From the state of Texas, fewer than ten teams in the last one hundred years have won 12 games in a season.
The University of Texas-San Antonio is among that select group. In defeating UTSA in the Frisco Bowl, SDSU entered the rarified air of notching a dozen victories in a single campaign. Never before had a group of Aztecs won that many games. The 2021 team is truly historical.
Throughout the spring and into the fall, SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski described the ideal quarterback in his system as “the most dangerous player on the field.” Tuesday night Lucas Johnson was exactly that. He set a Frisco bowl record with 333 yards. He was an efficient 24-36 passing while accounting for four of the Aztecs’ five touchdowns. The San Diego native was sensational, causing UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor to admit postgame that “I’m not sure what we could have done” to stop him.
“It was awesome to see the offense click at such a high level,” Johnson said post-game. “It’s easy when you have guys like Jesse Matthews making plays for you. My O-Line was giving me a great pocket. The defense came up with stops when they needed to. Overall, it was a great team win.
Running Back: A-
As every team has done throughout the season, UTSA stacked the box in order to stop the Aztecs’ ground attack. The Roadrunners possess one of the top 20 rush defenses, but SDSU was able to impose their will on them as the game progressed. SDSU owned a 37:51 to 22:09 advantage in time of possession. Even when the unit was not directly gaining yards, they were helping the cause. Much of the offense’s success on the night came on the play-action pass.
Hecklinski kept UTSA off balance by calling a couple of third and fourth down runs to move the chains. Chance Bell and Kaegun Williams provided key runs to sustain drives. Greg Bell bypassed the NFL for a second senior year and a chance at a conference championship. After passing the century mark Tuesday, he finished the season with 1,091 yards and nine touchdowns on the year.
Wide Receiver: A+
Jesse Matthews earned Offensive MVP for his 11-catch, 175-yard, two-touchdown performance. The pride of Christian High’s yard total set a Frisco Bowl record. There are not enough superlatives to describe Matthews’ game. BJ Busbee, the former walk-on, was sensational in his role and came up big with his effort, including a great block on Matthews’ first score. Tyrell Shavers scored his second receiving touchdown. Elijah Kothe was clutch with his receptions on the drive that set up Matt Araiza’s field goal at the end of the first half. A group whose talent was questioned for the past couple of seasons was open early and often Tuesday night.
Tight End: B-
The Frisco Bowl could be summarized with two quotes from the head coaches.
“We were missing up to 25 (players),” Traylor said. “Anywhere from grades, Covid, the flu, to the NFL, to injuries, it is what it is. Our guys that were out on the field are the ones who need to be talked about. They were fantastic and gave me everything they had. It was unfortunate, but we had enough tonight. We just didn’t get it done, and that’s on me.”
“I’m proud that all our guys number one all wanted to play,” Brady Hoke said postgame. “They all wanted to play because of how they feel about each other, how that locker room feels about each other … This is one of my favorite teams I have ever been around.”
Daniel Bellinger had a million-dollar reason to miss the game. While he certainly was motivated to play after missing out on the MW championship game due to Covid, his personal interests were probably better served to skip the game. Any injury could have derailed his pro career. Yet, he was for one last night leading the team that elected him Captain. Playing tight end for the Aztecs is not for the faint of heart, and Bellinger showed one final time an Aztec Warrior beats in his chest.
Offensive Line: A-
On the evening, the Aztecs’ gross rushing yards were 165; their net rushing yards were 156. The nine yards lost was the second-fewest of the season (New Mexico: 7). By comparison, SDSU lost 38 yards during the MW Championship game. Given the circumstances and the level of competition, this was the line’s best performance of the year. On the night, when Zach Thomas was playing his final game as Aztecs. Three others, senior Alama Uluave, senior Dominic Gudino, and junior William Dunkle, possibly lined up for SDSU for the last time. If that is the case, the line picked an opportune time to play their finest, most complete game of the season. One of the talking points when comparing Mountain West and Conference USA teams is the latter group not being able to match the physicality of the former. SDSU’s line did its part to keep that narrative going.
Defensive Line: C+
The defense recorded only three tackles for a loss. All three came from the defensive line. What the line lacked in numbers, they more than made up for it by how clutch the plays were. Keshawn Banks, usually good for at least one impactful, instinctual play a game, recorded a sack at the start of the second quarter. Facing a third and two from their own 20, UTSA elected to pass. Banks lined up at end and just before the snap was flanked by Michael Shawcroft. Without putting his hand in the ground, Banks exploded past UTSA senior guard on his way to sacking Roadrunners’ QB Frank Harris for a seven-yard sack. The take-down ended UTSA’s final chance to take a two-score lead.
Jonah Tavai’s sack in the fourth quarter essentially ended UTSA’s night. On third and ten from the Aztecs 42, Tavai stood up like an outside linebacker and came off the edge for a sack. It was a creative way to use the senior lineman, who proved as the year went on to be a dynamic presence on the defensive front. On the negative side, penalties were an issue from the line much of the night. As much as anything the Roadrunners did, the free yards the Aztecs bequeathed UTSA kept the game closer than it should have been.
This grade is perhaps low for a group because UTSA’s game plan did not give the linebackers many opportunities to impact the game. Obviously worried about SDSU’s pass rush, the Roadrunners’ relied on the quick passing game, often over the head of the LBs. Nonetheless, the unit’s high performance throughout the season made their lack of an impact Tuesday stand out. Five players at the position accounted for only twelve total tackles. On the other hand, Andrew Aleki’s stop on fourth and one changed the game entirely.
UTSA’s running back Brenden Brady had 62 yards in the game when he took a handoff on fourth and one at SDSU’s 31-yard line. He was met and dropped by Aleki in the hole for a turnover on downs. Not only did it stop the seesaw nature of the game, but it demoralized the Roadrunners. Postgame Traylor admitted that play led to a change in the focus of UTSA’s offensive attack. They moved away from the run. Brady finished with 76 yards on the night.
For one night, CJ Baskerville was a Hometown Hero. Hailing from the area, Baskerville won defensive MVP honors in front of a large group of about 30 family and friends. Baskerville narrowly missed winning EVT’s Freshman of the Year Award and likely would have if the bowl game was taken into consideration. Baskerville led the Aztecs in tackles with nine. He made plays at all levels of the field. His interception halfway through the third allowed SDSU to extend the lead to two scores. Patrick McMorris, like he is in every contest, was in the center of the action. He was second on the team in tackles with seven. Trenton Thompson was terrific in coverage yet again. The unit also solved the miscommunication issues that had plagued the past few games.
UTSA’s best play throughout the night was 50/50 jump balls. The cornerbacks did not win enough of them, particularly in the first quarter. Noah Tumblin started the game, but the majority of snaps went to Dallas Branch after Tumblin was picked on during the Roadrunners’ first series. For the first time all year, a team found success against Tayler Hawkins. The group, though, came together as the game went on. After giving up a pair of touchdowns in the opening quarter, they only gave up one more the rest of the contest.
Special Teams: A+
For the better part of a decade, SDSU has been blessed with kickoff specialists who can punish footballs deep into the end zone on nearly every attempt. Watching UTSA’s kicker try to use smoke and mirrors to minimize the Aztecs’ potent return game was a reminder of all the years SDSU suffered with kickers without the leg to get the job done. Since Chula Vista native Abel Perez arrived on the Mesa in 2010, Aztec kickers have made kickoffs typically uneventful. Still, the Roadrunners showed Tuesday how important the skill is to team success.
SDSU averaged 31.7 yards an attempt, including a 52-yard return by Kaegun Williams to start the second half. UTSA also kicked an attempt out of bounds for a penalty. They had one touchback. SDSU had six. UTSA’s average starting position was their own 23-yard line. The Aztecs began their drives on the 31.
The mark of a good coach is improvement in his or her team. By that metric, SDSU Offensive Coordinator is a terrific football coach. Consider, SDSU averaged 10.75 completions for 118 yards the first four games, 13.75 completions for 155.5 the next four, 17 completions for 155.7 the next three, and 20 completions for 263.3 in the final three games of the season. If the season was compared in halves, the contrast is even more pronounced. Over the first seven games of the season, the passing game generated only 11.5 receptions for 121 yards a game. During the final seven, that ballooned to 18.3 receptions and 214.9 yards. If that second-half total were extended over the entire year, SDSU would rank 86th in the country in passing just .6 yards below Oregon and 2.4 yards above Utah.
Hecklinski deserves tons of credit for keeping his quarterback room together and for their improvement as the year went on. The offense, for the first time in many years, finally took advantage of teams gearing up to stop the run. Tuesday, perhaps, Aztec Nation got a glimpse of SDSU’s offense of the future.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said Dominic Gudino was playing in his final game. If he and the staff agree, he has eligibility left for 2022. The article has been updated.