Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades vs Toledo

Photo Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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Michael Shawcroft attempts to tackle Dequan Finn. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Toledo is a good football team. They are led by Dequan Quinn, a dynamic QB. If he leaves for a more lucrative conference after the year, it will reveal another negative consequence of the one-transfer rule. The Power 5 could relegate the Group of 5 to be a minor league system for their teams. Leaving the bigger picture of college football aside, SDSU’s 17-14 victory yesterday was important. Not only does it make reaching the postseason much more likely, but it is a good measuring stick for how good this team can be.

Even with a passing game that continues to be one of, if not the worst, in America, the Aztecs defeated maybe the best team in the Mid-American Conference. The Mountain West is wide open and the Aztecs have as good a chance as anyone to win the championship.

San Diego State Offense

Coaching: D+

Before explaining this grade, a note on the method. These marks are for one week only. The offensive staff has clearly failed during the non-conference portion of the schedule, but their performance over the first three weeks only sets a baseline for the current grade. It also covers more than just one coach.

Seventeen points, while being gifted great starting field position throughout the day, was not a good performance. Multiple times the running back and quarterback turned opposite ways at the snap of the ball. Given the historic ineptness of the passing game, a “D+” is the highest grade possible. 

There were things to like about the coaching on Saturday. OL Dean Abdullah committed to SDSU two weeks prior to the start of fall camp. He is only a sophomore. Getting him ready to start yesterday was good coaching. The decision to stick with Braxton Burmeister when many would have pulled him for Kyle Crum paid off with a victory and a chance for positive momentum heading into conference play. The staff reduced the number of running backs used. 

The Aztecs were clearly comfortable in the two-minute drill and that can be traced back to the design of practice by the coaches. According to Hoke, unlike most teams, the Aztecs go live during the week practicing their two-minute offense. The starting offense and defense play against each other creating competition and pressure to win in those situations. 

“Number one, preparation,” head coach Brady Hoke explained on how an offense could look so bad throughout but find life at the very end. “You don’t execute on two minutes if you’re not prepared and you haven’t prepared during the week. That’s the first thing. Then confidence grows after you have a good run or a nice completion. We were a heck of a lot more confident at the end.”

Wide Receiver: A

Six receptions for 54 yards and no touchdowns are the final numbers for the receiving group. Box score scouting will evaluate them very differently, but the wideouts did their job well on Saturday. Multiple times they broke open or cleared out space for their teammates and were not rewarded. Here is an informative example. 

On first and ten at their own 41, SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski utilized a two RB, two TE, and 1 WR personnel package to dial up a play-action pass with seven blockers and only three receivers in the pattern. Hecklinski used motion to move one defender from the right side of the field. At the snap, Tyrell Shavers, who was split out wide right, went deep to clear an area for Mark Redman. Redman started on the left side and Hecklinski used his tight end’s elite speed to come across the field underneath Shavers.

The design worked perfectly. A clean pocket emerged after the play action. The LBs froze and did not get deep on their drops. Toledo safety Zachary Ford, who lined up in the box on the offense’s right side, paused and had to sprint to Burmeister’s left to get to his deep zone in the middle of the field. He turned his back to the place where the ball was designed to go.  A veteran QB should know within a few seconds that Redman was going to break wide open. Instead, Burmeister locked in on Shavers.  

While throwing to Redman was clearly the best decision, choosing to hit Shavers deep was not a bad choice. In fact, it is exactly the throw Burmeister refused to release against Utah. On more than one occasion a similar one-on-one opportunity presented itself last week but Burmeister did not let it fly. With the passing game struggling, throwing the ball there was actually a baby step in the right direction.  

Shavers stands 6’6 and was covered by 5’10 Chris McDonald deep on the right side of the field. Burmeister did not give Shavers a chance to use his height to make an attempt at a reception. He threw it where only McDonald could make a play on the ball. Another sign of the great design of the play is that one of the worst-case results, an interception, did not hurt the Aztecs. After the defense held Toledo, SDSU got the ball back at their own 48.  

“Are there things we need to do better,” Hoke asked. “No question. And we will do that. The big drive at the end when we needed it by the offense was nice to see. But we have to generate that earlier in one way or another. We have to continue to work on throwing the ball. That’s something that we will continue to do as we get ready for league play.”

A Toledo defender brings down SDSU TE Mark Redman. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Tight End: B

Despite not being targeted on the deep play described above, Redman led the team in receptions with four. Hecklinski clearly wanted to get his tight end involved in the passing game on Saturday. It is a welcomed sign for a position that has been underutilized the past few seasons. Aaron Greene continues to fill in well for Jay Rudolph, though, there were times he was slow to get into his passing routes. Getting Rudolph back soon would be a boon for the offense. It might happen as soon as Friday.  

“When you have (Rudolph) and Mark in there, you’ve got two really good pass catchers,” Hoke said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Jay is a physical guy. He loves to block. He brings that to you and hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to bring him back.”  

Braxton Burmeister drops back to pass against Toledo. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Quarterback: F

Burmeister earned a failing grade for his 13-24 65-yard 0 TD 1 INT performance. The transfer QB did not play good football Saturday. Receivers were open frequently but the ball was thrown elsewhere or off target. The negatives were clear, but there were also positives that allowed him to walk away from Snapdragon a winner.  

Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and any other player recognized as the greatest of all time have one quality that separates them from their hall of fame peers that fall short of “GOAT” status. In the clutch, they find a way to win. Sports are designed for dramatic finishes and the ability to close them is among the most important qualities an athlete can possess. Burmeister played his best football of the season when the Aztecs needed him most. He was clutch. 

Toledo’s Dequan Finn was clearly the better QB, but he threw three interceptions and lost. Burmeister took care of the football with the exception of the one pick described above. 

Saturday also showed that SDSU’s QB is most dangerous in the running game when the defense thinks he is passing. Burmeister had 44 yards rushing on the day. 46 of those came on three attempts on the game-winning drive. He had five carries for negative two yards before that. 

“Braxton started slow, but as the game went on he gained confidence,” Hoke said. “When he gets himself involved a little bit in the game, starts to scramble, and make some plays down the field, his confidence grows. As a head coach, you don’t want him getting hurt, but at the same time, he loves the contact.”

Running Back: A

Officially, 58% of the SDSU’s plays were runs, but given the RPO and the number of times Burmeister ran on clear passing calls, the offense tried to throw as much as they attempted to run. Achieving balance nearly lost the game. The ground attack produced 217 of SDSU’s 282 yards. With most of the upperclassmen brought into the program under Jeff Horton’s ground and pound, clock eating system, this team still looks more suited for that approach.

Jordan Byrd scored a pair of touchdowns and rushed for 115 yards. He had a very typical game for his career. He had 80 yards on two carries and 35 yards on the remaining 14. Credit the staff for giving him all of those touches. History has proven Byrd will hit a big run if given the ball. There is no telling when his dynamic plays will occur. They came early on Saturday, but they might occur on his final carries this upcoming Friday. Sticking with him is essential for an offense that is reliant on the big play to score points.

Jaylon Armstead and Kenan Christon each flashed in the contest as well. Armstead’s absence after the first quarter is a storyline to follow as the Aztecs have a short week to prepare for Boise State.

“I just kept the offense confident,” Byrd said postgame. “I’m always talking to them and getting the linemen right. We have young guys on the team, and I just kept talking to them, keeping them calm. Just don’t let it get to their heads. They opened up the hole for me and I ended up having some good runs.”

Offensive Line: B-

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s practice, Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli hobbled to the locker room with an apparent injury to his right knee. Even without their starting right guard, the offensive line was good on Saturday. The hope heading into the year was, as the unit gained experience, their play would improve. They appear to be on schedule.

Without the threat of a passing game, the line gave up one sack and opened holes for a running game that averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Their grade was lowered because of penalties including a pair of false starts by their veterans on the final drive. They also allowed seven tackles for loss.

Keshawn Banks makes a tackle against Toledo. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Defense

Coaching: A

The defensive game plan was outstanding. Toledo won the time of possession 31:47 to 28:13. It was a small margin that might hide the fact that the defense’s stamina was tested on Saturday. Toledo racked up 376 total yards on 74 plays. The Rockets spread SDSU out forcing the Aztecs to play sideline to sideline.

Finn’s athleticism was special. He used it to avoid tackles and extend plays. Against every other team this season, that combination resulted in huge plays for Toledo’s offense, but Finn’s longest pass Saturday was 36 yards and his longest run was 10. The design of the defense had a lot to do with that. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix had his players arriving in waves. Eleven hats to the football is the Aztecs calling card, but exploiting an over pursuit is where Finn is most dangerous. SDSU played disciplined football.  

They also did a great job of tripping up Toledo’s ball carriers. In space, a number of Aztecs made tackles by diving at the feet of their opposition. It was a very effective technique that clearly shows the mark of good coaching because it was done by defenders throughout the roster.

Cornerback: A-

Noah Tumblin started on Saturday opposite Dez Malone. Malone made the play of the game for the unit on Toledo’s opening drive. On 3rd and 15, Finn delivered a near-perfect pass to WR DeMeer Blankumsee deep down the field. After sprinting for more than thirty yards, Malone was on the right hip of the receiver and just as the pass arrived, leaped to the opposite side of Blankumsee’s body to knock the pass away. It occurred early in the contest but is easily one of the plays of the game.

The unit did not get credit for an interception but their play clearly contributed to them. Time and again, Finn’s first read was not there forcing Toledo’s offense to look more like a pick-up football game than a well choreographed division one attack.  

Cedarious Barfield makes an interception. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Safety: A

The biggest improvement on the defense through four games occurred at field warrior safety. The position was torched against Arizona. The staff replaced Cedarious Barfield in the starting unit with Davaughn Celestine and the play has improved culminating in Saturday’s performance. Celestine started, but Barfield also received his first significant snaps since the opener. Both recorded interceptions.

Kyron White started at aztec safety in place of an injured Patrick McMorris but a clear targeting penalty led to an early ejection. In his stead, Jaylen Mayden played the majority of the game. With the recent drama in the QB room, his decision to switch positions has gotten renewed scrutiny. He played the position well on Saturday and looked like a defensive back. He was credited with eight tackles. On Toledo’s first touchdown, Mayden got caught up on crossing routes, ran into a teammate, and allowed the score. It was a well designed play by an offense to make defenders run into each other. 

Linebacker: A+

On the defensive side, the biggest question coming from Saturday’s victory is who played better, the LBs or DLs? Even in assigning the highest grade to both, the linebackers earn the highest percentage because they were tasked with the hardest job. They responded. Michael Shawcroft was sensational yet again and is playing at a Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year level. When Finn remembers this game, he will remember 46 because Shawcroft was everywhere.

The rest of the room was terrific as well. Caden McDonald sealed the game with an interception. His brother Cooper recovered a fumble. Seyddrick Lakalaka led the team with two pass breakups.

Jonah Tavai takes on a pull guard on Saturday. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Defensive Line: A+

Garret Fountain has been a revelation for the Aztecs in 2022. Mattix asked Fountain to switch from LB to DL because he was looking for a way to have all of his playmakers on the field at the same time. It was a masterful decision. Fountain had a sack, numerous pressures, six total tackles, and added a second tackle for loss on the afternoon.

Jonah Tavai matched Fountain with a sack and a tackle for a loss. Tavai’s tackle for a loss was fantastic. On 1st and goal from the five, Toledo ran a shovel pass to their tight end. Cooper McDonald was on Tavai’s left with Caden McDonald outside of Cooper. At the snap, Cooper blitzed inside, and Caden came free, which is what Toledo wanted. Tavai was either on a zone blitz so he was not supposed to rush or he read the flow of the offense and stopped. He hovered at the line with the RG trying to engage him. As the pass was shoveled, Tavai took on the pulling LG, beat the double team, and arrived at the ball carrier a split second before Shawcroft cleaned up the play.

In an ideal world for Toledo, Tavai would have aggressively rushed so the RG could have pushed him away from the play. The pulling LG would have picked up Shawcroft with the TE squeezing between them for the score. Tavai thwarted the Rockets’ plans with his instincts and skill. It counts as a one-yard loss in the box score, but it was an outstanding play by a great college football player.

Jaylon Armstead, DJ Herman, and Jordan Byrd cover a kick on special teams. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Special Teams

Coaching: A

Hoke’s decision to attempt a 50-yard field goal when missing would have flipped the field position battle that SDSU won decisively on Saturday was important. Hoke called a timeout with 18 seconds left in the third quarter so Browning could kick with the wind. The coaches did a good job of preparing their players on how to deal with Toledo’s subpar kickers. The up men did not try to field the ball despite short kickoffs. On punts, SDSU’s blockers did well to get away from the football when the kicks were too short to be fielded.

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Kicker: A-

Jack Browning’s clutch field goal provided the margin of victory on Saturday. It not only made his head coach look like a genius, but it also picked up an offense that stalled all afternoon. Browning punted nine times, averaged 40.4 each kick, and dropped six inside the 20. He is clearly developing a reputation. Toledo caught punts inside their 10 because they believe SDSU’s coverage would make them pay if they did not. Browning has been so good this year, he was put on scholarship on Sunday.

Returners: C+

The returners did not have a bad day, but they also did not provide the game-changing contribution they are capable of. SDSU was close to exploiting Toledo’s poor kicking game but fell short on the afternoon. Brionne Penny’s kickoff return was exciting and nearly went the distance. With Byrd receiving so many carries as a running back, Jesse Matthews returned a punt and made a pair of defenders miss on his way to a 10-yard return. 

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