What Lucas Johnson did on Saturday was sensational. After losing out on the starting role, the hometown hero could have packed it in mentally but instead stepped into the limelight for his second career start. His 54 yard run set up a score, but what set his game apart was stepping up in overtime. He threw four passes in the second half, zero in the fourth quarter, but led the touchdown drive in OT with three consecutive passes, including a touchdown to Jay Rudolph.
Running Back: C+
On a night when Greg Bell carried the ball 33 times, the grade is probably too low, but Bell is the unquestioned star on the team and for the second time in three games, he lost a fumble. The turnover did not end up costing the team that series as the defense kept Utah out of the end zone, but it cost the Aztecs field position and was the beginning of the momentum swing that allowed Utah back in the game. That said, Bell carried the Aztecs offensively to a win over one of the favorites in the Pac 12.
Tight End: A-
Jay Rudolph picked a great time for his first career reception. The sophomore hauled in a two-yard catch in overtime for a touchdown. Rudolph was not the only tight end to produce in bonus time. On the first OT series, Lucas Johnson only targeted tight ends. Daniel Bellinger made a great play to open OT, taking a ball away from a defender for a first down. Bellinger was interfered with in the end zone on the next play to set up Rudolph’s heroics.
Wide Receiver: C-
It is difficult to grade a unit that was not asked to do much for half the game. Nonetheless, the group has yet to be a consistent threat in the offense. They produce as blockers, on special teams, and through effort, but for the Aztecs to reach the heights everyone hopes after a 3-0 start, they will need this group to be much better than a combined five receptions for 29 yards.
Offensive Line: A-
Utah dared offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski to pass the ball by stacking the box with extra defenders. SDSU’s play-caller instead called on his offensive line to carry the day. The Aztecs once again rushed for 200 yards and the big boys up front were a huge part of it. The ground game only lost 15 yards the entire night. 12 of those were in the first half. When the entire stadium knew what the play call would be in the second half, the offensive line, with help from the tight ends, controlled the line of scrimmage and did not allow any penetration.
Defensive Line: A+
Utah had 327 yards on the night on 89 plays. 197 of those yards came at the end of the fourth quarter and overtime. Credit Utah for the furious comeback, but a couple of more first downs by the offense and the Aztecs would have shut the door on any comeback. The line’s statistics were not eye-popping, but their play was. Time and time again, the line penetrated the backfield disrupting Utah’s offense. Other players may have gotten the stats, but the defense’s dominance started upfront.
Segun Olubi continues to be a revelation for this team. On a team full of good linebackers, he is becoming the team’s best. Olubi led the team with eight tackles and was a disruptive force most of the night. It was more than the team captain, however, who produced for the Aztecs. Seyddrick Lakalaka chipped in six tackles, Michael Shawcroft added four, including a sack, Caden McDonald brought down four as well, and Garret Fountain had two sacks. The LBs also added four QB hurries.
The only reason this grade is not higher is the defense was unable to stop Utah late in the game. Kyron White playing in the first extensive action of his career was unmemorable, which is very positive for a player receiving his first real reps. Trenton Thompson was all over the field and was impressive blitzing the QB. Cedarious Barfield had a workman-like game. It was an excellent showing for the unit until the end of the game.
This was headed to an A+ plus for the cornerbacks until Tayler Hawkins was injured and unable to finish the game. It is difficult to know for certain what led to Utah’s sudden potency late, but one definite factor was SDSU’s starting corner’s absence. He was sensational on Saturday. Noah Tumblin and Noah Avinger also played well, but they are currently at a different level than Hawkins, who, if he continues to grow, will play himself onto the NFL radar. He might already be there.
Special Teams: B-
There was a mixture of good and bad from the special teams Saturday. Jordan Byrd returned a kickoff for a touchdown, which gave a huge lift to the team in the first half. Matt Araiza averaged 51.4 yards on five punts and delivered some bone-rattling tackles, and he had four touchbacks on kickoffs. Araiza, though, was 1-3 on field goals, the second of which extended the game to the third overtime. The punt coverage also gave up a touchdown.
Kurt Mattix and Jeff Hecklinski called a terrific game. Their coordinated plan of taking the air out of the ball and milking the clock would have worked except for a missed field goal and some backyard-style football by Utah backup QB Cameron Rising. Be that as it may, Hecklinksi deserves a ton of credit for the calls in the overtime, including the “Aztec Special” that proved to be the difference in the game. Saturday, the depth of the team was tested at several positions. The importance of the coaches’ development of players behind the starters was on display. If Utah deserves credit for not quitting, SDSU deserves credit for their resiliency in pulling out the victory.