Anyone following the top football team in America’s Finest City for years knows its recipe for success. On the strength of a potent running game that complements an opportunistic defense, SDSU has won 70.5% (74-31) of its games since 2015. When both facets are present for the Aztecs, they’re capable of defeating good teams like they did against MAC preseason favorite, Ohio (2-1), in the season opener.
When the Aztecs’ strengths fail to materialize, a blowout is usually the result. UCLA’s 25-point margin of victory on Saturday hinged on two main issues. The Aztecs’ defense gave up three easy scores, two over 50 yards. Offensively, SDSU’s ground attack failed to get much going.
The question that will need to be answered in the coming weeks is if UCLA was an anomaly or something indicative of a greater problem.
“I think we’re a pretty good football team, and that’s sincere,” head coach Brady Hoke said postgame. “I think we’ve gotten better. I even think we did some things better today from the offensive side. … I don’t know if one game (is enough) to measure (how good the Aztecs are). Obviously, we didn’t coach it well enough, and that’s my responsibility, first and foremost, and the coaches. We’ve got to do a better job there. We’ve got a big week ahead of us.”
The Aztecs do not have much time to prove their head coach correct. They play against No. 16 Oregon State on the road this week before opening up conference play against Boise State (on a short week) and Air Force. Two losses at the start of the Mountain West portion of the schedule would likely mean SDSU would need to win out to earn a spot in the MW title game.
SDSU’s winning formula remains clear
Potentially, the biggest lesson from the UCLA game is that SDSU’s approach to winning football games continues to be correct. Saturday’s contest showed how far away SDSU is from matching the skill the Bruins possessed.
Heading into the contest, all the talk was about potential NFL first-round pick WR J.Michael Sturdivant. Without much help, SDSU’s corners held the UCLA star in check. Sturdivant only had a pair of catches for 23 yards. In his place, a host of Bruins produced in head coach Chip Kelly’s attack. Four other UCLA receivers hauled in 10 passes for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns on Saturday.
Contrast that with SDSU. Aside from Mekhi Shaw’s 54 yards on five receptions, the rest of the wideouts had three catches for 43 yards. Even with Shaw’s solid effort, the lack of explosiveness from the Aztecs wideouts compared to their UCLA counterparts was evident.
Senior WR Logan Loya paced the Bruins with four catches, a career-high. He started but came into the contest with just 24 career receptions. The fourth or fifth primary option for UCLA, Loya was a four-star wideout from the Class of 2020. On the most significant play of the game for SDSU, offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley called a pass to walk-on sophomore RB Martin Blake.
“Well, Josh (Nicholson) has been hurt, so he’s been out,” Hoke replied when asked if he thought his team has the skill position players to produce big scoring plays. “Our rotation (at WR), we’ve got to look at it a little bit more. I think there’s some guys there that obviously can get loose and do good things. Mekhi’s a great example … the consistency that he has, some of the others have to have it also.”
A boring product is often bandied around as the reason for SDSU’s attendance woes. Stylistic preferences aside, the prospect of the Aztecs beating the Bruins of the college football world at their own game seems an impossible task with how slanted the playing field is.
SDSU has won at least 76.9% of its games in five out of its last eight seasons. Despite frequently having vastly superior passing games than what it has now, the university only had two seasons (1979 and 1996) where it won 70% of its games from 1978 to 2014.
Upgrading the offensive recruiting has clearly been a priority for Hoke. Since taking over as head coach in 2020, he has replaced the entire offensive staff. TE coach Savai’i Eselu is the most tenured offensive coach. He has been an Aztec for four seasons. OL coach Mike Goff is in year three. The rest of the position coaches are in their first full year on the Mesa.
Even if the staff reverses the recruiting trends they inherited, it will still not allow them to go toe-to-toe with the Power 5. From 1991-1993, with Marshall Faulk on campus, the Aztecs compiled a 19-15-2 record. Faulk led SDSU to only one winning season. They were fun to watch, but as a team, not exceptionally good at football.
SDSU played UCLA every season Faulk was on campus, two of the games were in San Diego. The Bruins won 37-12 (1991), 35-7 (1992), and 52-13 (1993).
Forty years of history has proven SDSU can attempt to mimic UCLA and will only occasionally play quality football, or it can develop an alternative identity and win consistently. The Bruins came into town and flaunted a winning playing style that the Aztecs cannot duplicate now or in the future.
Just two seasons ago, SDSU had arguably its most impressive win in program history. The Aztecs defeated Utah, who would go on to win the Pac-12 and finish the year ranked No.12 in the nation. SDSU rushed for 205 yards and threw for 44 yards in the victory.
David can only beat Goliath by changing the nature of their encounter.
Instant replay failed
The precision of instant replay has helped sports tremendously. Bad calls, which for years stood, can now be overturned with a quick second look. One of Loya’s receptions was originally ruled out of bounds before he was properly given a 23-yard gain.
Replay, though, is far from perfect. It cost SDSU a touchdown on Saturday. Following Zyrus Fiaseu’s strip-sack, freshman LB Trey White fell on the ball just short of the goal line before scooting forward into the end zone. Awarded a score during live play, Mountain West official Cravone Barrett reversed the call, judging that White had possession prior to crossing the goal line.
The trouble with that interpretation is deciding when White had possession. If SDSU’s LB had rolled over and the ball had come out, would Barrett have ruled him down at one in that case, arguing that he already had the ball earlier? No chance.
The ability to slow down time, frame by frame, produces a false certainty. Replay, though, is anything but indisputable.
In nearly every contest, the announcers calling a game, after watching multiple angles of a play, differ from what the referee ends up deciding. If replay made all calls obvious, there would be no disagreement on what the second look revealed.
Barrett and the replay booth should have realized replay’s shortcomings and allowed White’s score to stand. To be clear, they did not cost the Aztecs seven points. SDSU did that on their own by failing to gain a yard on three offensive plays subsequent to the fateful decision.
– A multitude of recruits took in the game on Saturday. Before their current players came out of the tunnel to warm up, the coaching staff mingled with the potential future Aztecs gathered on the field in the southeast corner.
– Among the high school players present on Saturday were SDSU commits Foster Slaughter, Stacy Bey, Tayten Beyer, and Anthony McMillian.
– A nice touch by the staff is giving extra privileges to their committed players. Among the perks, they get to stay on the field longer than the rest.
– One intriguing prospect on hand yesterday was WR Zacharyus Williams. Among the top uncommitted wideouts for the Class of 2024, Williams is the younger brother of Aztecs LB New Zealand Williams. Zacharyus has attended numerous games and scrimmages to support his big brother in the past. Saturday was one of the first times he did not wear SDSU gear to an Aztec game.
– Zacharyus watched New Zealand make the first start of his career.
– Cam Harpole did not play yesterday. Postgame, Hoke mentioned the young TE as someone the team missed.
– The crowd arrived late to the game. Only the student section was full as the band played “Aztec Fire.” The latecomers missed an incredible flyover.
– CBs Dez Malone and Noah Tumblin passed their stiffest test of the season with flying colors.
– Malone and Tumblin’s performance is keeping a pair of excellent pass defenders, Dallas Branch and Chris Johnson, on the bench. Could either be used inside at warrior safety?
– The pass defense in the middle of the field continues to be suspect. Deshawn Mccuin replaced Davaughn Celestine at warrior safety and was SDSU’s primary slot defender. Hoke said it could look different next week.
– Saturday was the first time this season Patrick McMorris’ absence was felt. Marcus Ratcliffe made too many freshman mistakes that led to UCLA’s big plays.
– Jack Browning had a couple of NFL-type punts against UCLA. With greater consistency, he will help win games this season.
– Garret Fountain played well. His stat line does not show the intelligence and heart that he played with against UCLA.
– At this early stage in the year, the offense’s screen game is really good. Lindley dials them up from every angle.
– Kenan Christon appears close to figuring out how to produce breakaway runs. His 12 touches on offense was too few for how he played.
– Christon and WR Josh Nicholson are the skill position players most capable of making the big plays UCLA made throughout the night.
– SDSU is going to need more big plays from its offense. The Aztecs have a dozen scoring drives this season. Three of those started deep in the opposition’s territory. On the remaining nine, the Aztecs average 7.6 plays per drive every time they score. They only have had one drive under six plays, four under ten plays, and five have taken double-digit plays. Mayden’s 56-yard run against Idaho State is the only large scoring play of the season. They should have had a second, but Nicholson dropped a sure touchdown against UCLA.
– Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Lindley and his predecessors is how little SDSU runs up the middle.
– Hoke mentioned postgame that the RPOs Mayden hit was an encouraging sign for the offense. The RPO is universal in modern football. Given how much it was featured in Jeff Hecklinski’s offense, it is smart of Lindley to keep it his attack.
– How surprising was SDSU’s defense giving up scoring drives of one and three plays? Ohio and Idaho State scored on drives with 14, 14, 14, 12, 11, 11, 8, and 6 plays. Overall, UCLA had four of the five quickest scoring drives against the Aztecs this year.
– Mehki Shaw has turned into a terrific football player. A walk-on out of high school in the Class of 2020, Shaw beat Devin Kirkwood, the 16th-best cornerback overall from the Class of 2021, for the only Aztec touchdown of the game.
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.