Costly mistakes doom Aztecs in 46-13 loss to Utah State in MW championship game
Unfortunately for the SDSU Aztecs football team, they will have to keep saying ‘win 22’ for at least one more season as their attempt to win the school’s 22nd conference championship came up one win short. Utah State defeated the Aztecs, 46-13, in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game to win its first conference championship.
“We did not accomplish the goals that we always set,” said Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke postgame. “We have goals of winning our 22nd championship, and we did not do that today.”
It was an uncharacteristic performance by the Aztecs as all three phases contributed a multitude of mistakes that proved too much to overcome against the inspired and well-prepared Aggies.
Aggie quarterback Logan Bonner diced up the vaunted Aztec defense for 318 yards (29 of 42 passes) and four touchdowns, a Mountain West championship game record, and was named Offensive MVP. His favorite target on the evening, Brandon Bowling, caught eight passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
The Aztecs’ offense could not get any rhythm in the game as the Aggies defensive line neutralized the running game and applied consistent pressure on quarterback Jordon Brookshire. Brookshire completed 11 of 23 passes for 117 yards (0 TD/0 INT). Wide receiver Jesse Matthews led the way with eight receptions for 82 yards and a five-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Jalen Mayden with the game already decided in the fourth quarter.
Defensive end Byron Vaughns collected six tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss (1.5 sacks), and was named Defensive MVP.
Not helping matters for the Aztecs was a COVID-19 outbreak that caused up to 20 players to miss the game. Among those players were starters Tyrell Shavers (WR) and Daniel Bellinger (TE). In addition to Bellinger, the rest of the tight end unit was also hit hard as the primary backups, Aaron Greene and Jay Rudolph were also absent. That left Connor McBride and true freshman Gus McGee as the only tight ends to dress for the game, and backup offensive lineman Dominic Gudino listed as the starting tight end.
After declining to comment all week about potential availability issues for the game, Hoke discussed the impact the outbreak had on the team postgame. “We have to play with the hand we are dealt…it impacted our tight end position, wide receivers, and a little bit of our offensive line.” He also acknowledged that not having as many regulars at practice all week set them back and did not allow them to play their usual personnel packages in the game today.
Both team’s offenses started slow, each unable to pick up a first down on its first two drives. The Aztecs drove down the field on their third drive on three Jesse Matthews receptions for 41 yards, all for first downs. But a fourth and one run by Greg Bell on the 12-yard line was stuffed by the Aggies’ defense. Their line collapsed the middle of the SDSU offensive line at the snap and penetrated the backfield to hold Bell up for a loss of one yard.
The Aggies scored first on a five-yard touchdown pass from Logan Bonner to Derek Wright. The drive was set up by a blocked punt by the Aggies’ special teams unit that rolled to about midfield. Unlike the Aztecs, who were unable to convert on a fourth and one opportunity, the Aggies converted theirs on a five-yard pass to Deven Thompkins. A late hit out of bounds on Patrick McMorris on a subsequent play gave the Aggies another 15 yards before Bonner found Wright in the end zone.
More Aztecs’ mistakes aided the Aggies’ second touchdown drive in the second quarter. Cornerback Tayler Hawkins dropped an interception on a deep pass inside the five-yard line that would have thwarted the drive. A couple plays later, Cameron Thomas was called for roughing the passer, which extended the drive. Calvin Tyler, Jr. ran it in from the one-yard line for the score, only the fifth rushing touchdown allowed by the Aztecs defense this year.
“We could’ve had four or five turnovers today, but we couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities, and that definitely changed the game,” said linebacker Caden McDonald postgame. “We didn’t click on third down to get off the field. There’s no specific person or unit to blame. It takes everyone to win, and it takes everyone to lose.”
San Diego State kicked a 22-yard field goal near the end of the first half to get on the scoreboard and take some momentum into the second half. That momentum was quickly diverted as Bonner found Bowling wide open down the middle of the field for a 58-yard touchdown less than two minutes into the half.
After the Aztecs were unable to get a first down on their first drive of the half, pressure up the middle on the punt attempt caused Araiza’s punt to hit off the back of Aztec Wyatt Draeger and traveled backwards out of the end zone for a safety and a 23-3 deficit.
A Patrick McMorris interception (his third in two games) gave the Aztecs some life. Still, an offensive pass interference on Jesse Matthews (pick play for Elijah Kothe) on the goal line backed the Aztecs up and led to another Araiza field goal.
After only committing two turnovers total in the last four games of the regular season and none in the first half of today’s game, fumbles on two successive plays helped put the final nails in the coffin for the Aztecs. First, Jordan Byrd was unable to catch a punt, and Utah State recovered at the Aztecs 35-yard line. After a quick Aggie touchdown made it 29-6, Greg Bell lost a fumble on the first play of the next drive, and the Aggies added a field goal to make it 32-6.
The Aztecs committed nine penalties for 120 yards in the game, including six personal foul penalties (two late hits out of bounds, two unnecessary roughness, and two roughing the quarterback). The Aggies appeared to commit two late hit out of bounds penalties themselves in the first half, but neither were called. Coach Hoke was diplomatic after the game about some of the personal foul penalties, only stating that he would like to see the plays again on film.
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“We just made too many mistakes and missed so many opportunities, and we can’t allow that in a championship game,” said Matthews postgame, adding, “We just didn’t execute like we should.”
The Aztecs will find out their bowl destination Sunday morning at 9 am during the ESPN bowl selection special. “We have one more game, and we want to win that game,” said coach Hoke referring to the upcoming bowl game.
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.