Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades vs UNLV

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

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SDSU enters the field on Saturday against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Starting right tackle Josh Simmons typifies the main takeaway from Saturday’s narrow 14-10 victory over UNLV. Coming into the contest, he was thought of as the weakest link on an offensive line that continues to hold more potential than production. Simmons did not allow the lack of production or noise inside and outside the locker room to impact his work ethic. He kept working and the fruits of his labor became public on Saturday night.

With 5:41 left in the game and the ball at its own six, only a week after failing in a similar situation, SDSU bet on Simmons to lead the way to a victory. The hometown hero, who rejected offers from Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan, and USC to play in front of his family and America’s finest city, delivered.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton flanked two tight ends outside of Simmons and ran counters designed to succeed if Simmons could defeat the Rebels’ best defensive player, Adam Plant. Up to that point, there was little in the game to suggest Simmons would be up to the task. Plant finished the game with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, and two sacks. Simmons’ effort behind the scenes gave Horton confidence that he would lead Jaylon Armstead and the Aztecs on a game-winning drive.

“That’s exactly what (Simmons) is doing, he’s growing up,” head coach Brady Hoke said postgame. “That’s one of the hardest, maybe the hardest positions to grow up at. … the one thing about Josh is he continues to improve.”

SDSU’s defense swarmed all evening. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Defense

Coaching: A+

This offseason, SDSU coaches reviewed their 2021 season and identified red zone defense as one of the focal points where the team needed to improve. In 2021, SDSU gave up points on 43 of 49 (88%) red zone attempts. 65% of the scores were touchdowns. They went to work all offseason aiming at being better when it mattered most. The emphasis has paid dividends. This season the Aztecs have given up points in 19 of 30 red zone tries (63%), and only 53% have ended in the end zone.

SDSU allowed UNLV into the red zone three times on Saturday night and only allowed three points. Like Simmons discussed above, it was the most public display of the work Kurt Mattix and his defense have put in when no one was watching. If the Rebels had simply kicked field goals on these attempts, SDSU would have needed more from its offense to win.

“Last year, we didn’t have very good red zone defense,” SDSU Linebacker Caden McDonald explained. “In the offseason and spring football, we focused on that. When they are in the red zone, we want to hold them to a field goal or zero points. To reap the rewards and to see what you have worked on actually come to fruition it’s a big thing for us. Our hard work paying off gets the defense pumped up. I know it gets the offense juiced up too.”

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Defensive Line: B

During the team’s bye, Hoke, Mattix, and the veteran players on the team identified run defense as an area where the Aztecs needed to improve. In the first two games after the bye, SDSU’s opposition did not tested the Aztecs to see if they had actually fixed the deficiency. UNLV presented the first test, and the results were mixed. Rebels’ running back Aiden Robbins rushed for 115 yards on 21 carries (5.5 yards per carry.)

In the first half, SDSU’s front dominated, and UNLV only managed 79 total yards. Only one drive, its first, had more than five plays. The Rebels’ adjustment and winning more one-on-one battles changed the tide after halftime. UNLV racked up 240 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown pass when UNLV QB Doug Brumfield had a lot of time to throw.

Still, in the critical moments, the line stepped up. Following Jack Browning’s dropped punt, the Rebels took over at SDSU’s 14-yard line. On first down, Robbins was met by a trio of Aztecs at the line for no gain. A much better-designed run on second down where Robbins had space off the right tackle was closed by a sensational play by Justus Tavai. Tavai came down the line from the nose tackle position with a blocker between him and the running back. He exploded at the point of attack and effectively tackled the offensive linemen and Robbins setting up a third and ten.

Linebackers: A+

Postgame, McDonald said he was willing to move from MIKE to SAM linebacker because winning is his top priority. On UNLV’s second drive, McDonald showed why Mattix covets him at that position. On first and ten, UNLV ran a read option. McDonald came in unblocked and made sure Brumfield handed off to Robbins. Once the ball was given, he had the speed to drop the running back for a three-yard gain. Two plays later, on third down, McDonald came off the edge and brought down Brumfield for the sack.

Moving McDonald was one of the ways Mattix has made the defense less predictable since the bye week. The linebackers have thrived in the chaos. McDonald’s brother, Cooper, played well on Saturday with seven stops. His best was a solo tackle on a running play where he got small and hid from the lead blocker before exploding into the running back. Seyddrick Lakalaka had a tackle for loss among his three stops.

Michael Shawcroft was Michael Shawcroft. He had the pregame honor of wielding the Aztec shield and leading the team onto the field. He was the only player on either team with double-digit tackles. 1.5 of those came behind UNLV’s line of scrimmage.  

Safeties: A+

Cedarious Barfield’s move back into the starting lineup following an injury to CJ Baskerville came at a good time for the Aztecs. UNLV used a lot of the spread formations with multiple fast wideouts. Barfield’s skill set is similar to fellow safety Davaughn Celestine, and together they help to disguise the defense. On Saturday, they did not play a true boundary and field warrior safety all night. It was closer to Rocky Long’s defense, where Barfield played on the defense’s right side, and Celestine played on the left regardless of which hash mark UNLV had the ball on. Barfield was active and physical all evening. He had six stops and forced a fumble.

Barfield’s inclusion in the starting lineup allows Patrick McMorris to play in the middle when teams spread the field. For the second week, the tactic unleashed arguably SDSU’s most talented defender. He had eight tackles on the night and nearly had a forced fumble for the ages in the fourth quarter.

Dallas Branch records a sack against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Cornerbacks: A-

70 of Blumfield’s 207 passing yards came on one play when Noah Avinger inexplicably let the only player on the defense’s left side of the field behind him. Avinger started and rotated every two series with Dallas Branch. To that point, he was playing very well. His pass breakup to end UNLV’s first drive was terrific. Rebels WR Kyle Williams ran a seven-yard curl to the first down sticks. Avinger did well to work his way back to Williams. As the ball was delivered, Avinger wrapped his arms around the receiver preventing Williams from making the catch, forcing a punt.

Even with the one bad play, the corners played well enough to earn a top grade. Branch played the rest of the game after Avinger’s mistake. He was sensational. Four tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack from a corner is terrific production. His best play was an interception in the end zone.

UNLV’s coaches got exactly what they wanted in their play design. Branch covered a receiver near the goal line, and the Rebels sent another target from across the field to the back of the end zone. It would have been a score except Branch played outside of the scheme, came off his man, and made a play. Branch has been a playmaker his entire college career, first at Long Beach City College and now with the Aztecs.

With the San Francisco 49ers on a bye week, Tayler Hawkins was on hand for the game. Fittingly, UNLV treated CB Dez Malone like most teams treated Hawkins last season. Most downs, Brumfield did not even look Malone’s way, especially in the first half. In the second, the Rebels targeted Malone more. They should have stayed with their approach at the beginning. Malone brought UNLV’s opening drive of the second half to a stop with an interception in the end zone.

Tyrell Shavers with another Aztecs’ first down. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Offense

Coaching: C

With three games left in the season, grading SDSU’s offense is more a task of evaluating what they are rather than what they should be. SDSU’s formula to victory is known. Only once all season against FBS opponents has the offense scored more than 20 points in a game. To win, the defense must be terrific, and the offense has to do just enough.

Here is an example of what good offense  looks like this for this team.

On UNLV’s first possession of the game, the Rebels punted from SDSU’s 38 and downed the ball at the two. Three plays and nine yards later, SDSU punted from the 11. A 54-yard net kick by Jack Browning and UNLV took over at their own 35. The Aztecs gained 27 yards in the exchange.

After a three and out, SDSU got the ball on their own 30. Following a six-play drive and a punt, the field was completely flipped. UNLV took over on its own one.

That is winning football for the Aztecs.

On the other hand, SDSU had seven possessions inside UNLV territory and only managed 14 points. A pair of missed field goals and a turnover reduced that number. The Aztecs have to manufacture more scores.

Horton’s running back rotation continues to be interesting, but landing on Armstead to close the game worked better than backs who have been in similar situations in previous weeks. His playcalling kept the Rebels’ defense off balance. The Aztecs had the ball for eight minutes more than UNLV on Saturday.

Offensive Line: First Half: F Second Half: B-

The first half was challenging for the line. SDSU dropped back to pass 19 times, and the protection broke down on 11 of those. At halftime, center Alama Uluave ripped into his teammates, and they responded. The pressure on Mayden subsided greatly, and the line had one of its best drives of the year to end the game.

“They have to build some confidence (from the last drive),” Hoke said. “Believe me, they’ve taken a lot of heat in a lot of different places in those locker rooms and in those meeting rooms. Hopefully, they do feel better.”

Wide Receivers: B-

Jesse Matthews has 14 touchdowns in his career. Only one of them has come in the city of San Diego. Last night’s masterful 28-yard catch and run was the star receiver’s first in America’s Finest City. It is another reminder of how odd the last few seasons playing in Carson has been for the team. Postgame, Matthews said scoring on homecoming made the moment ever more special. Given what transpired a week ago in Fresno, the team’s win confirmed a message Matthews has been meditating on.

“We had chapel before the game,” Matthews explained. “There’s a verse they shared that’s pretty applicable for our situation. It’s James 1:2-4, Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

“I think that’s a very powerful verse that I’ve been looking at, and I used it as motivation. Just to stay patient. Last week was obviously a heartbreaker. You have to learn from those experiences. Just see the good in the bad times. See those obstacles as building blocks, not something that’s going to get in your way and stop you from persevering. I wanted to share that. I thought it was very relevant to our team, and I’m proud of how we came out tonight.”

Tight Ends: A

Mark Redman provided a terrific target on Saturday. His second-half touchdown provided the scoring margin. It was a well-designed play. Redman blocked while Mayden faked a pair of handoffs, and all of SDSU’s movement took UNLV to the right side of the field. After a few moments, Redman released and was all alone for the score. On the night, Redman had three receptions for 39 yards. More importantly, he and Jay Rudolph provided terrific blocking on the game-sealing drive.

Running Backs: D

Prior to the final drive, SDSU had 41 rushing yards on 31 carries. Their final 10 carries of the night netted them 70. While Armstead’s 14 carries and 72-yard performance is encouraging, the overall game from the running backs was discouraging. Among Mayden’s best qualities as a passer is his patience in letting the play develop. It takes time to work through progressions, especially as teams have started sitting their cornerbacks to take away the quick pass. SDSU has been able to create the needed time primarily off the play-action pass. Without a strong game from its backs, there were fewer of the clean pockets needed for Mayden to work his magic.

Jalen Mayden attempts a pass against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Quarterbacks: B-

Jalen Mayden has played four games and amassed over 200 yards of total offense in each. Mayden faced something new on Saturday. UNLV did not sell out to stop the run as much as the three previous opponents and still managed to bring the Aztecs’ ground game to a halt. Without a consistent run game, UNLV was able to pin their ears back and attack the QB. They applied pressure all night and brought Mayden down six times. Where Mayden has excelled is delivering passes under duress. Late in the game, the punishment he took impacted his accuracy, but he was clearly the Aztecs’ best offensive player again on Saturday.

SDSU’s signal caller showed his growth most on consecutive plays in the first quarter. On first and ten, Mayden had a receiver with two steps on a defender on a deep crossing route. He was about to release the pig skin but, at the last moment, saw a safety who would have had an easy interception. Mayden took a two-yard sack instead of giving the ball to the Rebels. The next play, he had two defenders applying pressure on his right. He sidestepped one and delivered a laser to Matthews as the second hit him, resulting in a 24-yard completion.

Even his turnover this week was not a bad play in the course of the game. Following a holding penalty that took away a touchdown run, Horton took a shot. He designed a play with mass protection and only two players in the pattern. Despite having eight blockers, three UNLV players applied pressure. Mayden threw to the wrong receiver, but in the game of field position, the deep pass gave the Rebels the ball on the 20. After a three-and-out, SDSU got the ball back on its own 35 and scored the only touchdown of the first half.

Noah Tumblin (10), Cedarious Barfield (3), and Max Garrison (22) line up in punt coverage. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

San Diego State Special Teams

Coaching: C

With five and a half minutes left in the first half, Hoke called for a 50-yard field goal attempt. Postgame, he admitted that probably was not the best decision. What the miss did was change the field position game the Aztecs had dominated to that point. It was a curious decision, especially in light of how horrible UNLV handled being backed up in its own territory earlier in the game.

Noah Tumblin had trouble blocking UNLV’s Davone Walden on punt returns. The staff should have found a way to give Tumblin some help to give Jordan Byrd a chance at a return.

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Kickers: D

Browning did not have a banner night but showed a lot of character on Saturday. Rebounding from an injury, he had a terrific punting night. He averaged 50 yards on six punts. He landed half of those inside the 20. His grade dips a lot because of the dropped snap that gave UNLV the ball on the Aztecs’ 14 in the fourth quarter. He rebounded from that error. Six plays later, he kicked a 44 yard punt that pinned UNLV at their own 14.

Jarrett Reeser handled kickoff duties. He was not as good as Browning, but it made for a more exciting game because UNLV had a chance to return the kick. The Aztecs’ kick coverage was good. They only gave up 19 yards on each return.

Returners: D-

A week after SDSU struggled in the return game, it was more of the same on Saturday. The best return on the night was by tight end Aaron Greene. He returned a squib kick for 11 yards. It was a good play that set the Aztecs up with good field position and kept the returners from the lowest grade.

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