Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades vs Air Force

Seniors Michael Shawcroft (46), Jonah Tavai (66), Justus Tavai (91), Caden McDonald (54), and Keshawn Banks (2) converge to make a tackle. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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SDSU graduate Florence Silberhorn Hord’s art on display at the Timken Museum.

In 1922, George and Paula Silberhorn moved into the Victorian home on 205 West Date Street in San Diego. Born in Germany, George Silberhorn was a veteran of the Spanish-American War before working as a blacksmith in the City Operations Department. His daughter attended San Diego State College and majored in art. Each year since 1988, her legacy has been on display at the Timkin Museum in Balboa Park.

Florence Silberhorn Hord was a renowned Christmas ornament maker. Her work, collected around the world during her lifetime, has been gathered by the museum and is part of the Jewels of the Season exhibition that everyone can enjoy for free during the holidays.

Since the first graduating class in 1900, the university’s graduates have left their mark on the city, state, and the world. Joining their ranks are 23 Aztecs from the 2022 football team. Like Silberhorn Hord, this group has left quite a legacy.

When most arrived on the Mesa, Rocky Long was the head coach. The transition to Brady Hoke has been seamless due in large part to this group. The seniors closed out the iconic Jack Murphy Stadium, sending the Aztecs off in style as 13-3 winners over BYU.

2020 brought Covid and the commitment to a lonely regiment of playing football in isolation. A 4-4 first season in Carson gave way to a school-record 12 wins in 2021. Finally returning home after a two-year absence, they kept the 2022 Aztecs together to rebound from a 2-3 start.

“For me, it’s been amazing,” Alama Uluave said postgame. “I’m an Aztec for life. I love San Diego. I love San Diego State. Having to go through all of those issues with building a stadium and playing in Carson really makes you appreciate a home stadium. This game wasn’t only for us this year, it was for those past two classes who didn’t have a chance to end their careers off in San Diego. We wish we could have come out with a ‘W’ for them, but sadly, that was not the case.”

“San Diego showed up tonight, and I’ll be forever grateful for it. I’m forever grateful to the coaching staff that has come and gone; made me the player and the man that I am today. I couldn’t have had the experiences I had here anywhere else. I’m very grateful that I’m here and stuck out my five years here.”

Throughout the season, the roster contained 21 seniors. David Delgado and Kristien Reyes, listed as juniors, chose to graduate, bringing the total to 23.

Chance Bell, Caden McDonald, and Seyddrick Lakalaka are the oldest seniors arriving on campus as part of the 2017 class. They have been part of 50 victories in their careers.

The 2018 class will go down as one of the best in school history. Among the 2022 seniors, Uluave, Jordan Byrd, Keshawn Banks, Jesse Matthews, TJ Sullivan, Daniel Okpoko, and Cedarius Barfield came into the program that year. They have seen 40 wins so far in their careers.

The 2019 class introduced Jonah Tavai, Michael Shawcroft, Delgado, and Patrick McMorris. They have 33 wins. 

2020 brought Jalen Mayden, Lucky Avinger, and Dallas Branch. Jack Browning and Tyrell Shavers first graced the Mesa in 2021. Braxton Burmeister, Justus Tavai, and Reyes are in their first season. The 2020 group has witnessed 23 wins, the 2021’s have seen 19, and the first-year seniors have participated in seven victories. 

On Senior Night, SDSU honored the leaders of their program. Jalen Mayden, Jack Browning, Cedarious Barfield, and Dallas Branch did not participate in the festivities because they have already decided to exercise their extra year of eligibility and return in 2023.  Matthews, Shawcroft, McMorris, Sullivan, and Okpoko could join them next season. 

Hoke said postgame this upcoming week should give a clearer picture of their intentions. The outlook for next season hinges significantly on the outcome of the conversations over the next seven days. 

Jalen Mayden celebrates Jordan Byrd’s play against Air Force. (Don De Mars/EVT)

San Diego State Offense

Coaching: F

The Aztecs came into this game as winners of their last nine contests against the Falcons. They had a clear offensive script on how to beat Air Force but abandoned it on Saturday. 

During the nine-game winning streak, SDSU averaged 41 rushing and 21.2 passing attempts. Two nights ago, their play-calling was completely flipped. Officially, offensive coordinator Jeff Horton called 31 passes and only 15 rushes. Jalen Mayden rushed six times, leaving only nine carries for the Aztecs’ running back, which is too few, especially in a game decided by 10 points.

Against Hawaii in October, SDSU had 36 passes compared to 35 runs, it was the only time prior to Saturday that they threw more than they ran all year.  For a decade, SDSU has chosen to go toe-to-toe with Air Force, beating the Falcons at their own game. Saturday, they lost their identity, and the streak was broken.

Quarterback: C-

Two fourth-quarter, red zone interceptions cost the Aztecs an opportunity to get back into the game. Mayden was clearly bothered by the hits he took, and his throws grew more inaccurate as the night wore on. Horton put the game in his quarterback’s hands, and he did not deliver a victory.

Mayden still earns a passing grade because he did not get much help on Saturday. Twice Tyrell Shavers had an opportunity in the end zone to make a play on the ball. Instead of attacking it, SDSU’s wide receiver was content to let the pass fall into his hands, which allowed AFA DBs to get back into the play and prevent a pair of scores.

All season, Mayden has been best in the play-action pass game, which works when a team is committed to running the ball. Saturday was clearly the worst of Mayden’s seven starts, but in context, it was not that bad. Only six times has an SDSU QB not named Jalen Mayden thrown for more than 188 yards since Hoke returned to the Mesa in 2020.

Running Back: D-

The group nearly got an incomplete, but Kenan Christon’s 12-yard loss on SDSU’s final drive of the third quarter was enough to get them into the grade book. If Christon had hit the hole, he would have been brought down for a short loss. It would have given the offense a second and long but makeable situation. Retreating multiple times stalled the drive before it really got started. It was still a one-score contest at that point, and the decision hurt the Aztecs. They did not get the ball back until 8:58 left in the game. This time, they were down ten. 

Air Force seals the win with an interception. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Wide Receiver: D+

On the two Shavers’ pass plays mentioned above, it should be mentioned that the wide receiver’s momentum was going in a different direction. Making receptions there would have potentially changed the game’s result, but they were very difficult plays for any wideout to make. If the passes were thrown with more zip, they would have been completed as well. Shavers bears the responsibility because Mayden is making his seventh start as a quarterback. When SDSU’s QB has been great, his receivers have made catches on less than perfectly placed throws.

Jesse Matthews became the 14th player in program history with at least 2,000 receiving yards for his career. He is the first to reach that mark since Demarco Sampson and Vincent Brown in 2010. In his career at SDSU, he has never competed with the same QB for multiple seasons. Ryan Agnew led the Aztecs in passing in 2019, Carson Baker in 2020, and Lucas Johnson in 2021. 2023 could be the first time Matthews has a full offseason to develop chemistry with a game-proven signal-caller if he chooses to return.

On the other hand, Matthews has shown he is as adept at adjusting to different QBs as he has to poorly thrown passes; he could exercise his extra year of eligibility at another institution. Losing a team captain to another school would be a blow for the program, but doing so could improve his standing in the eyes of NFL evaluators.

Finally, entering the draft this year is also a possibility. Matthews has accomplished a lot in his career. He is a known commodity. Would another year in college influence what scouts have already seen? 

Tight Ends: Incomplete

SDSU’s tight ends earn an incomplete on the evening to highlight one of their highest tasks, run blocking.  What sets the Aztecs apart from most teams is the special athletes who man the position and create mismatches in the run game. Last week, Horton utilized them to spring huge gains on the ground. As important as it is to increase this group’s role in the passing game, their bread and butter should always be helping to impose the physicality SDSU wants to play with.

Mark Redman had a pair of receptions on Saturday. His developing chemistry with Mayden is tantalizing for 2023.

Offensive Line: F

Following a pair of good games the last two weeks, the offensive line had its worst performance of the second half of the season. Mayden was under duress all night. The Falcons put pressure on the QB easily more than a dozen times. They did it without a lot of deception. What little trickery they did use worked too well.

For the first time, Tommy Mirabella looked like a backup. The line was called for four false starts (the refs missed a clear offside on one of the calls) and fumbled a snap. Play-calling hurt because the Falcons did not have to worry about the run game, and the line did not have a chance to wear down the smaller Air Force defenders. It was a challenging night for SDSU’s front.

Michael Shawcroft sheds a blocker to bring down a ball carrier. (Don De Mars/EVT)

San Diego State Defense

Coaching: A+

Postgame, Hoke echoed a common refrain among coaches when facing Air Force. The start of games against the Falcons is challenging because it is impossible for the scout team to duplicate the speed at which an option team runs its offense. This proved true on Saturday. 

Air Force racked up 167 yards, made its only two trips inside SDSU’s ten-yard line on the night, and scored the game’s lone touchdown during the first three drives of the contest. On their final nine drives, they mustered just 139 yards.

Defensive Coordinator Kurt Mattix started backup safety Kyron White at what Hoke said the staff called “Boundary Backer (BB).” White impressed with his physicality against New Mexico and earned the start. His inclusion in the game allowed SDSU to vary its defense from what it played a year ago. Last season, Mattix had four LBs on the field for most of the game. He utilized this formation on Saturday as well but did not line up that way as exclusively as he did in the 2021 contest.

The defense held Air Force to sixteen points below its season average. Their performance was impressive because SDSU’s offensive ineptitude allowed the Falcons to win the time of possession by nearly 19 minutes. Saturday had all the makings of a blowout, except the defense rose to the challenge and kept the Aztecs in the game.

Defensive Line: A+

An ongoing conversation on The SDSU Football Podcast is what Aztec is the best defender on the team. One week, Michael Shawcroft looks the part, but the next, Jonah Tavai supplants him. 

On Senior Night, Tavai made a strong case for the spot with a dozen tackles, a QB hurry, and a tackle for loss. The Falcons ran 66 times; 35 of them went to FB Brad Roberts. All game, AFA sent multiple blockers to keep Tavai off Roberts, and the Aztecs’ defensive lineman responded with a great game.  

Tavai made the most of his extra year of eligibility. He built off a great 2021 and turned in one of the best seasons ever by an SDSU defensive lineman.

Linebackers: A+

Not to be outdone, Shawcroft added 12 tackles of his own. With SDSU geared up to stop Roberts inside, it opened up opportunities to pitch the ball outside. Shawcroft was the only Aztec who threatened that play consistently. Nine of his tackles were of the solo variety. A pair of those went for a loss, including SDSU’s only sack on the night.

The Hometown Hero came into the program in 2019. In the offseason, he spoke with pride about playing in Jack Murphy Stadium as a freshman. Even at that young age, he had the perspective to appreciate being a player on the field, knowing that the kids in the stands were looking up to him in the same way he idolized the Aztecs growing up.

Shawcroft has one year of eligibility. What he battles through to get ready to play is something only he understands. He participated in the Senior Night festivities because he is still deciding on his plan for next season. If he returns in 2023, the Aztecs have a chance to be very good on defense.

Cedarious Barfield brings down a ball carrier (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

Safeties: B

After SDSU was able to stop Roberts, Air Force began attacking the perimeter. Aside from Cedarious Barfield on one occasion, the safety group did not make stops on pitches behind the line of scrimmage. Barfield (six tackles) and White (five tackles) were solid throughout the night. Patrick McMorris only had four stops. Last season, he led the team with seven. The Aztecs could have used a similar performance from him on Saturday. CJ Baskerville’s physical presence was missed against Air Force. He played late in the contest but only had a handful of snaps.

Cornerbacks: C+

SDSU’s cornerbacks did not help in the run game too much. They were only credited with nine stops. On the pitch plays, defeating a few blocks could have limited that play for the Falcons. They earned an average grade because they gave up a key 14-yard grab that turned a second and fifteen into a third and one on the first play of the fourth quarter. If they had managed to stop that play, the Aztecs had a chance to seize momentum.

Jordan Byrd returns a punt against Air Force. (Don De Mars/EVT)

San Diego State Special Teams

Coaching: B-

The past few games, SDSU has been close to getting blocks on punts, but they have come up short in their attempts. Mixing in more returns to try and create a big play from Byrd should be more a part of the special teams’ regiment. 

All season the returners have caught punts inside of the ten-yard line, including one by Byrd on Saturday. The frequency in which the returners have received punts backed up deep suggests they are coached to do so. The gamble of having the offense take over at the 20 is worth the difference between starting at the five or at the one. 

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Kickers: C

Browning missed a 45-yard attempt on SDSU’s first drive. He hit from 26 later in the game. He only had two great punts on the evening. In a contest like Saturday night, burying the opposition deep in their own territory can be a game-changing play. Browning failed to flip the field as much as he is capable of doing. Browning’s kickoffs both went for touchbacks. 

His decision to return in 2023 sets the Aztecs up well for next year and beyond. It allows younger players to season more while providing SDSU with a very good specialist in 2023.  

Returners: B-

Byrd and Max Garrison each had good returns to set up the offense with good field position. Byrd had 61 kickoff yards on the night and is only 64 yards away from the 2,000 mark for his career. His opportunities to return kickoffs in the bowl game is a story worth following.

SDSU’s seniors pose together on Senior Night. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Next Game: B

SDSU’s 7-5 season is not the storybook start many hoped for with the opening of Snapdragon Stadium. There are many ways to view the end result. It is both a disappointment and an accomplishment. 

In 1982, SDSU also finished 7-5. From that year until 2010, when their current bowl streak began, they reached that total only five more times. They have been bowl eligible for 13 consecutive years, which is tied for the seventh-longest run in the nation.

Keeping that streak going is important. It is part of the legacy of this senior class. It may not be as ornate as Silberhorn Hord’s Christmas ornaments, but considering everything they had to go through to make it, for Aztec Nation, it should be just as beautiful. 

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