Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades: Hawai’i Bowl

Credit: MTSU Athletics

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Credit: SDSU Athletics

The Aztecs started their current bowl streak in 2010. In every full year since they have competed in the postseason. During the twelve-season run, the program has only had a 7-6 record three times: 2014, 2018, and 2022.

Every four seasons, the program built on player development hits a reset. After 2014, SDSU won double-digit games in each of the next three seasons. Following 2018, the Aztecs won ten or more games in the years, sandwiching the 4-4 Covid season. If history repeats itself, 2023-2025 will be terrific years for the Aztecs.

Whatever the future, the present iteration of Aztecs’ football could be more frustrating than the previous lows in 2014 and 2018. The seven wins in 2014 were not that far removed from what the program had done from 2010-2013. 2018’s drop-off surprised more than it frustrated. The Aztecs started the season 6-1 before dropping five of their final six.

2022 produced an average team overall, but how it reached its “C” grade was a maddening mix of potential and disappointment. In every phase and among every position group, there were moments when this season’s team looked great and times when they looked like they did not belong. 

In the final analysis, SDSU could not replace half of its starters from 2021, including nine that spent time this season in NFL camps. Without those stalwarts from last year, this season’s Aztecs were undisciplined and inconsistent. One snap, they produced like champions, but the next, they made head-scratching blunders. As it was all year, so it went in the 2022 Hawai’i Bowl

San Diego State Offense

Coaching: D

Like its team as a whole, the coaching decisions were hit-and-miss on Saturday. Deciding to attempt a fourth down conversion with the ball at its own 41 and 40 seconds left in the first half cost SDSU three points and the momentum heading into intermission. Aside from the first play of the game, bubble screens to wide receivers were not part of the offense, even though MTSU was playing with numbers inside. Defensive lineman Garret Fountain led the team in rushing with 27 yards. No matter what kind of run was called, it did not have a chance to succeed. The offensive line, down a starter, struggled to block MTSU throughout the night. The help provided was ineffective or non-existent. 

On the other hand, the play design and timing of the screen to Kenan Christon produced 111 of the team’s 364 total yards on the day. Throughout the game, the play-action pass produced great opportunities. The pass-to-run ratio was out of balance again, but given Jalen Mayden’s lack of game experience, the more throws he makes, the better he will be next year.

Credit: MTSU Athletics

Switching coordinators midseason invigorated the offense, but once enough film was out, opposing defenses could key in on what SDSU was doing. Without the element of surprise, the offense struggled.

Quarterback: F

Mayden was 5-10 for 129 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter, with one score and 73 yards coming on a screen to Christon. The rest of the game, Mayden threw for 180 yards, completed only 42% of his passes, and threw three interceptions. He was also part of an awkward pitch that resulted in a fumble. All told, his four turnovers led to 17 points for the Blue Raiders. With how dominant their defense played, the Aztecs likely would have had a better chance at winning the Christmas Eve tussle with Braxton Burmeister under center.

The final two contests of the year revealed the main reason Mayden was buried on the depth chart heading into 2022. He has a turnover issue. He finished the year throwing ten picks, tied for the 20th most in the nation. Mayden’s 1.4 interceptions a game is tied for second in the country.

This negative notwithstanding, the hope SDSU has of a dramatic turnaround in 2023 rests on its left-handed QB. Mayden proved this season he can make plays when they are presented and create opportunities when none present themselves. What he is unable to do is carry the offense on his own. To unlock his full potential, the Aztecs need to find their running game and block better up front.  

Running Backs: D+

The backs were unable to make much happen on the ground on Saturday. Jordan Byrd, Chance Bell, and Christon combined for two yards on 15 carriers. The group did not have many holes, but they also failed to make defenders miss. With the disappearance of the running game during conference play over the last two years, the offensive staff’s most important job for 2023 is to figure out how to open up the ground game. Christon’s two explosive receptions and the way the backs helped in pass protection kept them from earning the lowest marks.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Wide Receivers: B-

Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers had good games on Saturday, combining for 11 receptions and 161 yards. Outside of the dynamic duo, the group did not produce much. The wide receivers heading into the next season could be the biggest question mark on the offense unless Matthews returns for a super senior season. If Christmas Eve was his final game, he ranks eighth all-time at SDSU in catches (174), 13th in receiving yards (2,109), and tied for 14th in receiving touchdowns (15). Matthews participated in every senior event, including being carried off the field by his teammates at the final practice.

Tight Ends: D

Aside from Mark Redman’s nine-yard touchdown reception on a beautiful route by the transfer, the tight ends did not have any catches on an evening when SDSU threw 42 times. Jay Rudolph had a drop on a pass that had too much zip on it but was more than catchable. The Aztecs struggled with blocking all evening, and the group did not help much with the effort. Next season, this group could be the best position group on the offense.  

Offensive Line: F

Cade Bennett did not play due to injury. He was replaced by Tommy Mirabella at left guard. Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli started at right guard. Overall, the line played poorly, allowing eight tackles for loss. They were unable to open up holes in the run game. Without the threat of the ground attack, MTSU attacked the pass and pressured Mayden all night. 

In his last game as an Aztec, Alama Uluave had a terrific open-field block on the screen pass to Christon that went for a 73-yard score. There is still time between now and the beginning of winter conditioning for this to change, but as it stands today, the main help from this group is going to come from within.  

Credit: MTSU Athletics

San Diego State Defense

Coaching: A-

San Diego State’s defense played well enough to win. Holding a team to -66 yards rushing and 170 yards overall is impressive. Every unit played very well, and the chaos the Blue Raiders caused with their offense was mitigated by the way SDSU’s defensive staff prepared its players. The staff did not earn the highest grade because they were unable to counter MTSU’s adjustments on the final drive. The Aztecs kept blitzing even when MTSU started getting the ball out quickly. The defensive line was creating pressure on its own. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix should have helped his cornerbacks more on the final possession for the Blue Raiders.   

Defensive Line: A+

As remarkable as Mayden’s story is, the reason the season turned around was the improvement up front. The dominant play continued in the Hawai’i Bowl. The line produced seven tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, and made 16 tackles. The group was so prevalent they even led the Aztecs in rushing. Keshawn Banks’ swan song may have been the best game of his career. Jonah Tavai continued his all-time great season. Tavai finished his career third in school history in sacks with 24.

Linebackers: A

Michael Shawcroft, Caden McDonald, and Seyddrick Lakalaka played their final games as Aztecs. Shawcroft led the team in tackles with eight. Lakalaka had six stops. Shawcroft and McDonald each had a tackle for loss. The trio of linebackers has been the heart and soul of the team. As people and players, they will be missed. Next year’s unit will need to find its own identity without adding the pressure of accomplishing the impossible: replacing this year’s stalwarts.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Safeties: C+

On a few key plays, the safety group was unable to make the play needed. Cedarious Barfield was in position to stop MTSU’s first touchdown but waffled instead of attacking the QB. Patrick McMorris missed a few tackles in space. Davaughn Celestine had a terrific game. He forced a fumble, recorded seven tackles, and had 1.5 tackles for loss. Kyron White had a sack. It will be interesting to see how this group stacks up next season. It will be one of the most talented and experienced groups in 2023.

Cornerbacks: B+

MTSU’s offense thrives by putting its athletes in space and forcing missed tackles. While they succeeded part of the time, SDSU did not allow a big play all night. When the Aztecs missed a tackle, it only went for a few extra yards. With Mattix attacking up the middle, the corners were on islands and played solid football for the most part.

San Diego State Special Teams

Coaching: B

The fake punt was perfectly designed and worked because SDSU knew MTSU’s tendencies. Jack Browning’s ability to handle both kicking duties was aided by the staff preparation. On the negative side, SDSU’s kickoff return left much to be desired. Not only were they plagued by turnovers, but they failed to open up lanes for what should have been an Aztecs’ advantage.

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Returners: C

Jordan Byrd became the third Aztec all-time to reach the 2,000-yard kick return on Saturday. He also became just the eighth player ever to top the 4,000-career all-purpose yard mark. Much of his exploits were called back due to penalties, but he still reached the amazing achievement. Max Garrison showed explosiveness with the ball in his hand on his one attempt as well.

Kickers: A-

Jack Browning was sensational. He hit field goals from 43, 39, 36 and a Hawai’i Bowl record 52 yards. His final kick was clutch. It gave the Aztecs the lead with a little over five minutes remaining. Browning was also terrific punting the ball. He averaged 48.8 on four attempts, although the net average was a significantly lower 36.75. Replacing Matt Araiza was thought an impossible task, but Browning was fantastic in 2022. 

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