Everything comes up aces for riverboat gambler, Brady Hoke

Zyrus Fiaseu sacks Kurtis Rourke. Rourke would leave the game and not return following the sack. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Brady Hoke roams the sideline in SDSU’s victory over Ohio. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Including the final kneel-down of the game, SDSU only had ten possessions during Saturday night’s 20-13 victory over Ohio. To put that in perspective, the Aztecs had the ball ten times in the first half of their last game, the 2022 Hawaii Bowl.

With Ohio winning the time of possession battle (32:26 to 27:23) and owning a sizeable lead in the number of total plays (84-58), every decision SDSU head coach Brady Hoke made was magnified. Three decisions, in particular, impacted the outcome of the game.

With six seconds left in the first half and the score in the Bobcats’ favor, 6-3, Hoke decided to keep his offense on the field. Mayden rewarded his head coach’s choice by finding Mark Redman in the endzone for a touchdown as time expired.

Should SDSU have failed to score in that situation, the momentum heading into the half would have swung mightly in Ohio’s favor. Instead, the Aztecs went into intermission feeling good about themselves, up 10-6.

SDSU celebrates the first of Mark Redman’s touchdowns. (Don De Mars/ EVT)

“I’m more inclined to go for it,” Hoke said about the situation at the end of the half. “I think at times when you do that, you are letting your offense know that you believe in them. And at the same time, you also let your defense know that you believe in them and that they got your back. I always liked – when I was a player a long time ago – when we would go for it.”

Hoke’s next impactful call came at the end of the third quarter. Ohio had dominated the time of possession up to that point in the game, holding onto the ball for more than eight minutes longer than the Aztecs.

On fourth and two at the Bobcats’ 14, SDSU’s head coach decided to keep his offense on the field. Rewarded again with a conversion, the Aztecs’ defense rested on the sideline for the next two-plus minutes of game time. Coupled with the timeout between quarters, it was a needed respite at that juncture in the contest.

The final call did not go as Hoke hoped, but it still worked out in the end. With the ball on Ohio’s 36, up seven, Hoke tried to convert a fourth and three. Mayden failed to pick up a first on a QB run and gave the Bobcats the ball back with 55 seconds left.

Hoke said postgame he did not think his defense was playing well for most of the evening and thought putting the game in his offense’s hands was his best move.

Opening games can set a team’s trajectory for the season. Hoke’s aggressive gambles paid off on Saturday, but they also sent a message to his playersrrr.

“I love that,” Redman said when asked about Hoke’s decisions. “Even the fourth down play late that we didn’t get, that’s definitely one we have to get. Coach Hoke always has our back, offense, or defensive side. So, he’s always going to have our back; we are going to have his. We are going to execute to the best of our ability.”

Deja Vu

The opening half of SDSU’s victory felt like a redux of the past two seasons. Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley took a page out of Jeff Hecklinski’s playbook for the first play call of his career. He spread the field and called a predictable QB dive. It went for three yards.

Against Arizona in 2022, Hecklinski featured the QB run. Starting QB Braxton Burmeister finished last season’s opener with ten carries for 20 yards. Lindley did the same against Ohio. Mayden left Saturday’s contest with ten carries for 24 yards.

Jalen Mayden drops back to pass against Ohio. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

In 2021’s opener, the Aztecs mustered only 70 total yards on seven first-half possessions against New Mexico State. Most of the fans in attendance booed the team as they went off the field. Fan misconduct was particularly egregious near the players’ tunnel, and former defensive lineman Jonah Tavai got into a shouting match with a particularly ornery spectator.

On Saturday, SDSU’s first five drives netted 69 yards. On the last of those, the Aztec faithful expressed their displeasure, albeit in a more subdued manner than in Carson two seasons ago. No doubt the boo-birds would have given the team an earful if not for the touchdown in the final seconds of the first half.

The difference maker between the 2021 and 2022 Aztecs and the 2023 version was Jalen Mayden. Jordan Brookshire finished the opener two years ago 6-19 for 76 yards. Burmeister left his Snapdragon debut 5-10 for 51 yards. Over the last 44 seconds of the second quarter, Mayden was 5-7 for 70 yards.

“It actually wasn’t,” Redman said when asked if the touchdown pass was designed for him. “Jalen started making his read to the boundary, I believe it was, and then came back across. … Everything just worked out … we were able to put six on the board.”

SDSU’s QB1 finished 17-27 with 164 yards, 2 TDs and 0 Ints. With the running backs averaging six yards a carry (21 for 127 yards), it was all the offense SDSU needed from Mayden. Considering the signal caller only had 17 yards before that final drive in the first half, he produced almost all of his final numbers over the final 30:44 seconds of the game.

If he can put together three or four quarters at the high level he played the last two-plus of Saturday’s game, upsets against UCLA and Oregon State are possible.

Can SDSU keep its young talent from transferring

Postgame, Hoke said the staff laid into the defense during halftime because of how poorly they tackled. Coming out of the break, the Aztecs secondary had three new starters. JD Coffey, Josh Hunter, and Chris Johnson replaced Marcus Ratcliffe, Davaughn Celestine, and Dallas Branch, respectively. Eric Butler played on the second possession of the second half and saw more time than Hunter overall.

Poor tackling was not the only reason for the change. Hoke mentioned that some of the starters were dinged up. He also explained that SDSU’s identity is frequent defensive substitutions. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix’s ideal is having two starting quality players at every position.

Marcus Ratcliffe lines up against Ohio. He started as a true freshman. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The risk/reward of depending on young players extends far beyond the field. Recruits are attracted to SDSU because they are willing to play the best player regardless of age. On the other hand, the more time players like Ratcliffe, Hunter, Butler, and Johnson see, the greater the likelihood that programs with deeper NIL pockets come calling.

The last young DB to play for the Aztecs was CJ Baskerville. After earning a significant role with SDSU as an underclassman, he transferred to Texas Tech. A Lone-Star state native, being closer to home factored into his decision, but so did the opportunity to earn more NIL dollars.

“Ratcliffe, I think he’s going to be a really good football player at San Diego State,” Hoke said before adding, “We’ve got to keep him here.”

This roughing the passer penalty by Cody Moon allowed Ohio to stay in the contest. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

There are levels to college football, and the MAC is below the MWC

Ohio and their fans are going to lament some of the missed opportunities on Saturday night, particularly some deep passes that could have been completed for touchdowns. The Aztecs, though, completely controlled the contest, and the outcome was not really in doubt for most of the game. If the preseason prognostications are correct, the MAC’s best team was outclassed by the MWC’s fourth-best squad.

Physically, SDSU has better athletes. There are currently 27 Aztecs in NFL camps; Ohio has five. A similar personnel disparity was evident on Saturday. The Bobcats came in a more veteran group and played closer to their potential than the Aztecs, but it was not enough.

“They have good players,” Hoke said. “They’re a good football team. They’re a physical football team. I don’t think we played physical. I don’t think played well enough defensively in the first half. There’s a lot we need to get fixed before Idaho State.”

SDSU was able to overcome a bad start against New Mexico State in the 2021 opener because they were physically superior. They could not match that against Arizona last season because there was not a disparity in the talent level.

Ohio was closer to the Aggies with a similar result. Despite a middling performance by the Red and Black, they controlled the contest. If not for Cody Moon’s helmet rising six inches too high, the game likely ends 27-6.

Kurtis Rourke’s absence looms large in this discussion. He played a terrific first quarter, throwing for 75 yards on 8-10 passing. Postgame, Ohio head coach Tim Albin said Rourke wanted to go back into the game. Like a referee calling a boxing match because the fighter cannot defend himself, Albin protected Rourke because the QB could not.

Rourke took two huge hits before his exit. As he jogged off the field to prove his ability to continue, his knee buckled. Albin called it precautionary, but Rourke was not ready on Saturday.

Albin made a mistake letting him go out there in the first place. You can understand why he did. A great QB performance was the only chance his team had to win.

In all of the intangible areas, Ohio was superior to SDSU. They execute their coaches’ designs better. They know how to win, something the Aztecs have not learned how to do. The Bobcats were more disciplined, played more physical, and limited SDSU’s athletic advantage by controlling the time of possession. None of it mattered because the talent level was so heavily tilted in the Aztecs’ favor.

Perhaps the most obvious area where this disparity manifested itself was on kickoff returns. Following Hoke’s undressing of the defense at the half for not tackling well, Celestine had the hit of the night on the second-half kickoff. Throughout the contrst, SDSU intentionally kicked the ball short to force a return and manhandled Ohio.

“It was awesome,” Hoke said about that opening play after intermission. “Whenever you kick the ball off, you always have the opportunity to make a statement. You have the opportunity to make some big type of play. That was a big play. A lot of our guys enjoyed it. At the end, on the kickoff that went out of bounds, there was some nice physicalness going down the field. You could hear football pretty good.”

With the win over Ohio, SDSU moved to 16-1-1 all-time against current MAC teams.

SDSU’s students came out in huge number. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Where were the alumni?

SDSU’s student section was spectacular on Saturday. It is a shame their predecessors on the Mesa did not show up in better numbers. Whatever the justifiable reasons for the alumni’s absence, it comes at an inopportune time for the program.

Experts agree that the current realignment in college football is not the end. An even more impactful change is on the horizon. It is possible (probable) that football and men’s basketball players will become university employees. The upper echelon of the sport will likely pull away from the rest to fill its coffers with ever more television money to pay for that shift.

Between now and when that happens, every team not in the Big 10 and SEC is trying to prove their worth for inclusion in that new league. With increased travel expenses included, Oregon and Washington took less money in exchange for a clear path to the Big 10. SMU, Stanford, and Cal are reportedly willing to do the same to join the ACC because it will give them a better chance to take that next step.

Even if all of SDSU’s conference realignment dreams had come true, they would be in the same position the Big XII, the ACC, and the rest of the G5 schools are in. Every school has to show its worth to be included in whatever comes next for college football.

Should the expected shift occur and SDSU is left without the resources to pay its players directly, the football program will not be the only casualty. The basketball team will be affected just as profoundly.

The gauntlet is laid down.

Judging from the professional ranks, the western part of the US will only have six to ten teams included in the new college football hierarchy. SDSU needs to show it is too valuable to leave out. At this critical juncture, though, many alumni have taken the posture of customers and not partners.

“As we continue forward, now, more than ever, we need all Aztecs to rally behind our beloved University,” SDSU athletic director JD Wicker said in an email on Saturday morning sent to SDSU season ticket holders of every sport. “We must control what we can control. Our presence nationally will continue to rise when Aztec nation once again shows how mighty we can be. The estimated 7,000+ Aztecs at the Final Four was eye-opening to some, but we all know how great our alumni and fans truly can be!”

This coaching staff, this administration, this stadium, this university, and this city have roughly six years to figure it out. Saturday’s attendance will not get it done. The students showed up in great numbers. Where were the alumni?

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Quick Takes

  • Noah Tumblin, the fourth corner to get time, played better than Chris Johnson and Dallas Branch. His three PBUs led the team.
  • The weakness of the 3-3-5 is forcing a safety to cover the offense’s best receiver in the slot. Ohio State transfer Sam Wiglusz exploited that for ten receptions and 103 yards. Could one of the corners slide inside?
  • Cedarious Barfield had an impactful day. His interception late in the first half switched the game’s momentum. Just as important was his containment of a reverse to force a field goal (which was missed) on Ohio’s opening possession of the second half.
  • SDSU’s defensive mantra is “eleven hats to the ball.” On that reverse where Barfield stayed home, the number of Aztecs running to the ball was impressive.
  • The Aztecs did a great job developing its depth. Third-string LB New Zealand Williams, a converted safety, only played on the final drive and sealed the game with an interception.
  • Jaylon Armstead’s redemption from an early fumble to huge second-half runs was great to see.

“I make plenty of mistakes myself, so our guys are going to do that now and then,” Hoke replied when asked about Armstead. “They don’t want to, and we’re going to coach the heck out of them not to. But I really thought he brought himself together (and am) just happy to see how he responded.”

  • Kenan Christon is a difference-maker. Does he deserve more touches?
  • Daniel Okpoko led the team onto the field with the Aztec shield. The honor given to a player who embodies the team’s values shows Okpoko’s standing on the team.
  • Jack Browning is a weapon as a punter. He averaged 56.3 yards on three punts. San Diego is at sea level, in case anyone needs to be reminded.
  • The starters for the game were very similar to how the team began at the Fan Fest scrimmage. The two-deep offered by the team last week was gamesmanship.
  • SDSU had issues getting pressure without bringing multiple defenders. Expect screen passes in the coming weeks.

    Martin Blake returned a kick against Ohio. (Don De Mars/EVT)
  • Max Garrison was missed as a kick returner. Ohio kicked away from Christon. Martin Blake did an admirable job, but he lacks the burst Garrison possesses to be dangerous as a returner.
  • The linebackers had a great performance against Ohio. Cooper McDonald, Cody Moon, and Zyrus Fiaseau were particularly impactful. As a group, the LBs accounted for 1.5 sacks, 3.0 tackles for loss, three QB hits, two interceptions, and more than a quarter of SDSU’s total tackles.
  • Lindley’s new offense had some really nice moments, including what looked like an RPO that Mayden completed to Baylin Brooks.
  • If you watch the replay of the game, pay attention to Celestine on the sideline on Brooks’ reception, where he makes a few defenders miss. You can watch it here.
  • In addition to Brooks and Ratcliffe, true freshman FB Leo Kemp and DE Brady Nassar saw action. Kemp played on the one play SDSU utilized a fullback.
  • Nassar competed as part of SDSU’s third-string defensive line along with Samuela Tuihalamaka and top reserve Wyatt Draeger. They were on the field at the start of the fourth and forced a three and out. They stopped a second and one on the drive before Tumblin broke up a pass on third and one to force a punt. Ohio tried to run right at Nassar, but the freshman held up at the point of attack, and Moon and Ratcliffe were free to bring down the running back.
  • The power running game for SDSU looked interesting, with the Aztecs having two TEs in the backfield and an RB behind them. It can be a three-TE set with Redman flanked out wide as a receiver.
  • Postgame, Barfield said the prep for both of Ohio’s QBs was the same, so the QB change did not impact them.
  • One of the strangest parts of SDSU practices this fall was when the staff randomly called out a unit to take one more rep after their sets had been completed. It had the look of disorganization. Turns out, there was a method to the madness. Barfield credited the tactic with helping prepare the team for the momentum swings that occurred late in the game.
  • As Ohio lined up for its onside kick, hundreds of crows swept across the sky. After the ball bounced helplessly out of bounds, the sky cleared. Watching the procession of fowls is a sight to see.
  • Among a host of other recruits, Foster Slaughter was at the opener.
  • Moon was livid on the sideline after his penalty cost Ratcliffe a pick-six. He was alone near the opposite 30-yard line and was visibly upset. Moon was sensational on Saturday. If he adds weight without losing speed, he could be a pro.

2 thoughts on “Everything comes up aces for riverboat gambler, Brady Hoke

  1. Wow, what a great recap. Nice Work. Would love to see a poll of what Aztec Fans would do with the 4th down call at the end of the game. I agree with Brady , but lots of armchairs do not.

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