Preseason pundits positioned SDSU third in the West Division of the Mountain West behind Nevada and San Jose State.
On a rare Friday afternoon game, the Aztecs exceeded expectations by manhandling Boise State 27-16. Improbable for most teams, but typical for SDSU this season, former starting quarterback turned third-string quarterback Jordon Brookshire provided the heroics leading the Aztecs back from 16-3 with 24 unanswered points.
“Adversity is part of the job, playing sports, any position,” Brookshire said postgame. “It is adversity, hardships, and getting through it, and that is what makes players so good. If everything went well the entire time, who knows how good a player could be, but it is that adversity and fighting through things that makes people better.”
Special Teams: C-
Matt Araiza had his worst game of the season. His punting average was only 47.5, four yards below his average. Most of those yards were from fortuitous bounces fitting for a player nicknamed “Punt God.” Araiza also missed a pair of field goals, though some issues were caused because his typical holder, Jack Browning, did not play. Redeeming the special teams was a terrific game by Jordan Byrd. Byrd’s 7.2 yards per punt return ranks ninth in the FBS among those with at least 20 returns. His longest return of 18 yards set up SDSU’s last-second field goal drive just before the end of the first half.
Defensive Line: A+
If ever there was a time to change the grading scale, it would be after the Aztecs’ line completely dominated Friday. Jonah Tavai had 11 pressures with three sacks among that total. They also were key in holding the Broncos, who came in averaging 190.75 yards their past four games on the ground, to 91 rushing yards. Usually, when teams drop as many as Kurt Mattix did into coverage throughout the day, the line has to key on either stopping the run or rushing the QB. That the Aztecs front could do both consistently was spectacular. The only negative to bring their grade out of the stratosphere was several offside penalties. Still, even some those were caused by the refs failing to call Hank Bachmeier’s exaggerated pre-snap body movements.
The linebackers were fierce and active all day. As SDSU moved to more zone in the second half, the LBs were charged with getting depth to stop Boise’s crossing routes and closing in on running backs. They did both superbly. On the occasions when Boise backs got past the lines, they did so with blockers in front of them. More often than not, State’s linebackers absorbed the block, shed the offensive lineman, and brought down a talented and strong running back. Caden McDonald’s pass breakup after dropping back into coverage led to Patrick McMorris’ second interception.
McMorris is turning in an incredible season. He leads the team in tackles (79), interceptions (3) and is second on the team in pass breakups (8). The 3-3-5 is only as good as the Aztec safety, and SDSU has one of the best defenses in the country because they have one of the best safeties in the country. On his first interception, Mattix called a cover two allowing McMorris to read the QB and make a play. McMorris turned a blown coverage by his teammates into an interception.
Dallas Branch started Friday, and after Noah Tumblin had trouble in coverage in the second quarter, played the majority of snaps the rest of the game. He added a pick off BSU’s backup QB Jack Sears. Teams have basically stayed away from Tayler Hawkins, who has lined up on the boundary side of the formation, usually on an island the past few weeks. Friday, Hawkins tied six of his teammates for the team lead in tackles with six.
Offensive Line: B-
Even when SDSU spread out the field, Boise State sold out on stopping the run, leaving their defensive backs in man coverage most of the day. That the line could not open holes when the Broncos had superior numbers is not surprising. The line, however, deserves tons of credit for winning at the point of attack on some key short-yardage situations and for keeping the quarterbacks upright most of the game. Center Alama Uluave had some issues with snapping the ball that needs to be cleaned up for next week’s Mountain West Championship game.
Tight End: A-
What is not to like about the tight-end group play? Daniel Bellinger was back to his normal self, dominating in all phases of the game. His best play was on a play-action on fourth and one on the first drive of the second half. Typically, blame for the success of those plays is hung on the defense for their lack of discipline, but it should not be missed how Bellinger’s commitment to the blocking game sold the play. The Aztec Team Captain lined up as an HB, a yard behind and outside of LT Zach Thomas. As he started his route, he stayed low to the ground, looking as if he was going to gain leverage for a block. Running taller in that situation would have tipped off his defender to the play action. It was a clutch play that started with a little deception from the Las Vegas native.
Wide Receiver: A+
Boise State’s WR Khalil Shakir was terrific Friday. A future NFL receiver, Shakir was the only Bronco to give SDSU fits. As good as he was, Jesse Matthews was even better. For the second game in a row, the Hometown Hero had nine receptions. Matthews (133) nearly doubled Shakir’s (74) output and matched the Boise State star with one score. More than production, it is how the Christian High alum brings in the ball. He consistently makes catches few in the world at any level can duplicate. On Brookshire’s first pass of the game, Matthews took the ball away from a Boise State defender. How would the game have been different if he had not made that play?
Running Back: C-
When opposing teams gear up to stop the run, they have been successful. Friday was another pedestrian day from the group. Brookshire led the team in rushing with 46 yards. It was four more than Greg Bell, who had six more official carries. Bell scored a hard-earned touchdown on fourth and one from the two. It will be interesting to see how Utah State plays the Aztecs next week. SDSU has been balanced the past few weeks. If the Aggies key more on the passing game, look for an A+ next week for the running backs.
Brookshire’s performance was masterful Friday. He entered the game with 3:04 left in the first half trailing 16-3. He led the Aztecs on scoring drives on his first four possessions of the game. It would have been more except for penalties that took away big plays on two of the next three drives. Brookshire excelled in all phases of his game. He threw in the middle of the field, outside the numbers, and was particularly great at selling the play-action pass. His play was the latest chapter in a magical season that can have a storybook ending with a win next week.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski’s game plan and play calling were terrific Friday, but the brilliance of his coaching could be better seen in the way Brookshire stepped up. Two seasons ago, Hecklinski inherited a quarterback room and, through numerous struggles, has molded a close-knit unit. The mark of any good coach is the chemistry among the players he leads and the improvement those under his charge make throughout the season. Hecklinski deserves credit for Brookshire and Lucas Johnson’s obvious progression as the year has progressed.
“Jeff Hecklinski just continued to build on the offense,” Brady Hoke said postgame. “Jeff and (defensive coordinator) Kurt Mattix both got here in the middle of a pandemic and had six practices in spring ball, so it takes a little longer from the offensive standpoint. Jeff has done a really good job. I think the quarterbacks have grown, and I am excited about that. Both (Jordon) Brookshire and (Lucas) Johnson made some timely plays.”
Senior Day: A+
The university did a great job honoring the 32 seniors. The seniors lined up in the tunnel one by one, starting with tight end Kyler Albanez. After their names were announced on the loudspeakers, they met Hoke on the edge of the field for a handshake and hug. The genuine delight and admiration between the old school coach and his players was evident. One wonders if Hoke whispered “one more year” to the 24 players who have the option to come back next season as he greeted them. Another nice touch was allowing Cam Thomas to accompany his brother Zach Thomas as he ran out of the tunnel.
“It was really cool,” Hoke said when asked about Senior Day. “It always is. It can be very emotional because of the hard work, and in general, the relationships that you build. The only big negative was not knowing the parents as well because not being here during the recruiting phase for some of those guys.
Brady Hoke: A+
Hoke has now led three teams to eleven win seasons. In 2008, Ball State finished 12-1, and Michigan was 11-2 in 2011. Enough has not been made of the brilliance Hoke has shown since returning to the Mesa. Inheriting a talented team with high expectations, he has piloted the program through Covid and played every game outside of San Diego the past two seasons. Wherever Hoke has gone, he has endeared himself to the players and coaches who are with him. Case in point: clad in Aztec gear, Norv Turner took in the game from the sidelines. Turner and Hoke worked together when both were with the Carolina Panthers.