The Aztecs started the season 7-0 before finishing 5-2 over their final seven games. Their 12-2 record is testament to an unquestioned successful year, but like most of the past decade, the record will leave fans wondering “what if.”
The 2021 team was one of the most talented groups in years. In 2022, SDSU will send more talent to the NFL than any team since the 2016 team. Following that season, three Aztecs, Damontae Kazee, Donnell Pumphrey, and Nico Siragusa, were selected in the middle rounds of the professional draft, with a handful of others making it onto NFL rosters.
Cameron Thomas, William Dunkle, Daniel Bellinger, and a host of others will try to top that mark.
In May, the Over/Under for wins this season was six and a half. Anyone who took the over was a winner after seven games. Even if it was by their own choosing, the Aztecs never played a home game all season. Winning 12 games without a home crowd willing the team to victory was a tremendous accomplishment.
A research paper, Home Field Advantage in American College Football Games, published in 2011, concluded, “Our results indicate that home advantage exists for most teams and conferences. The advantage equals to six points for home teams, and away disadvantage equates to three points when controlling for team strength and other predictors. The results have also consistently indicated that being a BCS team produces a 7-point advantage over a non-BCS team. Surprisingly, non-BCS teams appear to possess a stronger home advantage than BCS teams.”
SDSU was one of seven teams in the country to finish undefeated on the road. Their two losses came at Dignity Health Sports Park.
From a pair of linemen from 2020 who went pro to the play of the quarterbacks to Covid that prevented the Aztecs from truly competing in the MW Championship, the list of “What Ifs” abound.
As Aztec Nation imagines what could have been, one more is worth considering, “What if the city of San Diego had paid for the upkeep of SDCCU Stadium to allow for a true home-field advantage for the record-setting 2021 Aztecs?”
Player COMP-ATT-INT YDS TD Long AVG/G
Lucas Johnson 138-223-4 1424 12 39 109.54
Jordon Brookshire 62-122-1 830 3 73 138.33
Player ATT Gain Loss Net AVG TD Long AVG/G
Lucas Johnson 52 281 100 181 3.5 1 54 13.92
Jordon Brookshire 48 228 70 158 3.3 5 22 26.3
The quarterback play was the storyline coming into 2021, and it remained that way throughout. It is a very difficult position to grade because it requires a lot of nuances.
Cutting the season in half, SDSU passed for 121 yards in the opening seven games and 215 in the second seven contests. Nearly doubling their yards is a significant improvement.
The Aztecs needed their passing game in order to win against Fresno State, Nevada, UNLV, Boise State, Utah State, and UTSA. They produced enough in four of those contests to get the job done but came up short in the two defeats.
Running Back: B
Player ATT Gain Loss Net AVG TD Long AVG/G
Greg Bell 245 1159 68 1091 4.5 9 55 77.93
Chance Bell 72 359 18 341 4.7 4 61 26.23
Kaegun Williams 59 283 15 268 4.5 2 25 19.14
Jordan Byrd 37 259 13 246 6.6 3 55 17.57
The running backs were the centerpiece of the offense. For every pass the team threw, they ran it 1.58 times. Opposing coaches built their defensive game plan to take away the Aztecs’ rushing attack.
Despite the stacked boxes and proliferation of run blitzes, SDSU managed 175 yards a game on the ground. Greg Bell’s 1,000-yard season led the way, but he was complemented by Chance Bell, Kaegun Williams, and Jordan Byrd.
The running backs were responsible for 18 of the offense’s 42 touchdowns. Only three times all season were the Aztecs held under 100 yards on the ground.
Despite an emphasis on getting the backs involved in the passing game, they were not much of a factor there. They caught 25 passes for 129 yards and no scores.
Wide Receiver: B-
Player Receptions YDS AVG TD Long AVG/G
Jesse Matthews 57 642 11.26 9 32 45.86
Elijah Kothe 31 418 13.48 1 39 29.86
BJ Busbee 23 287 12.48 0 36 22.08
Tyrell Shavers 18 213 11.83 2 24 16.38
The numbers put up by the receiving core are pedestrian. Like all statistics, however, they do not communicate the story of the receiver group.
While missing open targets is the nature of the passing game, too often, the quarterbacks had players open at every level and were unable to accurately locate their passes. Other times, the quarterbacks did not see when their teammates would break free.
That said, even when factoring out his final two contests, Jesse Matthews was a clear snub from the MW All-Conference awards. His final four games of the year were spectacular. Most of the team’s improvement in the passing game was due to Matthews’ play down the stretch.
Opponent Receptions Yards Touchdowns
UNLV 9 75 3
Boise State 9 133 1
Utah State 8 82 1
UTSA 11 175 2
Tight End: B
Player Receptions YDS AVG TD Long AVG/G
Bellinger, Daniel 31 357 11.52 2 73 27.46
If there were any questions about the importance of the tight ends to the offense, they were erased during their absence from the MW title game.
SDSU’s offense is at its best when the defense does not know what is coming. It is the tight ends that add elements of unpredictability to the team’s attack.
The two best passing games for the offense against Boise State and UTSA sandwiched the Utah State contest. Against the Broncos and Roadrunners, the passing game was built around play-action passes, but that was absent against the Aggies.
Bellinger and Jay Rudolph formed a dominating duo in the running game, with the former showing enough in the passing game to earn an invite to the most prestigious college showcase bowl game.
Offensive Line: B+
With all due respect to the running backs, the best group on the offensive side of the ball was the offensive line. The line ranked 38th in the country, only giving up 24 sacks on the season for 169 yards. They also ranked 41st in the country in Tackles for Loss allowed.
Given the issues the team had under center and the stacked fronts the line faced every week, these are terrific numbers.
William Dunkle was rightly recognized as an All-American, Zachary Thomas slid over to the left side and has a puncher’s chance to make an NFL roster. Chris Martinez was solid if unspectacular at left guard. There was never a time Brandon Creshaw-Dickson looked like a first-year starter. Alama Uluave was great snapping the ball and more than held his own in protection and in opening holes in the running game.
Special Teams Kicking Game: A+
Player Punts AVG Long TB FC I20 50+
Matt Araiza 79 51.19 86 15 17 37 39
FGM-FGA % I20 20-29 30-39 40-49 50+ Long
Matt Araiza 18-28 64.3% 0-0 3-3 9-10 3-6 3-9 53
Kickoffs AVG TB OB
Matt Araiza 73 64.7 62 0
The meteoric rise of Matt Araiza from a near walk-on player to the star of the college football season was astounding. He galvanized the imagination of the nation because of the uniqueness of his story.
Most of the stories written about Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young were retreads of past articles, where Young’s name replaced Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, or some other Alabama QB. The “punt god” narrative was truly unique and is the defining mark of the 2021 college football season.
Be that as it may, the kicking game barely snuck into the A+ category. Araiza was less than stellar 64.29% on field goal attempts.
He finished 18-28, with nine of those misses coming on kicks outside of 40 yards. Araiza was given a surprising nine attempts from beyond 50 and only hit three of them. He was better outside in the 40-49 range (3-6).
The group was elevated back into an A+ rating because of Jack Browning’s touchdown run on a fake field goal against Hawaii. In a game won by only seven points, Browning scored the final and decisive score of the game.
Special Teams Return Game: A+
Individual Punt Return Statistics
Player Punt Returns YDS AVG TD Long
Jordan Byrd 27 193 7.15 0 19
Player Kickoff Returns YDS AVG TD Long
Jordan Byrd 22 601 27.32 1 100
Kaegun Williams 11 241 21.91 0 52
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The return game produced three scores. Two off blocked punts and one via a kickoff return.
Jordan Byrd was terrific returning punts and looked on the cusp of breaking one nearly every game. His kickoff return came against Utah and took the air out of the Utes.
Byrd earned first-team all-conference and enters 2021 as the favorite to win Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year.
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.