For the second game in a row, SDSU’s opposition outplayed the Aztecs. Like Ohio in Week 0, Idaho State competed with more discipline, dictated the pace of the game, and improbably found itself with a chance to tie the game late in the contest.
Superior athletes trumped superior play in both contests. Except for a few minutes in the first half against Ohio, the outcome of either game was never really in doubt.
“One thing about it, we got a great coaching staff defense,” CB Dez Malone said postgame on Saturday. “They were studying three or four different teams that (Idaho State’s) coaching staff recently coached (at) before, so we had a beat on what they would do, a little bit just off that. But, it was a little challenging not having set things to really study and look for.”
Throughout Saturday night’s affair, SDSU flirted with the blowout predicted by sportsbooks. Following a Jack Browning field goal, the Aztecs led by 14 with 1:10 left in the half and possession of the ball to start the second half. Inexplicably, Idaho State marched 65 yards in six plays to score 14 seconds before intermission. Up 16 with 6:09 left in the third, SDSU’s defense forced a three-and-out, but the offense failed to extend the lead when it got the ball back.
With the teeth of SDSU’s schedule ahead of it, the Aztecs’ level of play will need to improve. SDSU should be able to match up physically with UCLA, Oregon State, and Boise State, but without the talent gap obvious in the first two contests, those games will hinge on execution.
Ohio and Idaho State carried out their game plans with greater skill, but talent won out in the end. Should the Aztecs continue to play with their current level of precision, a four-game losing streak is a distinct possibility.
“Obviously, we didn’t play the kind of football we wanted to play,” head coach Brady Hoke said postgame. “The kicking game, offensively, defensively, we didn’t tackle well. We didn’t do a good job late in the half twice. We’ve got to do a better job in coverage. Part of that, though, is we’ve got to get better at (pass) rush.”
Mountain West looks vulnerable against the pass
While there are signs SDSU did not take Idaho State as seriously as they had Ohio, credit Idaho State’s coaching staff for their plan of attack. Offensively, the Bengals’ spread formations and quick passing game prevented complex blitzing from the Aztecs’ defense. Following Ohio’s lead, ISU found success throwing to the middle of the field.
Defensively, ISU dared SDSU to run the football. They frequently dropped eight defenders and made the Red and Black one-dimensional. For the second year in a row, SDSU had over 300 yards rushing against Idaho State while failing to do much in the passing game.
After an abysmal stretch from 1999-2009, where SDSU averaged 2.73 conference wins a season while compiling a 30-52 record (.365 winning percentage) against Mountain West teams, the Aztecs reinvented themselves. They found success moving from a flashy pass-centered team to a run-oriented team. From 2010-2017, SDSU doubled its average wins against Mountain West (MWC) teams to 5.86 per season. They boasted a .746 winning percentage, forcing the rest of its conference foes to adjust.
Since 2018, the Aztecs’ record dropped to 25-13 (.658) in MWC play as teams figured out how to compete against SDSU’s run-centered approach. In the first 13 games in 2023 (not including SDSU), MWC teams appear strong against the run once again. Despite Nevada giving up 215 yards on the ground to USC, conference teams are giving up 122.5 rushing yards per contest. Eleven of those 13 games came against Power 5 schools, with seven occurring on the road.
Even with seven teams in the top 50 nationally in rush defense, the MW’s record in those 13 games was only 4-9. The main vulnerability has been atrocious pass defense. MW teams are giving up an average of 311.5 yards a game.
Watching Saturday’s performance, it is fair to wonder if SDSU can take advantage of that weakness. Jalen Mayden only passed for 87 yards on Saturday night. Mayden did complete 13 of 19 passes, but all of them were short. Most of his passing yards (56) came after his receivers made the reception. The Aztecs clearly expected ISU to be blitz-heavy out of its base 3-3-5.
“I don’t know how many times we tried to throw it down the field,” Hoke said when asked about the trouble with the passing offense. “We obviously felt a little more comfortable with the running game, screen game off of that, so we’ve got to take some shots when we’ve got the opportunity. I think we got some opportunities, but then, all of a sudden, we get a penalty.”
Finding more balance and explosiveness through the air will not just help in conference play. Next weekend’s opponent, UCLA, gave up 289 yards in the air and 56 on the ground in its 27-13 opening-game victory over Coastal Carolina. The Bruins opened as nine-point favorites for next Saturday’s game.
SDSU prides itself on doing whatever it takes to win that week’s game. Going off the early returns, the Aztecs are going to need a lot more from their passing game.
Doug Deakin, special teams guru
SDSU nearly lost special teams coordinator Doug Deakin this offseason. The Minnesota Vikings seriously considered adding him to their staff before settling on a different candidate. Saturday night, Deakin’s prowess as a coach was on full display. His attention to detail and preparing his players was evident throughout.
ISU tried various ways to thwart SDSU’s advantage in kickoff returns, but Deakin had his unit ready. Countering squib kicks, he inserted Mekhi Shaw at the second level of the scheme. Shaw had one return for only nine yards, but it gave the Aztecs possession at their own 44 to start the second half. For poach kicks, Deakin inserted two running backs and TE Mark Redman into the game. On the two attempts that ISU kicked short, Redman and RB Jaylon Armstead returned two kickoffs past SDSU’s forty.
Finally, Deakin gave Kenan Christon freedom to move around the return formation in an attempt to get his most explosive returner the ball. Christon switched sides on a return and switched positions with an up-man, all in an attempt to create an opportunity for himself. It worked, but Christon bobbled the one attempt he received and settled for a touchback.
On punt returns, Dez Malone joined Shaw back deep. Not only did it help with an extra blocker, but it also made it harder for ISU to fake any punt or attempt a rugby-style kick. Deakin cannot be credited with the safety that the punt return group had, but SDSU’s reputation for punt blocks could have been in the Bengal’s long snapper’s mind.
“Deak does a really good job with the special teams,” Hoke said. “It’s the evaluation process and the execution that goes along with that. You’ve got a handful of guys – some play offense, some play defense – and trying to grab some of those young guys so they start learning how to play at this level. I think he does a nice job with that.”
Deakin’s hand could be seen in the rest of the teams he oversees. He continues to have great buy-in from the older players on the team on kick coverage. Multiple members of SDSU’s two-deep filled out the coverage units. Walk-on kicker Zechariah Ramirez did a terrific job holding for Jack Browning on field goals, spinning one ball after placing it on the ground so the laces of the football were out and Browning could strike it well.
Even with Browning having a subpar punting day, Deakin put on a special teams clinic.
SDSU’s pass defense suspect over the middle of the field
A troubling trend has emerged after two games for the Aztecs’ defense. They are vulnerable on passes over the middle. Ohio and Idaho State found success, both on the quick-hitting variety to receivers in the slot and on crossing routes that take longer to develop. SDSU simply has not covered the slot well.
ISU targeted 5-foot-8 wideout Chedon James and 6-foot-4 receiver Christian Fredrickson a combined 26 times. They lined up in the slot most of the night. Both had a touchdown. James beat safety Eric Butler for an easy score in the second half. Fredrickson caught a ball between safeties Marcus Ratcliffe and Cedarious Barfield. Their production came on the heels of Ohio’s Sam Wiglusz ten catch, 103-yard performance in week 0.
In the first half, there was not much rotating among the safeties, but in the second, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix employed several changes. Butler came into the game at boundary warrior while Barfield and fellow starter Davaughn Celestine rotated at field warrior. JD Coffey spelled Ratcliffe at aztec. Barfield also played one possession there. None of the changes worked.
“There are things from a coverage standpoint that we’ve got to do better,” Hoke explained when asked about the success teams have had throwing over the middle. “There’s some things coverage-wise that, depending on the opponent, we have a couple of other things that we’ll do that we haven’t (done yet). And, going into playing these guys, we didn’t know much, obviously. That played a little bit into it. I thought they had two real dynamic quarterbacks. I thought they could throw the ball well. We’ve got to play better.”
Hoke also pointed to the defensive backs not challenging ISU’s receiving and playing too far off in coverage. Whatever the culprit, it is clear that SDSU’s opposition has targeted the middle of the field to attack the Aztecs. Expect that to continue until SDSU proves it can stop it.
“We have the talent to play real good, tight coverage,” Malone said. “We’ve just got to keep building confidence throughout these weeks, especially when we are playing these tougher teams because they’re going to watch and they’re going to study. And they’re going to come after us. We just need to keep progressing. We’ll be alright. We’re good.”
SDSU is Walk-on U
“Life gives you messages, and if you don’t get the message, you’ll get a lesson,” famous life coach Thomas Leonard once said. For many successful high school football players, the message life gives comes in the form of scholarship offers. When program after program watches a player’s film and passes on offering a spot, it could be interpreted as a sign. For a select few who take the unwise path and follow their dream without financial incentives, the arduous and expensive journey of a walk-on athlete commences.
“As a walk-on, you get overlooked most of the time,” Blake explained. “I feel like that’s all talk. If you’re a walk-on, you know you’ve got to put in the work. You’ve got to be great every day you can. There’s no mess-ups, and if you do have a mess-up, you’ve got to move on and keep going. ‘Cause at the end of the day, all that matters is what you put on film,’ like the coaches say. You’ve got to just put in your work. Being a walk-on, and being able to play, and having a press conference, it just feels amazing. Finally, all that work you’ve put in your whole life is finally paying off.”
Blake led the Aztecs in all-purpose yards with 133. He paced the team in receiving (40) and return yards (35) while finishing tied for second in rushing yards (58). It was a coming-out party for the sophomore walk-on. Blake came to SDSU from Canyon Springs HS in Las Vegas, following in the footsteps of Donnel Pumphrey, who went to the same school.
“It felt great,” Blake replied when asked how he felt following the game. “When you put in all that work, and finally it pays off, and you’re on the biggest stage that you could be right now. It just feels great to be out there and especially to do it with my brothers.”
Blake was not the only walk-on impacting the outcome of Saturday’s game. DE Keion Mitchell ran with the second-team defensive line and had multiple pressures. Hoke said Mitchell’s improvement as a player, his understanding of the system, and his hard work have earned him an opportunity. Mitchell had a sack, but it was negated by a facemask penalty by Noah Tumblin.
QB Tobin O’Dell earned the nod as the backup QB. He threw one pass, a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. O’Dell was an afterthought at the beginning of fall camp. He entered as the sixth QB but by the time of the Fan Fest scrimmage, he was taking reps higher on the depth chart. O’Dell looked like the second-best QB that night.
Hoke said O’Dell is Norv Turner’s nephew, and that football IQ runs in the family. O’Dell had an accomplished high school career. He has earned the respect of his SDSU teammates with his play in camp.
Walk-ons play an important role for SDSU. Not only has the program had numerous non-scholarship athletes become impact players, but their ability to improve is a sign of arguably the most important aspect for a program like the Aztecs, “player development.
“Well, I was a walk-on, so I really have a lot of love for those guys that want to play, how hard they work in the weight room and all those things,” Hoke said on the impact walk-ons have on the program.
– Dominic Oliver’s presence on kickoff returns is interesting because he is a defensive lineman. Hoke mentioned Oliver’s speed as the reason.
– SDSU moved to 1-1 on winning the coin toss. It deferred on Saturday.
– The students came out in force again, though, many left long before the game ended. Perhaps, this is indicative of the type of students attending the 16th-best public university in the country. They participate more in school events, but cannot stay out too late because they need to study.
– The volume for the announcer at Snapdragon is far too low.
– ISU provided good practice for SDSU. Their pace of play is similar to Fresno, Boise, Colorado State, and San Jose State.
– The biggest applause of the night was for the Men’s basketball team. Transfers Keshad Johnson, Triston Broughton, Tyler Broughton, and Jared Barnet were on hand to get their championship rings.
– Fumbling is an early issue to keep an eye on for the RBs. They have three in two games so far.
– Mayden’s lack of arm strength was most apparent when the team brought in O’Dell for the Hail Mary, but Idaho State had a few early PBUs because the ball was not delivered with enough zip.
– There were a handful of referee challenges on Saturday. Before the head ref announced the result of his second look, the ball was moved to reflect his decision. It took away the suspense for those inside the stadium.
– Dallas Branch only saw action at CB toward the end of the night. Chris Johnson also saw time in reserve. He came into the game before Branch. Malone and Tumblin took the majority of snaps.
– With ISU rushing only three people, SDSU countered with three tight ends.
– TE Cameron Harpole injured his leg. He was limping badly after the game and did not accompany the team to sing the fight song. Logan Tanner played in his place.
– Hoke said the 14 penalties last night were caused by a lack of focus, discipline, and a few bad calls by the refs. The worst penalty on the night was Myles Murao’s illegal man-downfield error.
– After Malone’s interception, he and the DBs celebrated with an NFL-like group dance routine. Since they are still in college, however, Malone made sure they raced to the sideline before performing the number.
– Falling asleep is how Malone described the defense’s performance at the end of the first half.
– The play of the night was Blake’s touchdown run. He made two defenders whiff in the hole before heading in for the score.
– For all of Mayden’s struggles in the passing game, a few of his runs were special. Hoke said he was pleased with how Mayden tucked the ball on some designed passes. Mayden rushed for the most yards in a game by a QB in SDSU history.
– TCU transfer DeShawn Mccuin saw his first defensive snaps. He was the QB spy on a few passing downs.
– Through two games, Barfield’s offseason work has paid off. He had another interception on Saturday.
– Tackling continues to be an issue for the Aztecs. They missed bringing down the QB a couple of times which cost them.
– The result did not go as expected, but it could have been a lot worse. Texas State, a 26-point underdog, went on the road and beat Baylor.
– Weirdest play of the night. On fourth and 2, late in the game, ISU had the ball at SDSU’s 30. At the snap, DE Wyatt Draeger dropped into pass coverage. He ended up running 25 yards downfield.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.