Final exams are finicky.
Even if a student studies all year and truly learns the material, the pressure to perform and the consequence of the high-stakes test can snowball the results out of an individual’s control. Postgame following Utah State’s dismantling of SDSU, Jesse Matthews and Caden McDonald said the Aggies played exactly how they prepared for them. The results for the Aztecs’ most important test of the year simply did not reflect their body of work throughout the season.
The main theme from the team following the championship game was that none of the adversity leading up to the contest was enough reason for the poor performance.
Though SDSU was adamant about not offering any excuse, the reality is this: Just as it took out the 2020 season, providing paper champions in all sports, COVID-19 cost the Aztecs an opportunity to win a championship.
Jordon Brookshire’s strength is his deception. He excels at play-action, throwing quick screens, and improvising into significant gains on the ground. With SDSU forced into no TE sets for much of the game, it took what he does best away. His margin for error on most days is very slim as it is; force him to play in a shootout, and the results were what happened Saturday. The position stays out of the lowest grade because of Jalen Mayden’s satisfactory performance in his first action as an Aztec. Ironically, his success in garbage time might temper some of the Will Haskell excitement since most of the hype surrounding the freshman QB existed for superb, late-game action.
Running Back: B-
Utah State has lost three games on the season. The recipe for success against them is a power running game that keeps their offense on the sidelines while wearing out their defensive front. The Aztecs were forced to cook up a different game plan due to impact players missing from their lineup. That said, the running back group played well. With a lack of passing game, being behind in the numbers upfront, and the Aggies gearing up to stop the run, the unit performed as well as could be expected.
Wide Receiver: D+
If this were an individual project, Jesse Matthews would earn an “A.” Eight receptions, 82 yards, and a score is a very good day. However, the rest of the unit left a lot to be desired. Elijah Kothe, Mekhi Shaw, and BJ Busbee had opportunities for touchdowns but did not finish the plays. Yes, pass interference should have been called in each instance, but also failing to make the tough play allowed the game to snowball. How would the contest have been different with touchdowns in those situations?
Tight End: NCP
NCP stands for No Credit Pandemic. The first time SDSU put TEs into the game, they were Dominic Gudino and Joey Capra, both offensive linemen. Year after year, recruits turn down Power 5 offers to play the position at SDSU. The reason should be clear: SDSU’s offense is built around the tight end. A great example is the current Class of 2022 commit Logan Tanner. He turned down offers from #6 Baylor and #10 Utah precisely because the Aztecs put their tight ends in the center of everything they do.
Offensive Line: D+
Utah State had eight tackles for loss, including five sacks. SDSU’s offensive line did not have a good game, and without the tight ends who often function as an extension of the group, there was no push upfront or any semblance of SDSU imposing their will on the Aggies. The lopsided score did allow for some of the younger players on the line to play, and they certainly passed the eye test and opened some holes late in the game.
Defensive Line: F
The line had its worst outing of the year on Saturday. Part of the reason for their high grades in weeks past was their ability to stop the run and apply pressure on the quarterback while allowing the rest of the defense to focus primarily on stopping the pass. In some ways, they showed Saturday how remarkable they had played against spread teams throughout the season because what typically occurs when teams rush three or four happened to the Aztecs for the first time this year.
Segun Olubi and Michael Shawcroft tied for second in tackles with seven. Both provided a physical presence in run support. The group made no plays in the passing game, and Utah State found lots of space behind the linebackers. A few tipped passes and the Aggies’ passing attack could have slowed considerably. Garret Fountain continued to flash good potential. He added a tackle for a loss to bring his season total to six.
Another position group and yet another subpar day as the Aztecs fell to the Aggies. Utah State attacked true freshman CJ Baskerville for much of the afternoon. The biggest play of the game, though, was another missed assignment from a secondary that was good for one in three of the past four games. This one involved Trenton Thompson and Patrick McMorris. The error gave the Aggies an easy score to open the second half and essentially ended any hope of a quick comeback for the Aztecs. Thompson also dropped a potential pick-six early. McMorris recorded an interception, which keeps the grade from its lowest levels.
After rotating throughout the year, Dallas Branch grabbed hold of the position. Utah State found some success against Branch and late against Tayler Hawkins. However, the DBs could not be held entirely responsible for the gaudy number Logan Bonner put up. This defense thrives on pressure, but it is a high-risk, high reward scheme at its core. When it is not putting pressure and creating turnovers, it can be ineffective. Branch and Hawkins also dropped opportunities for interceptions.
Special Teams: F
Three special team errors all but ended the Aztecs’ chances of getting back in the game. Postgame Hoke hung blame for the blocked punts on the coaching staff for a scheming flaw Utah State exploited. How much the loss of players impacted one of the best units in the nation through the regular season is unknown, but the different units did not play well. Jordan Byrd dropped a punt at an inopportune time, nullifying a few good returns.
There are two ways to take Utah State’s rise from the cellar to the top of the MW in one season. On the one hand, SDSU’s coaches, particularly Jeff Hecklinski, deserve criticism. They were unable to come close to Blake Anderson’s offensive production with the Aggies when they have had more time than Anderson has had in Logan. On the other hand, Anderson was able to bring in Bonner and WR Brandon Bowling with him from Arkansas State. Aztec coaches have spoken about the full offense still not being installed because they cannot get their quarterbacks to implement it effectively. In either case, Utah State has made winning with a first-year transfer quarterback a trend in the conference. San Jose State started it in 2020. Perhaps, the Aztecs will borrow the technique in their quest to Win 22 in 2022.
With the score well out of hand, SDSU, behind the fourth-string QB on the depth chart, scored their only touchdown of the game. When the extra point sailed through the uprights, several coaches rushed out on the field to celebrate one of the lone bright spots in the afternoon. They were joined by one player, senior linebacker Caden McDonald. McDonald low-fived teammates raised William Dunkle’s lowered head and showed the elite character that is the hallmark of this team. If “attitude reflects leadership,” the 2021 Aztecs owe a lot to their Texan’ Team Captain.