Statistically, SJSU’s Chevan Cordeiro is the best QB in the Mountain West. He leads the conference in yards, touchdowns, and fewest interceptions per attempt. Like every other signal caller who has played across SDSU’s Jalen Mayden in his five starts, Cordeiro was the second-best QB on the field on Saturday. As news broke this week of Mayden’s return to the Mesa next season, two enduring questions remain.
Why was Mayden fourth on the depth chart in 2021? Why was he moved to safety to start the year?
The ultimate answer to this question is simple, the coaching staff missed. It is their task to recognize and develop the players under their charge. Certainly, Mayden had shown enough that some recognized his potential. Nonetheless, there are reasons that explain why Mayden did not stand out last year.
Mayden’s ability to scan the field and work through his progressions is a skill not typically seen at the college level. As good as he has been with his eyes and his footwork to set up throws to his third or fourth receivers, Mayden has looked his best buying time and running with the football. His explosiveness with the ball in his hands was not present during the 2021 Spring Game when he competed against Jordon Brookshire and Lucas Johnson for the starting job. Listed at 230, he appeared closer to 240. He still displayed the ability to escape pressure, but the suddenness he has now was not there. Trimming down to play safety has brought this part of his game to the forefront.
It was not by accident on Saturday that SDSU’s secondary was beaten deep consistently. It was the scouting report on Cordeiro. He does not possess the arm strength to force the defense to cover the Spartans 50 yards down the field. The Aztecs were coached to stay close to SJSU receivers. When they got beat deep as a result, they were instructed to run back into the play and get their hands up because any deep pass would be thrown short. Compared to all the QBs in camp in 2021, Mayden’s deep balls fluttered the most. The Aztecs have failed to attempt a Hail Mary at the end of the half in each of the past three games. Twice, the coaches chose not to throw one, and once, they put in Braxton Burmeister to try one. Playing safety cost Mayden arm strength, and a full offseason working at the position will improve it for next year. Unless he has another surprise to spring on the world of college football, his arm strength will be good enough to keep defenses honest, but it will not be elite.
Jalen Mayden is better at playing football than practicing it. Saying this is not to suggest Mayden trains poorly, but there is no way to duplicate on the practice fields behind Parking Structure 7 what he does under the lights at Snapdragon Stadium. Despite tremendous outside pressure, the NFL treasures the dress rehearsals before the regular season, and for good reason. The genius of some players only shows up with extensive time. Scrimmages cannot simulate it. Turnovers will always be a danger in Mayden’s game. In limited reps in practice, that danger looks like a liability. In the midst of the magic he performs on Saturdays, it is an acceptable side note.
San Diego State Special Teams
On Jordan Byrd’s momentum-swinging kickoff return for a touchdown, SDSU only had four starters playing special teams – Byrd, Jay Rudolph, Mark Redman, and Mekhi Shaw. The remaining seven, all reserves on offense or defense, performed admirably in setting up the score. Walk on safety #40 Kristien Reyes had two key blocks. Lining up on the right side, he stopped one Spartan to allow Byrd to get to the edge. After Byrd slowed to beat the punter, Reyes engaged and eventually pancaked the last player who had any shot of preventing the score. The coaching staff identifying their most competitive reserves and molding them into an effective unit is vital for the team.
Byrd is third on the school’s all-time kick-off return yardage list. He needs 152 yards to join Rashaad Penny and Collin Locket as the only Aztecs to reach 2,000 yards in a career. Byrd is eighth all-time in career punt return yards and needs 53 more to become the fifth player in program history to reach 500 career yards. On Saturday, Byrd passed Az Hakim for 11th place on the Aztecs’ all-purpose yard list. He is 168 yards shy of the 4,000 mark for his career. Only seven players have reached it. Byrd is an all-time great. Aztec Nation only has one more home game to appreciate him.
Jack Browning was not called upon to do much on Saturday. He punted as many times as he kicked field goals. A week after missing a pair of FG attempts, he was true on two this week. He averaged 38 yards on the two punts. Both were downed inside the 20. His eight kickoffs were high and deep, and the return team did not allow much on four returns. It was a very good night for the San Diegan.
San Diego State Defense
Postgame coach Hoke talked about how SJSU changed their tendencies from previous weeks, and it took a few series to properly adjust. That the Aztecs were able to accomplish that on the fly is good coaching. The linebackers rotated more liberally this week and still played well. Five cornerbacks continues to produce. Utilizing the similar skill sets of both warrior safeties was effective. The defensive line standing up instead of playing with a hand in the ground caused confusion for SJSU’s front. The Spartans were held to their lowest yardage total of the season. SJSU came into the contest averaging 389 yards per game in conference play. SDSU surrendered only 223.
Defensive Line: A-
SDSU’s game plan was to put pressure on the QB while dropping as many defenders as possible into coverage. It worked because the Aztecs’ line was able to stop the run and harass Cordeiro all night. Four of SDSU’s five sacks came from the group. Jonah Tavai’s stat line on the evening: three tackles, all sacks. Their grade drops because Keshawn Banks’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty led to an SJSU touchdown.
Cooper McDonald had his finest outing as an Aztec. He led the team with seven tackles. He added two tackles for loss, including one sack. McDonald was among the backups who were given more snaps this week. The middle of the defense was picked apart on some passing attempts, but that is what SJSU does well, and the issues did not show up until the game was out of reach. In the first half, SJSU had success on swing passes, Mattix did well to call on Caden McDonald to stop that after half time.
On SJSU’s second drive of the night, two safeties came untouched off the edge and whiffed on bringing down Cordeiro, who ran past them for a touchdown. After that play, SDSU scored 38 unanswered points, and this unit was a large part why. They gave up only a handful of receptions. When they did, they prevented a lot of yards after contact by tackling well all evening.
Dallas Branch continues to be a playmaker. He alternated every two series with Noah Avinger, who started for the second straight game. Dez Malone’s ascension to the top spot has solidified the defense and the corner rotation. Credit the coaching staff for recognizing enough cover skills to encourage the move from safety. Malone is still young; his future is very exciting.
San Diego State Offense
The Aztecs painted one of the hash marks on the six-yard line on SJSU’s sideline blue in honor of Camdan McWright. McWright, who wore #6 and played running back for the Spartans, lost his life in an automobile accident in October. He was 18 years old. SDSU honoring McWright was beautiful. Coach Hoke spoke postgame about SJSU head coach Brent Brennan’s graciousness in thanking the university for the gesture. It was a sober reminder that the Spartans and Aztecs played a game on Saturday, and there are many more important things in life.
Offensive Line: B
SDSU’s line played one of its best games of the season on Saturday, and the scoring output reflected it. Heading into the game, coach Hoke said SJSU’s defensive line was the best in the conference, and that appeared to motivate his players. Building off the final drive against UNLV, SDSU’s front held the Spartans’ defense to only a pair of sacks and six tackles for loss. The previous two weeks, SJSU had 30 tackles for loss and 17 sacks. SJSU was playing its best football heading in, and the Aztecs’ young line held up well. Thomas Mirabella started at right guard. He played a decent game, and the experience should serve him well next season when he potentially takes over at center for Alama Uluave.
Running Backs: C+
Rushing the football, the backs did not deserve an average grade. They rushed for 90 yards on 30 carries. Byrd also added 22 receiving yards. Where the backs impacted the game at a high level was in pass protection. Multiple times on Saturday, defenders came free, and the backs picked them up. Mayden was able to find receivers and create winning plays in the running game because of these blocks. As the staff is looking at who will be the starter heading into next year, the most complete running back will likely win the role.
Tight Ends: C
Rudolph and Redman each caught a pass on Saturday. Redman’s ability as a route runner, especially downfield, was utilized well as a decoy. The tight ends’ main job in this offense is to open up holes in the running game, and that did not materialize except on a few occasions. They were difference-makers on the last drive of the night against UNLV, and finding that level consistently is something to look for in the final three contests of the year.
Wide Receivers: A+
Walk-on Mehki Shaw has been a revelation this season. At some point soon, a scholarship should be extended to the Hometown Hero. His role continues to grow this season, and he will be in the running to add punt return duties next year. Shaw had five receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. Four of his catches went for first downs. Mayden is particularly adept at passes over the middle, and Shaw has developed into the prototypical slot receiver this offense has been looking for.
Matthews and Shavers got to show off for the home crowd. Each caught four passes. Shavers displayed the matchup nightmare quality he possesses. One mistake by the opposition, like SJSU cornerback Nehemiah Shelton jamming poorly at the line, can result in a game-changing play when Shavers is on the field. Matthews’ route running and elite hands were seen throughout because of the improvement in the QB play.
SDSU became bowl eligible for the 13th consecutive season. With each passing year, the memory of the preceding era dims. It is doubtful many students on campus could recall a postseason without the Aztecs participating. When Mayden took over at QB, the team was 2-3, and SDSU’s bowl destiny was in doubt. While it is possible the program would have reached six wins without Mayden leading the way, it is certainly fair to wonder if the streak would have continued without him.
Each week Mayden has been in control more than the previous one. He took what the defense gave him. If SJSU blitzed, he stepped up and ran the football. When the Spartans dropped into soft zones, he waited for crossing routes to open up and delivered the ball on target so his receivers could run after the catch. Press coverage resulted in big plays. Mayden was masterful.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton has done a great job incorporating elements of the team’s offense over the past few seasons with some of his preferred plays and personnel groups. Mayden, who thrived primarily in traditional, play-action passing situations in his first two games, has found success in every aspect of Horton’s game plan. Mayden even hit an RPO against the Spartans.
Among other examples, the growth in SDSU’s offense can be seen best on a pass in the second quarter. Up 17-14 on SJSU’s 45, the Aztecs faced a third and 16. Instead of running a draw, Horton designed a play with three players on the left of the formation. Shaw was flanked by Matthews outside and Redman inside. At the snap, Matthews ran an out to the first down marker. Redman went deep down the middle of the field. Shaw ran a 16-yard in-route into the area Redman vacated.
On the opposite side of the formation, Shavers ran a shallow five-yard crossing route. Mayden’s eyes and a subtle turn of his head like he was tracking the short route made Rahyme Johnson, a transfer linebacker from UCLA, think the ball was heading to Shavers. The move created a window behind Johnson that Mayden threw into. Shaw made a great grab and held onto the ball for a first down as two nearby defenders hit him. SDSU ended up scoring on that possession, extending its lead to ten.