Saturday’s debacle joins a notorious list of fourth-quarter collapses Aztec Nation has endured over the years. 52-52, 31-31, UNLV, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Missouri, and Illegal Stemming. The list goes on and on. Fresno State in 2022 joins the ranks.
Younger fans have been initiated. Welcome to Aztec Nation.
SDSU not only fumbled their chances to bring the Old Oil Can Trophy home, but they also likely gave away a shot at a Mountain West Championship. For the first time all season, they appeared capable of being the best team in the conference until the costly mistakes that have plagued them all season reappeared.
The Aztecs have all the characteristics of a .500 football team. They show the potential to be really good but also continue to be their own worst enemy.
Like credit for any win, the blame for a defeat is shared by all. When looking for the main culprit on Saturday, however, player execution bears the most responsibility.
SDSU’s 30-game winning streak when leading after three quarters was snapped on Saturday. While the Aztecs do not blow out teams by the huge margins seen around college football, any suggestion that the staff does not have a good recipe for closing games is not grounded in fact.
Coaches are only able to put their players in positions to be successful, and in the critical moments of Saturday’s affair, the staff depended on their best players.
With all the ups and downs of the game, the contest came down to an onside kick. The staff designed their hands team with Tyrell Shavers and Jesse Matthews next to each other. They guessed correctly where Fresno State would kick the ball, but catching the ball was not executed.
The coaches were far from perfect, and some of their mishaps will be discussed later, but they put their best players in a position to win the game for them. Even if Matthews and Shavers did not make the play this time, the staff would be wise to duplicate their design should the situation arise again.
San Diego State Defense
Kurt Mattix was brilliant against Fresno State. He wisely started Cedarious Barfield at BW safety. All season, Patrick McMorris had covered the fourth receiver leaving CJ Baskerville to roam the middle of the field. On Saturday, Barfield played against receivers on the outside, and McMorris played inside. It put more speed and covering ability on the field while allowing McMorris to help against the run.
The defense also looked more like a 3-3-5 than in most of Mattix’ tenure. His fronts were uneven most of the night, and it paid off with seven sacks. As a position coach, Mattix’s linebackers played at a high level. Overall, the defense’s competitiveness and timely turnovers nearly made up for the rest of the team giving the Bulldogs way too many opportunities.
Lowering the grade a little was the substitution pattern. Late in the game, up 28-17, many of the reserves played significant snaps as Fresno State went on an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Shawcroft was not in for the first six plays. The backup defensive line played half the snaps. Finding a way to have your best players on the field in that situation would have been ideal.
Dez Malone has solidified himself as the top cornerback on the team. He played 60 out of 75 defensive snaps on Saturday. His physicality as a tackler stands out. If his speed and quick twitch athleticism are there, he has the look of an NFL corner. Opposite him, Noah Tumblin (16 snaps), Dallas Branch (35 snaps), and Noah Avinger (39 snaps) continue to split time. Demetrius Sumler’s search for the right mix of corners continues to pay off with Avinger getting an interception. Counting sacks, Fresno State attempted to pass over 50 times. SDSU’s cornerbacks only made seven solo tackles because most of the Bulldogs’ damage occurred elsewhere.
SDSU’s struggles against smaller, shiftier pass catchers showed up again. Barfield and Davaughn Celestine had eight solo tackles between them, but it was the plays they missed that will haunt them this Halloween. Celestine, a sure tackler all season, had trouble with his footing in the first half. On the Bulldogs’ game-winning touchdown, he missed the tackle that allowed the score. If he makes it, the game could have gone into overtime.
The play from this position highlights how special Tariq Thompson and Trenton Thompson were the past five years. This defense can only be great if it can shut down players in the slot. Barfield and Celestine were targeted 18 times. They allowed 14 receptions for 200 yards and three touchdowns per Pro Football Focus.
This group continues to be special. Michael Shawcroft’s injury likely cost him consideration for conference defensive player of the year, but he has played at that level all season. The hometown hero was sensational on Saturday. He led the team with ten tackles, had 2.5 tackles for loss, and brought Jake Haener down 1.5 times. Shawcroft plays at a different speed than most of the players on the field. During a drive in the fourth quarter, coach Mattix even had Shawcroft lined up as the lone deep safety on three plays. The McDonald brothers were productive all game. Zyrus Fiaseau’s ability as a pass rusher showed. His next step will be to finish plays.
Defensive Line: A
SDSU’s front was fantastic. Jonah Tavai led the group again. He had 2.5 sacks and was a menace all night, stunting and wreaking havoc throughout. Justus Tavai teamed with his brother for a sack. Garrett Fountain added one as well. As much as anything in the passing game, the line was responsible for stopping the Bulldogs on the ground. -3 yards was the final number for FSU on the night. They miss the highest grade because Keshawn Banks jumped offsides, which resulted in a 39-yard completion that Haener just threw up because he had a free play. It was the longest play on the night.
San Diego State Special Teams
There is a lot to like about the coaching on special teams and a lot to criticize, so an average grade seems fitting. Whatever benefit to the team’s culture that they get by having their punter embrace the program’s ethos, it is not worth the cost of injury. Jack Browning looking for contact on the fake punt, which predictably resulted in him gettin banged up, was encouraged by the staff’s public praise of Browning’s toughness. In the fourth quarter, SDSU had a 4th and one at FSU’s 29. Due to Browning’s injury, SDSU head coach Brady Hoke did not have the option of attempting a 46-yard field goal. The Aztecs were stopped short and gave the ball back to the Bulldogs.
Browning’s replacement, Jarrett Reeser, also had a kickoff out of bounds. Doug Deakin did not have his team ready for returning kickoffs. The Bulldogs had multiple free tacklers inside of the 20 on every kick.
The special teams positives include the fake punt that led to the only touchdown of the second half for the Aztecs. Barfield’s blocked field goal was designed and executed very well.
Reeser’s kickoff out of bounds took some of the momentum away from the Aztecs after they took a 28-10 lead. Aside from that error, they were terrific on the night. Three of four kickoffs went for touchbacks. Browning made a tackle on the one that was brought back. The kickers were only called upon to punt once. Browning hit it 55 yards, and it was not returned.
The return game had more opportunity, especially on kickoffs, than they had all year and did not make an impact on the game. Fresno State is very good at kickoff coverage. They are 35th in the nation, only allowing 17.9 a return. SDSU’s strength, though, was supposed to be their return game, and it did not materialize. Matthews’ muffed punt in the third quarter came at a time when the Aztecs were one drive from putting the game away. It gave FSU three points and kept them in the game.
San Diego State Offense
Jeff Horton’s offensive design was terrific, especially in the first half. One part of game planning is designing looks and then building off them in certain games later in the season. Since his elevation to OC, Horton has used Martin Blake as a FB. Horton showed the same looks with Martin on Saturday but built play-action passes off the formations that had been runs the previous weeks. Horton worked that same magic and built off the QB runs from his predecessor’s offense. Kenan Christon’s touchdown catch was set up by Braxton Burmeister’s rushing attempts earlier in the season.
Horton’s offense also obtained balance on Saturday. The official numbers show 25 passes vs 38 runs. Jack Browning’s attempt brings the difference down to 12. Add one sack and the three times Mayden ran after trying to pass the ball, and the final total would be 29 to 34. Given how great Mayden has been running the football, having five carries a game for him tilts the offense towards the running game in an appropriate way.
The trouble comes in how the game was called in the second half. With Mayden having so much success in the first two quarters, throwing more in the last two would have made sense. After intermission, the Aztecs threw only 10 times, compared to 21 rushes. SDSU was also down to their third back in the fourth quarter. Their personnel might not have been ready to implement such a run-heavy attack.
On the other hand, Mayden turned the ball over on 30% of his second-half passing attempts (none were converted into points), so perhaps that had something to do with it. As mentioned above, the starters on defense were also gassed, which likely contributed to the run-heavy approach.
Offensive Line: C-
The line went into a hostile environment and had fewer false start penalties than in previous weeks. They still had a few, and Josh Simmons lost his cool at the end of the first half, potentially costing the Aztecs three points. The line did not allow very many negative plays, but they also did not open gaping holes for the run game. Horton called a game like he expected the line to have worn down the Bulldogs. That did not materialize.
Tight Ends: C+
No tight end made a reception on Saturday. Mark Redman had a pair of challenging opportunities on the same drive in the second quarter. They would have been terrific receptions had he been able to bring them in. The Aztecs ended up scoring anyway, so it did not cost the offense. Redman did have a very heads-up fumble recovery. The tight ends did not open up many holes in the running game. As the NFL has discovered already, Daniel Bellinger’s blocking ability is such an asset to an offense. SDSU has not been able to replace it
Wide Receivers: B-
The wide receivers had their moments. Matthews showed off his elite body control on a leap and remarkable toe touch. He also scored a touchdown on a simple, well-designed play where Shavers curled at the goal line to create space for Matthews on an out. Shavers had four receptions. Mekhi Shaw was fantastic and served as a great complement to his teammates.
The unit combined for 13 receptions, 169 yards, and one score. They were particularly good at creating space on slant routes. The group also did a good job taking advantage of the soft spot along the sideline when FSU played zone. They made tough, athletic catches in the air to extend drives.
Running Backs: C+
Twenty-eight carries, and 83 yards rushing is a below-average night. Six receptions, 124 yards, and a touchdown is great production. 207 yards of total offense on 34 touches is a 6.1-yard average for every touch. The backs continue to prove their value and depth. Christon was fantastic catching the ball. Blake showed good hands on his reception. Chance Bell played well before his injury. Jaylon Armstead did not play at all on Saturday, and his presence was missed.
Last week, Mayden’s grade was a little higher than it should have been because he was making the second start of his career after converting from safety. This week, the opposite is the case. Mayden was the best player on the field, which makes Saturday’s loss sting so much.
Despite his gaudy total yards, Haener was not very good on Saturday. His timing was off, especially on throws outside the numbers. He will likely be better every game the rest of the way. Mayden had a huge first half and accounted for most of the Aztecs’ yards, but the second half was a different story.
For the first time, his inexperience showed. He threw a terrible interception on the Aztecs’ first drive of the second half. Later in the game, on 3rd and 15 from SDSU’s own 15, instead of calling a draw to the RB, Horton went against his conservative history and trusted Mayden to make a play. Instead, the QB fumbled on a sack by David Perales.
What made Mayden great in his first two starts was he did not commit any turnovers in addition to breathing life into the team. His three on Saturday night weighed down his otherwise exceptional game. He accounted for 334 of SDSU’s 449 yards and also three of SDSU’s five turnovers.
In three starts, Mayden has already shown he should be the QB next season for the Aztecs. To be great, though, he has to keep all of his great plays while limiting his mistakes.