The San Diego State Aztecs‘ undefeated season and grasp on the “Old Oil Can” Trophy slipped away Saturday night in a 30-20 loss to rival Fresno State Bulldogs in Carson. The Aztecs drop to 7-1 on the season, but more importantly, 3-1 in the conference, a half-game back of the Bulldogs in the West division.
“It hurts to lose,” head coach Brady Hoke said post-game. “If it doesn’t, you should leave the program.”
For the first time this season, the Aztecs’ secondary was tested by an explosive passing offense, and they failed to respond. Quarterback Jake Haener completed 17 of 27 passes for 218 yards in the first half, several of which were big plays. On one deep pass down the left sideline, which looked destined for a Dallas Branch interception, wide receiver Josh Kelly cut in front of Branch and somehow came down with the ball for a 69-yard play. Haener finished the game 25 of 42 for 306 yards.
When asked why Haener was so effective against their defense, defensive end Keshawn Banks said that he was getting the ball out quick at times, but also the Aztecs gave him “too much time in the pocket, and he took advantage.”
The Aztecs’ vaunted rush defense also struggled, allowing Jordan Mims to rush for 97 yards on only nine carries in the first half, including a 13-yard touchdown run and a 59-yard scamper in the second quarter on 3rd and 1. Mims finished the game with 174 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns.
The Aztecs actually started the early part of the game well. After forcing a quick three and out from the Bulldogs on the opening drive of the game, Lucas Johnson found Elijah Kothe down the left sideline for 19 yards to the Bulldogs 40. But a holding penalty two plays later negated a run by Greg Bell that would have given the Aztecs a first down inside the 30-yard line. Instead, the Aztecs were forced to punt after being backed up by the penalty.
Fresno State took the ensuing drive for 15 plays and 86 yards and a touchdown on Jordan Mims’ 13-yard run. The Bulldogs converted all four third downs on the drive.
Despite a 39 yard reception by Kothe, the Aztecs’ next drive was marred by mistakes. Two running plays went for -3 yards each, and a third-down pass from Johnson intended for BJ Busbee went straight into the hands of free safety Evan Williams, who returned it to the Aztecs 31-yard line. The Bulldogs scored another touchdown, this time on a pass to Keric Wheatfall for 16 yards.
The Bulldogs were 7 of 11 on third-down conversions in the first half and finished the game 9 of 18.
Aztec kicker/punter Matt Araiza, who came into the game with the nation’s leading yards per punt average, had what appears to be a poor day, averaging only 38.8 yards per punt, 15 yards less than his average. However, five of his punts were from midfield, greatly reducing his space to boom punts, instead forced to lay up to keep the balls inside the 20-yard line as he is taught to do. Five of his six punts were downed inside the 20.
He also missed badly on a 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half after the Aztecs burned their final two timeouts when the clock was already stopped after the previous plays and were unable to pick up additional yards to make the kick closer. “Our communication was not where it needed to be,” said coach Hoke about the timeout issues at the end of the half.
Aztecs’ wide receiver Elijah Kothe had a superb first half with four catches and 105 yards for his first career 100 yard receiving game. He did not have any receptions in the second half.
The Aztecs’ pass offense found a rhythm late in the first half after falling behind 20-0, playing more up-tempo and letting Johnson drop back and find receivers down the field. He connected with Tyrell Shavers on a 19-yard touchdown for the Aztecs’ first points of the game. Shavers scored his first offensive touchdown as an Aztec after scoring on a punt block return earlier in the season.
After the teams traded fumbles midway through the third quarter, and the Bulldogs kicked a 42-yard field goal to increase their lead to 23-7, the Aztecs completed an 80-yard drive by scoring on a Greg Bell three-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion to make it an eight-point game was unsuccessful, however, as a Jesse Matthews reverse pass was batted away by a defender before it could reach the end zone.
The Aztecs forced a punt, and a kick-catch interference on the Bulldogs gave the Aztecs the ball at midfield with ten minutes remaining in the game. While he said post-game that he thought about going for it, coach Hoke decided to punt on a 4th and three from the 43-yard line and play the field position game. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs flipped the field position on their drive, ending on a punt downed at the one-yard line.
A personal foul for unnecessary roughness called on Caden McDonald kept that drive alive for the Bulldogs instead of forcing a punt on 4th and 16, which allowed the Bulldogs to shave more time off the clock. It looked to be a questionable call as Haener was flushed out of the pocket and threw an incomplete pass deep down the field out of bounds as he was hit by McDonald. Coach Hoke stated that the referee told him that McDonald “landed on the quarterback,” but coach Hoke was unsure it was the right call.
Johnson finished the game completing 14 of 31 passes for a career-high 220 yards, one touchdown, and two costly interceptions. He added 60 rushing yards on eight carries, which kept various drives alive for the Aztecs.
After the Bulldogs scored on a Mims’ 19-yard run to put the game out of reach, true freshman quarterback Will Haskell was inserted into the game. He led the Aztecs on a 75-yard touchdown drive with the game all but over. “We’d like to see better, and we’ll look at it on Monday,” coach Hoke said when asked about the quarterback position moving forward.
The Aztecs forced a turnover for the 21st consecutive game, the second-longest active streak in FBS. The turnover, however, was a result of Jalen Cropper suffering a non-contact injury after catching a 21-yard pass and dropping the ball inbounds right before he fell down. Cropper, the Bulldogs, leading receiver on the season, had a great game up until that point, with 84 yards on six catches. Hopefully, for the Bulldogs’ sake, his injury is not serious.
The Aztecs will look to regroup this week before heading to Hawaii to take on the Rainbow Warriors in another conference showdown next Saturday night.