Rocky Long is not the inventor of the 3-3-5, but its place in college football would not exist without him. Coaches across the nation, no matter the scheme, have implemented elements of Long’s handiwork to combat spread offenses and the rules changes designed to increase scoring.
SDSU and New Mexico’s Friday soiree provided an interesting opportunity to see the strengths and weaknesses of the defense that Aztec Nation has come to know and love. It also revealed some differences between how Long and his indirect disciple, Kurt Mattix, employ it.
Every defense has tensions or parts of the defense’s design where in order to strengthen one area, it opens opportunities for the offense in another aspect. In the 3-3-5, one inflection point is the warrior safeties (WS). Friday revealed the positives and negatives of the position.
Despite their aesthetic difference, the spread and triple-option share a common goal. They put pressure on defenders to make stops without much help from their teammates. The spread challenges defenses east and west, forcing these tackles in space. While the triple-option attacks north and south and makes the opposition bring down ball carriers inside.
On the Lobos’ second offensive possession, they faked a give to the fullback. Most of SDSU’s defense collapsed, leaving WS Cedarious Barfield alone just outside the tackle box facing New Mexico QB C.J. Montes with the option to pitch the ball to RB Christian Washington. The next closest unblocked defender was Patrick McMorris, 13 yards away.
If SDSU played a 4-3 or 3-4, UNM would have been optioning a bigger, slower player, likely getting the ball outside to Washington and forcing McMorris to chase him down the sideline. The 4-2-5 would have employed a traditional nickel corner, who likely would not have attacked the line of scrimmage like Barfield did, which would have sucked McMorris to the QB and allowed the pitch to get behind him. Having another safety on the field showed the strength of the 3-3-5.
Barfield had the tackling ability to step toward the ball carrier and the athleticism to surf between Montes and Washington. He made a terrific play. It went down in the box score as a four- yard gain and an assisted tackle, but it was much better than that.
On the other side, SDSU exploited the tradeoff of having an extra safety in the game for a pair of scores. Both of WR Mekhi Shaw’s receiving touchdowns came off terrific double moves that athletes more skilled in coverage might have done better to defend. On the first, Shaw lined up in the slot and faked like he was headed toward the sideline before heading back toward the middle. S Jer’Marius Lewis bit hard on Shaw’s deception, leaving SDSU’s receiver alone for a 51-yard score. The second, just before halftime, saw Shaw lined up bunched on Jalen Mayden’s left. On 3rd and 14 as his teammates spread out, Shaw faked a curl at the first down marker that completely fooled Lobo S Christian Ellis. Mayden deftly threw a pass into the window his wideout’s route created and Shaw carried Ellis into the end zone for a touchdown.
These plays highlighted the peculiarities of the defensive schemes, but they also showed the difference experience makes. Barfield is a senior and an outstanding player. Lewis and Ellis are freshmen. If they grow to become defensive backs near Barfield’s quality, the Lobos should be able to maximize the 3-3-5’s benefits in the coming years.
San Diego State Offense
Whatever New Mexico’s reputation is as a program, it came into the game in the top 60 nationally in many defensive categories. They were 31st in total defense (343.9 yards per game), 53rd in rushing defense (135.1), 37th in passing yards allowed (208.8), 58th in scoring defense (25.1), 21st in third down percentage (31.5%), and 26th in first downs allowed (158). The Lobos compare well to some of the units Long led at SDSU at the beginning of his tenure with the Aztecs.
What Jeff Horton’s offense did against UNM should not be overlooked. SDSU completely controlled the game more than any other contest this season, including the Aztecs’ game against FCS Idaho State. Mayden led nine drives on Friday. Six resulted in scores, and two ended deep inside Lobos territory. The lone punt came on the second possession of the contest.
When they failed to produce, it was their own mistakes more than anything the Lobos did that stopped their drives. The story of UNM’s defense this year is they played well against average to poor offenses and struggled against better attacks. The Aztecs averaged 7.2 yards a play, which was the second-highest New Mexico had surrendered all year (7.9 vs. LSU). SDSU clearly belongs among the better offenses the Lobos have faced this season. That is a remarkable turnaround.
Jalen Mayden has set the bar so high that he fails to earn the highest grade because of an inconsequential interception he threw at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The dictionary is running out of superlatives to describe his play. In his six games, he has completed 65% of his passing attempts, averaged 290 of SDSU’s 397 yards a game, and scored 13 touchdowns.
His play makes for an interesting conversation about all-conference honors. He has arguably been the best quarterback in the Mountain West during the conference season.
Tight Ends: A-
Numerous Aztecs, who are not part of the normal rotation, saw time Friday. Many of those snaps came when the game was out of reach. Tight end Cameron Harpole was not one of them. He competed as the team’s third TE and was instrumental in the play that put the Lobos away.
In the second quarter, SDSU turned the ball over on downs after failing to convert a fourth and one. UNM held the Aztecs because SDSU was one blocker short at the point of attack, and RB Jaylon Armstead was a step too slow to get the ball to edge. Two possession later, SDSU’s faced a similar situation, this time with the ball at UNM’s 49.
In a brilliant counter, Horton inserted Harpole and RB Kenan Christon into the game. Harpole lined up left of the formation. Mayden motioned him to the right. Harpole was even with RG Tommy Mirabella at the snap and used his speed to help TE Jay Rudolph seal the edge. RB Martin Blake made the final block, and Christon outraced the rest for a 49-yard score.
Blocking will always be the calling card of SDSU tight ends. It is the reason so many former Aztec TEs hang around in the NFL. On Friday, the group had a good day receiving as well. Mark Redman had five receptions for 66 yards. Three went for first downs. His long was a 28-yard reception that showed how special he can be.
It was a simple play-action, 15-yard out route. UNM safety Josh Williamson recognized the play-action early and only took one step toward the line of scrimmage, but because of Redman’s ability, there was plenty of room for Mayden to throw. Few players his size could have gotten as deep as fast as Redman did.
Running Backs: B
Christon had his best game as an Aztec. With the graduation of Jordan Byrd, he will inherit the mantle of the most explosive back on the team. Christon’s 49-yard touchdown run was certainly his most productive, but he had multiple better attempts on the evening. He played strong and was decisive with his cuts. Multiple backs could have duplicated his touchdown run. His 17-yard burst on his next carry was special.
SDSU had the ball first and ten at their own 13. Horton dialed up a beautifully executed counter. Mayden lined up under center with Blake and Christon behind him, and Redman lined up on the line of scrimmage to his left. At the snap, Redman steered the DE inside, Blake picked up an LB in the hole and pushed him left, and Mirabella, showing why he could be a terrific player, had the wherewithal to find and effectively seal another defender as he pulled down the line. It left a seam for Christon to run through.
Every running play has two unblocked defenders. Closest to the line of scrimmage on this one was UNM’s best defender, S Jerrick Reed II. Christon beat the tackle by exploding past Reed. It was well-blocked but was a big play because of Christon’s efforts.
Wide Receivers: A+
When SDSU’s passing game turned things around last year, it was led by Jesse Matthews’ remarkable efforts. What made Friday’s game against a top-40 pass-defense special was Matthews only had 13 yards. UNM keyed on the Christian High alum. In the play to Redman described above, the Hometown Hero was double-teamed, and Redman broke underneath the area Matthews had just vacated. Mayden’s ability to spread the ball around makes the offense very dangerous because if the defense focuses on taking one player away, it opens up others.
Sixty-three of Mayden’s 290 yards came on a dump-off to Tyrell Shavers. Shavers shook multiple defenders and picked up more than 55 yards after the catch. Mekhi Shaw became the 90th player in SDSU history to have a 100-yard receiving game. Josh Nicholson had a skilled 18-yard reception. Nicholson’s teammates and the staff are very high on him.
Offensive Line: B
New Mexico’s defensive performance this season is impressive, considering they have done it without generating a lot of pressure. They rank 108th in the country averaging 4.7 TFLs per contest. SDSU’s offensive line gave up six. The run blocking was adequate. There is no featured running back on this team. They shine when holes are opened but have trouble making plays when the line does not block well.
SDSU’s line shined in pass protection. Mayden’s skill as a passer and reading multiple progressions from the pocket gives his line predictability when they block. If they are good at protecting a ten-foot radius directly behind the center, Mayden will deliver and not run himself into a sack too often.
As mentioned above, Mirabella showed his potential. Christon’s TD run occurred behind Josh Simmons. Two weeks ago, the line did not look like it had made serious progress this season. The end of the UNLV game and the last two contests, they look like they are coming together.
San Diego State Defense
UNM’s downfall in 2022 has been its offense. Mattix did well to stay out of New Mexico’s way and let them perform as they had all year. In the second half, the Lobos’ only first down came from a Noah Avinger facemask. UNM built off that play with a delay of game and an intentional grounding penalty on consecutive plays following Avinger’s penalty.
Among the positives from the contest is the defense had trouble making tackles in the first half. That is the name of the game against option teams. They face a much better offense coming up in Air Force, and having a real-life example of what poor tackling can mean against this style of play should help solidify their defense heading into next week.
UNM’s offense is designed to put pressure on a defense’s weakest tacklers and force them to make stops. The Lobos succeeded in their designs, but the Aztecs’ secondary was up to the task. SDSU’s top four tacklers and six of its top eight were from their last line of defense. McMorris and Barfield led the team with nine and eight stops, respectively.
Dallas Branch continued showing his play-making ability. His interception Friday was the third game in a row that he recorded one. If he records a pick against AFA, he will tie a school record. Dez Malone’s physicality was evident on Friday. The converted safety provides good tackling from the cornerback position. Noah Avinger started and had five stops on the night. It was a workman-like performance for the group. They had no lapses in coverage that led to big plays.
Statistically, this was the worst performance of the year for the linebackers. There is not much worth mentioning, except Cooper McDonald recorded one of the team’s two sacks on the night. McDonald was also called for a roughing the passer penalty that extended the only drive for the Lobos that ended with a touchdown. Such is life against an option team. Players must be disciplined even if their assignment does not get the ball. Next week, they figure to be far busier against Air Force.
Defensive Line: B-
Justus Tavai had a terrific evening with 2.5 TFLs, including a sack. He and his brother, Jonah, combined for nine stops on the night. Keshawn Banks added 1.5 TFLs. While Mayden deserves credit for the team’s turnaround, the defense’s improvement should not be overlooked. Over the last five games, the Aztecs have 20 sacks and 41 TFLs. The line’s production over that period has been a big part of that.
San Diego State Special Teams
Special Teams played well. Players throughout the roster competed in the third phase. None looked out of place. At the beginning of the season, Ryan Wintermeyer took over as the snapper and David Delgado as the holder on field goals. Both have done their job without hiccup. These details show the fingerprints of Doug Deakin’s work.
TE JP Murphy made the best return on the night. His 14-yard scamper was not the most yards, but it was the most important, as a turnover there would have potentially opened the door for New Mexico. Byrd had a negligible impact on the game as a returner a week after grabbing the momentum for the team with a touchdown return.
Jack Browning was terrific in light duty on Friday. He hit a pair of field goals and punted twice. One punt was downed inside the 20, and the other went 63 yards for a touchback. The coverage units for the Aztecs allowed a 38-yard return to SD native Christian Washington.
Friday’s contest was among the coldest games ever held at University Stadium. With the game out of hand, the sparse crowd emptied leaving only the friends and families of the players.
“It has the vibe of a high school football game played in a ginormous stadium,” EVT photographer P.J. Panebianco said. Panebianco drove to Albuquerque to provide the photos for EVT’s coverage of the game. “The donors are still here because they’re in nice warm boxes in the south end zone and then the big press box but the only people left in the stands are parents.”
At the end of the television broadcast, the crowd could be heard counting down to the end of the game clock. They were celebrating the Aztecs’ fifth win in six games.