browning made 17 of 21 field goal attempts (long of 50).
Byrd became the first Aztec to make First Team All-Conference at both kick and punt returner after returning each for a touchdown this season.
The Aztecs scored two additional touchdowns on punt blocks this season, the first by Jaylon Armstead and the second by Tyrell Shavers, and also blocked a field goal (Barfield).
For the first time all season, SDSU may be playing an opponent with a better overall special teams unit. While SDSU is 2nd in ESPN’s Special Teams Efficiency rating (77.8), MTSU is 9th (69.1). However, the Blue Raiders excel in every facet of special teams.
MTSU had all five key special teamers earn All-Conference honors this year. Punter Kyle Ulbrich and LS Brody Butler made First Team, PR Jaylin Lane made Second Team, and PK Zeke Rankin and Lane (as KR) made Honorable Mention.
Ulbrich, a Ray Guy Award candidate, led his conference and was ranked 6th nationally with a career-best 46.2 yards per punt average. Twenty-six of his 60 punts were longer than 50 yards, and 25 were downed inside the 20.
Rankin made 12 of 14 field goals this season, but his longest made was from only 35 yards out.
The Blue Raiders’ claim to success on special teams, however, is their ability to block kicks, ranking 3rd nationally with six (four punts and two field goals). Under coach Stockstill, the Blue Raiders have 54 blocked kicks in 211 games, including at least one in each of his 17 years as head coach. Nine current players have at least one blocked kick in their MTSU career.