Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades vs Nevada

Credit: Nevada Athletics

Credit: SDSU Athletics

The coaches missed. Jalen Mayden’s performance at quarterback the past two games made that clear. It also revealed that they got some things right. They recognized that he was their best option during the lead-up to the Hawaii game, and in naming him QB1, they put their error on public display.

Due likely to the competitive nature of their work, coaches, almost by rule, are an insecure bunch. It is not hard to imagine one with as much job security as Brady Hoke choosing to hide his staff’s mistake. Instead, he put the entire season in the hands of a player who, only a few weeks prior, helped them win a game as a safety and opened himself up to more criticism in the process. 

Hoke also deserves credit for the timing of the coaching changes. By switching coordinators when he did, he essentially gave Mayden, Jeff Horton, and Ryan Lindley an abbreviated fall camp together. Hawaii and Nevada were the team’s easiest remaining games. With the bye week in between, the offense got three weeks together before the meat of their schedule, which begins this week when they visit Fresno State.

San Diego State Offense

Coaching: C

There are a lot of ways to think about SDSU’s offensive performance in its 23-7 victory on Saturday. Seventeen of their points were due to a defensive touchdown, a short field off an interception, and Mayden’s unbelievable 32-yard touchdown run. Without those key moments, Nevada outscored the Aztecs 7-6. While every game hinges on a few important plays, the way SDSU won is difficult to duplicate.

On the other hand, SDSU outgained Nevada 317 yards to 227. The defense clearly benefits from the time of possession disparity the Aztecs offense now generates. They won this crucial area 34:17 to 25:43. Considering they only ran two more plays than the Wolf Pack, the intention and strategy of controlling the clock comes into focus.

The running back rotation continues to be suspect. Cam Davis has clearly earned playing time, and his inclusion in the ground attack is not the issue. When they inserted him is the problem. Needing a game-sealing drive, the Aztecs rushed nine times in the fourth quarter. Davis got seven of those, Martin Blake and Kenan Christon received one each. If Jordan Byrd and Chance Bell’s understudies deserve time, playing them earlier in the game so Bell and Byrd can close out contests is the better choice.

Penalties continue to plague the offense, especially on the offensive line. While it would be easy to continue to blame the inexperience of the group, mistakes are coming from veterans and less seasoned players alike. When an entire unit continues to make the same procedure penalties, Mike Goff and his team have to step up to correct the issues.

Quarterback: A-

Mayden’s grade objectively should have been a little lower, but subjectively, Saturday was his second career start, and it was another terrific performance. Nevada did him a huge favor as he looks to the future. They adjusted to his playing style.

In the third quarter, Nevada safety Bentlee Sanders correctly anticipated where Mayden was going with the ball. He was called for a questionable pass interference call because Sanders had the best chance of making a play on the ball. It was an invaluable learning experience because Mayden plays free and confident.  He needs to continue that even as defenses begin to adjust and game plan for him.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Mayden threw for over 100 yards in the first half, and that number was cut in half in the second. In fairness, a couple of penalties wiped out some positive plays. Mayden’s best throw of the night was a short dump-off that Bell dropped. It was a great play design and read, and Mayden executed it. His final line would also look different had Bell held onto the pass and picked up a large chunk of yards with a wide-open sideline in front of him.

Mayden’s 32-yard touchdown run was remarkable. His feet to step up into the pocket, vision to see three levels of defenders waiting for him, his feel to backpedal away from the rush, explosion to get to the edge, and speed and power to finish the run with a touchdown was next level. It was easily the best play of the Aztecs’ season and among the most stunning since Rashad Penny left the Mesa. Mayden had 50 yards rushing on the evening.

Running Back: C

Aside from the dropped pass, Bell looked shifty and powerful on Saturday. He led the team with 12 carries and 55 yards. His longest carry was 24 yards, where he broke a tackle and ripped off a big gain. This is the closest he has looked all year to the explosive player he was in fall camp. As the Aztecs enter the most important three games of their season, Bell looks to be rounding into form at the right time.

Bell averaged 4.6 yards an attempt. The rest of the unit only had 2.8 yards on their 20 carries. Byrd was his typical boom-or-bust self. He did not have the game-breaking play, but he also only had ten attempts. Getting the Aztecs’ most explosive skill position player more touches is always a good strategy.

Wide Receiver: D

The mantra surrounding the receiving corps is they only needed a chance to prove how special they are. When SDSU’s QBs have delivered the ball in the past, they responded with huge games. Saturday night, though, they did not meet their high expectations.

What allowed Mayden to throw for over 300 yards two weeks ago was the receivers making a number of difficult catches. That was missing on Saturday. Tyrell Shavers led the team with 36 receiving yards, but he dropped a terrific back-shoulder fade that he needs to make for this offense to improve. Jesse Matthews fumbled a ball after a reception that would have given the Aztecs a first down at the Nevada 44. It briefly opened the door for the Wolf Pack to get back in the game.

Braxton Burmeister looked good on his 19-yard reception. He showed great speed and caught the ball smoothly. As odd as it is having the backup QB run routes as a wide receiver, it is a sign of SDSU’s culture of competitiveness. The Aztecs want to win any way they can.

Offensive Line: D

Even with Mayden’s superman impression, SDSU’s offense could only muster 16 points. The offensive line was a big reason for that. They had seven penalties, including five false starts. Cade Bennett was the only lineman without blemish. Alama Uluave had a false start. Josh Simmons did too. Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli had a pair of false starts in his return from injury. Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson also had one, plus a holding and a facemask penalty called against him.

Many of the penalties were critical and killed drives.

In the first quarter, the Aztecs had the ball first and ten at the Nevada 26. A pair of false starts sandwiching a one-yard loss on a run set up second and 21 and led to an SDSU punt.

During the second quarter, SDSU had the ball second and goal from the four. A false start pushed them back to the nine. They settled for a field goal.

In the third frame, Mayden converted a third and ten with a 17-yard run, but it was negated by a facemask penalty.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Finally, in the fourth quarter, Mayden found Matthews for a nine-yard gain to give the Aztecs second and one from Nevada 41. It would have been the perfect place for a deep shot to seal the game. Instead, a holding penalty called it back, and SDSU punted three plays later. Youth does not excuse the fact that four of the seven infractions came from the two veterans.

Another interesting detail is Tommy Mirabella (RG), and Joey Wright (LT) started and competed in two series before Ulugalu-Maseuli and Crenshaw-Dickson entered the game.

San Diego State Special Teams

Coaching: B+

Kicker Abel Perez should go down as one of the most transformative players in the resurrection of the Aztecs under Brady Hoke and Rocky Long. He completely changed the expectation for SDSU kickers. For the decade prior to his arrival, many fans bemoaned the lack of kicking power, especially on kickoffs. They reasoned that there were thousands of soccer players at local high schools with bigger legs than what the Aztecs were using. When Perez arrived, who prepped at Castle Park High, they finally brought one of those soccer players into the program.  Every time another team struggles in the kicking game like Nevada did on Saturday, it is a reminder of how far SDSU has come.

Brady Hoke’s decision to kick field goals instead of going for touchdowns proved to be the correct decision. It will be interesting to see if the Aztecs can follow the same formula moving forward. SDSU was also close to blocking a punt all night, and with the exception of a running into the kicker, Doug Deakin’s special teams units played well.

Kicker: A

Jack Browning was sensational again. His three field goals gave the Aztecs a comfortable margin of victory. The deepest was from 30 yards out. He averaged 47.4 yards on five punts, and none of them were returned. Nevada was able to bring back three kickoffs. They only netted 54 yards on them with a long of 22. Browning and the coverage teams stopped the Wolf Pack short of the 25 on each return.   

Returners: C

SDSU did not need a huge night from Jordan Byrd in the return game because the defense provided the non-offensive touchdown the Aztecs needed. In the coming weeks, SDSU is going to need a big return, and Byrd is due to break one.

San Diego State Defense

Defensive Line: A+

Hoke challenged the defense during the week to find ways to get more tackles for losses. The d-line responded with their best performance of the season. Jonah Tavai had a pair of sacks. Keshawn Banks added 3.5 tackles for loss. Daniel Okpoko had .5 TFL. The play of the game from the group was Justus Tavai knocking down a pass at the line of scrimmage, leaping to snatch it out of the air, and holding onto the ball to the ground as former Aztec Joey Capra knocked Tavai’s legs out from under him.

Given the Aztecs’ struggles to stop the run, Nevada’s 21 rushing attempts compared to 41 passes was interesting. SDSU responded by allowing only 35 yards on the ground. The Wolf Pack’s final total on Saturday was actually a 337% increase over last year’s rushing total of eight yards in the contest in Carson. 

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Linebackers: A+

Heading into the year, there was a question of who the playmaker on defense would be. After missing a few games due to injury, the answer to that question is Michael Shawcroft. In his return, he led the Aztecs in total tackles (7) and solo tackles (6), had a pair of tackles for loss, including a sack, and changed the game by forcing a fumble on Nevada’s first possession.

While Shawcroft deserves a ton of praise for the forced fumble, the play was set up by a terrific effort by Zyrus Fiaseu. At the snap, the 6’0 230 LB took on 6’8 303 lbs right tackle Isaiah World. World, a redshirt freshman from Lincoln High in San Diego, had a free release and four-yard head start before hitting Fiaseu. Not only did SDSU’s LB absorb the blow, but he shed the block and, along with CB Dez Malone, forced the dance from Nevada’s running back that allowed Shawcroft to deliver the decisive blow.

Later in the game, Fiaseu had a bad penalty that extended a drive, but Shawcroft’s sack effectively ended it. Fiaseu also added a pair of QB hurries.

Safeties: A

Patrick McMorris’ fumble recovery is the type of play the Aztecs need from him. That he scooped it up and scored was above and beyond. The defense is designed for McMorris to flourish. He is around a lot of plays because of his instincts and motor. If the defense can create more turnover opportunities, McMorris is the perfect person to take advantage of them. McMorris was terrific in pass coverage breaking up a pair of passes.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Cedarious Barfield and Davaughn Celestine had their quietest effort of the year, which is positive for the position they play. Max Garrison and Eric Butler each had special teams stops. Butler’s was a highlight hit setup when the returner had to slow down to avoid getting brought down by Garrison. The explosiveness of the two freshmen stood out again.  

Cornerbacks: A-

Any time a team throws 41 times and still has under 200 yards passing, it is a great day for the cornerbacks. The Wolf Pack scored on their final drive of the first half. They were aided by a suspect pass interference call against Noah Tumblin on a fourth and three that extended the drive.

Given the number of attempts and receptions, the cornerbacks’ moderate number of 14 tackles is not a surprise. They were solid and limited the Wolf Pack to minimal yards after the catch.

Coaching: A+

Kurt Mattix did a good job using Fiaseu and Seyddrick Lakalaka more in the middle than in games past. Caden McDonald started and played well on the outside. Fiaseu and Lakalaka held up at the point of attack well, and there were fewer gaps. McDonald was freed to play more of an attacking style and was all over the place, even if the stat line did not reflect it.

The cornerback rotation has captured the right balance, and all four top corners are playing well. Figuring out the FW safety has been key for the team. The defensive line responded to the coaches over the bye.

The Aztecs’ defense only gave up seven points. In SDSU’s four wins, they have allowed 10.5 points per game. With the offense struggling to score, the defense will have to be stout to win the conference.

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