Mr. Garrison’s Aztec Grades: Week 12

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: SDSU Athletics

1977 was the last time SDSU reached 10-1 in a season.

On a wacky 8:30 pm Friday night kickoff, San Diego State defeated UNLV 28-20 to match that mark.

There are a lot of similarities between Claude Gilbert’s Aztecs and Brady’s Hoke 2021 version. Both went on the road to defeat San Jose State and Arizona, both had wins over UNLV, and the lone blemish for each club came against Fresno State.

One final accomplishment this year’s team hopes to share with its ancestor is a win over Utah State. If the Aztecs win their final game of the regular season against Boise State, they will likely meet the Aggies in the Mountain West Conference championship game.

Special Teams: A+

Describing what Matt Araiza does week in and week out for SDSU has gone viral. Scribes, local and national, have waxed eloquently about the impact the Rancho Bernardo High alum has on the game. Araiza, who has put the special back in specialist, was at it again Friday night. He averaged 65 yards on five kickoffs. Each resulted in a touchback. Araiza had six punts on the night; none of them were returned. He dropped five inside the 20. UNLV started those possessions on their own 12, 15, 8, 6, and 1 yard line, respectively.

“He did it again, but he did it differently,” Brady Hoke said postgame about Araiza’s impact. “…Everything he did was a touchback. The notoriety with the punt game, obviously, but there’s other factors that he does a great job with.”

“It pumps us up,” SDSU linebacker Andrew Aleki added. “I love seeing Two punt the ball back behind the ten. It’s amazing to see that not many punters can do that. I give all props to him because Matt can boot it!”

Defensive Line: B

Holding UNLV’s Charles Williams to 35 yards rushing was clearly job number one for SDSU’s defense. Williams is second in the MW with 1,124 yards on the season. Greg Bell is third with 907 for comparison. Though the Rebels proved up to the task of winning the game through the air, the defensive line’s role in implementing Kurt Mattix’ game plan should not go unnoticed.

Seyddrick Lakalaka’s interception, the play that sealed the victory, was set up by a terrific play by Keshawn Banks. Banks took advantage of the chaos of the situation and made a great play. No fewer than three false start or offsides penalties were missed by the refs on the final play. The Rebels’ center rocks in his stance and slightly moves the ball, UNLV’s wideout on the bottom of the screen lined up offside, and Banks moved a fraction of a second early. That SDSU’s defensive lineman had the instincts to make that play, given the situation, is nothing short of phenomenal.

Linebacker: A-

Postgame, Brady Hoke called out his linebackers for their work in the passing game. He said they did not get deep enough on some of their drops to prevent gains behind them. This error aside, the group came up with some of the biggest plays of the night. Andrew Aleki’s pick-six opened the scoring for the Aztecs and proved the difference in the game. Lakalaka’s aforementioned interception ended UNLV’s last drive of the game.

Cornerback: F

At the beginning of the season, the weakness of the team was thought to be at cornerback, where talented young players were forced into action. Through much of the season, the unit has performed well, but the preseason fears showed themselves on Friday. The way SDSU plays defense, their corners do not always get a lot of safety help. With SDSU geared to stop the run, UNLV was able to take advantage of blown coverages throughout the night. The Rebels threw for 372 yards, their highest total of the season. The majority of those yards came because of poor coverage by SDSU’s young corners.

Safety: B+

The Aztec is the most unique position in college football. Each player who mans the position leaves a unique mark on it. Having seen him dominate for a season, Partick McMorris’ stamp on the position is becoming clearer. McMorris plays more sideline to sideline than other Aztecs before him, but he retains the attacking personality of the position. He is having a fantastic season and turned in a terrific game on Friday. He led the team with 12 tackles and had a key pass breakup in what appeared to be an easy first down. On fourth and two from SDSU’s 46, UNLV ran a pick play opening up wide receiver Steve Jenkins past the yard to gain. At the snap of the ball, McMorris was nine yards away from Jenkins. Somehow he navigated all of the other players on the field to run himself back into the play and arrived in time to cause the incompletion.

Offensive Line: D+

For a team that prides itself on being the physical team on the field, SDSU did not impose their will on the Rebels on Friday. Good teams have had their way with UNLV’s defense throughout the season, but the Aztecs could not establish much of a run game. They were held to 98 yards on the ground, and 47 of those came on one play.

Tight Ends: C-

Daniel Bellinger, still nursing the injury he suffered last week against Nevada, played sparingly Friday. Jay Rudolph and Dominic Gudino supported in blocking. Their grade reflects the team’s inability to run the ball. On the other hand, without the unit’s best player at full strength, there were few glaring weaknesses or mistakes.

Wide Receiver: A+

Jesse Matthews has 30 receptions and 267 yards on the season. Nearly a third of those totals came against UNLV Friday night. Hyped as an all-conference type receiver in the preseason, Matthews’ production has fallen off mainly due to lack of opportunities. That all changed against the Rebels. The San Diego native had nine catches for 75 yards and was responsible for all three Aztec offensive scores. He proved that he is still SDSU’s top receiving threat. If Matthews is the team’s best receiver, Elijah Kothe is proving to be it is most important. Kothe turned in another terrific game, leading the team with 84 receiving yards.

Running Back: D+

UNLV effectively bottled up Greg Bell. Postgame, coach Hoke mentioned a few opportunities Bell missed that would have changed the outlook of his game. Bell is certainly good enough to expect more from him. He was able to pick up a few key short first downs with some tough runs. Jordan Byrd chipped in with the most explosive play of the night from the running backs. The grade would have been higher, except the group did not chip in much in the pass game. They caught only two passes and whiffed a few times, helping in pass protection.


Quarterback: A-

Johnson built off his good game against Nevada to turn in his best performance of his college career. He was an efficient 18 of 24 for 192 yards and three scores. With the running game largely ineffective, it was the passing game that carried the load for the Aztecs. While Johnson’s yardage numbers were not astronomical, his play was extremely clutch.

Following a UNLV touchdown that gave the Rebels a 10-7 lead, Johnson led the Aztecs on a seven-play 59 yard drive that culminated in a four-yard touchdown pass to Jesse Matthews. Only five of the 59 yards came on the ground. The Aztecs next drive started less than two minutes later following a turnover on downs by UNLV. Johnson responded with a five-play, 54-yard touchdown drive in only 44 seconds.

On SDSU’s final scoring drive, the script of the 2021 season was completely flipped. Up one with under five minutes left in the game, Hoke elected to keep his offense on the field on fourth and one instead of attempting a chip shot field goal to go up four. Postgame, Hoke explained that he made that choice because, for the first time all season, he did not trust his defense to stop an opposing offense. Instead, he put his trust in Lucas Johnson and was rewarded. After picking up the first down on the fourth down attempt, Johnson threw a perfect pass on a slant route to Jesse Matthews for a touchdown on third and six from the seven-yard line.

Coaching: A-

Perhaps, the most underrated aspect of the Aztecs coaching staff is how fantastic wide receiver coach Hunkie Cooper is at his job. Cooper’s impact on the team as a whole and especially the position he leads has been a constant theme since Spring Camp. The wideouts at State have suffered the most from the inconsistent quarterback play, but they always play with effort and enthusiasm because they listen to Cooper. Postgame Jesse Matthews credited his position coach’s message of “staying patient” as the reason he could be focused on Friday despite less chances throughout the season. It is time for Aztec nation to give Cooper his due for being a terrific man and a great coach.

Conference Championship Scenarios

The West Division of the Mountain West has cleared up the past few weeks. SDSU will represent the division with a win on Friday or a Fresno State loss on Thursday. The Bulldogs need to win on the road against San Jose State, who need one win to become bowl eligible, on Thanksgiving and have Boise State take down the Aztecs in Carson to claim the division crown. 

The Mountain Division is a little murkier with Utah State, Air Force, and Boise State tied atop the standings, and none of the three control its own destiny to win the division based on the potential two or three-team tiebreaker scenarios. Each of the teams defeated one of the others. Utah State took down Air Force. Air Force defeated Boise State. The Broncos beat the Aggies. Air Force and Utah State are in the best position to represent the Mountain Division. The Falcons play at home against UNLV. Utah State travels to take on New Mexico. The Aztecs, of course, host Boise State.  

Here are the scenarios based on MW tie break rules

Air Force is the division champion if …

– All three teams win their final game.

– All three teams lose their final game.

– Air Force wins, and Utah State loses.

 

Utah State is the division champion if …

– Utah State wins, and Boise State loses

 

Boise State is the division champ if …

– Boise State wins, and Air Force loses. 

With a win against Boise State, the Aztecs would be guaranteed to host the conference championship game against either Utah State or Air Force. If SDSU backs into the title game after losing to Boise State, but with a Fresno State loss, they will either host Air Force or play on the road against the Broncos.  

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Paul Garrison
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.

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