September 3, 2022, is going to be remembered for two things, the opening of Snapdragon Stadium and the high temperatures that marred the day. Even before kickoff, fire and ambulance teams were shuttling people out of the parking lot because of exposure to the heat. Postgame, athletic director JD Wicker said the reports he received indicated no one had been seriously hurt, which, hopefully, remains the case.
Walking around the stadium, many fans positioned themselves wherever they could to escape the swelter. On the stairs on the west side of the stadium leading to the suites, inside and outside the parent rooms, and throughout the concourse, Aztec Nation gathered to support the team in as comfortable a way as possible. The announced crowd of 34,046 was short of the 35,000 capacity, but with all 32,500 seats purchased, the event was a sellout.
The same extreme temperature that set the record for the hottest game on record that SDSU has ever played in and ruined the celebration of the opening of SDSU Mission Valley for some also will make the day unforgettable.
“I was excited about the Warrior Walk,” Jonah Tavai said postgame. “It definitely felt like home here, seeing all the fans waving at us as we pulled up the buses, excited to see us play. Coming into the stadium and hearing the roar as we walked through the tunnel and ran onto the field was exciting. The student section was as excited as we were, and we loved seeing that. The atmosphere for me was a blessing, definitely not one of the greatest games as a team, but I hope that continues as well.”
On the field, the Aztecs’ play was anything but memorable. Their 38-20 defeat at the hands of an Arizona team that had only one win a season ago was disheartening because there was not much to build upon. It will be up to the team’s leaders to help the squad put the contest behind them and build confidence moving forward.
“My whole message will be that we can’t let this hang over us,” Jesse Matthews said postgame when asked how he can lead the team past this game. “We have to move on from this moment, remember this feeling right now and make corrections, watch film, but don’t let it hang over us. It’s the first game of the year. We have 11 more opportunities. We have to bounce back. It’s not about how you start; it’s about how you finish.”
San Diego State Offense
As readers of this article will know, each grade is given out on a curve based on expectations for the position. It was clear from the start, SDSU’s offense was put in the hands of Braxton Burmeister, a graduate transfer who is expected to be one of the better signal callers the Aztecs have had in a decade. None of that materialized on Saturday. Burmeister was so ineffective, it was unclear until the postgame press conference if Will Haskell came in the game because of injury or to give the offense a spark. The promised progress in the passing game did not materialize in any way. Burmeister had trouble finding open receivers, and instead of using his legs to buy time, he tucked it and ran. Early in the game, the young offensive line did not help out their QB, but Burmeister was supposed to come to their aid with reads and quick throws. All total, the QBs nearly had as many yards on the ground (47) as they did in the air (62).
“I think he was under duress a lot,” Matthews said in describing Burmeister’s performance. “He tried to make some plays with his feet. Obviously, I would like for him to try and hang in there a little more, but I wouldn’t know. I haven’t watched the film yet. I don’t know what he’s seeing from the offensive line. Obviously, I want him to stay in the pocket a little bit more, but he may have had to use his feet, create time, just make plays by himself.”
Running Backs: B-
The lone bright spot for the team’s skill position players was the running back group that took a back seat to the QBs in this game. The backs had 27 carries on the day, but given how reliant on the run the team was in the second half, the backs were a complement in the game plan and not the featured attraction. They still racked up 125 rushing yards and averaged 4.6 yards a carry.
Cam Davis had a good debut with eight carries for 39 yards. Chance Bell ran well but had a fumble late. Jaylon Armstead did not see the field until the end but provided the longest run on the day. Jordan Byrd averaged over seven yards a carry. Kenan Christon was ineffective in his three carries but led the team in receptions and yards.
“Offensively, we need consistency in what we’re doing. The best players on our team are running backs, and we have to get them going early,” Hoke said.
Wide Receivers: D+
It was tempting to put the grade for the wideouts as incomplete for their lack of opportunity, but in the key moment of the game, Brionne Penny dropped a pass on a slant route that effectively showed SDSU’s offense was not ready to go toe to toe with the Wildcats offense. The bright spot for the unit was a terrific touchdown grab by Tyrell Shavers. Oddly that reception by the senior receiver was the only catch from a pass thrown past five yards on the day.
Tight Ends: C
Mark Redman had a reception on a screen pass for fifteen yards. Jay Rudolph did not play yesterday, and when asked if he had an update on Rudolph, Hoke replied, “not yet.” In his absence, Aaron Greene filled the role as the second starter. The tight ends get this grade because of their blocking. As an extension of a line that did not play poorly, they earn a passing grade for the day.
Offensive Line: C+
For a unit breaking in four starters at new positions that had trouble throughout camp, the line exceeded expectations overall. Officially, they only gave up four tackles for a loss, including one sack. Much of that, though, was due to the QBs shedding defenders who came without much resistance. The running backs played well, but the play calling early did not allow the line to lean on the Arizona front, which leads to the gaping fourth-quarter holes that SDSU has had in the past. The holding call by Josh Simmons that wiped out the game-tying touchdown, which would have tipped the momentum in SDSU’s favor late in the second quarter, dropped the grade some.
“When you’re talking about offensive linemen, we’re talking about calls that go and checks,” Hoke said. “There’s a lot more to it. I was more disappointed because Josh Simmons had two penalties, and one of them was significant. I don’t like Braxton Burmeister running all over. Am I disappointed he had to run all over? Yes. We’re young upfront, and that’s the hardest position, in my opinion, to play because there are so many things that go into it.”
San Diego State Defense
Defensive Line: F
Before fall camp, the key question for the line was how to best utilize Jonah Tavai. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix elected to place him at end. That decision may end up proving correct, but on Saturday, the line was unable to generate very much pressure, and Arizona won in both phases of the game. The line’s inability to stop the run was the most concerning aspect of their play. Only twice all season did the Aztecs surrender more rushing yards than they gave up to the Wildcats.
“Missed tackles are always a lack of intent,” Tavai said. “We have a lot of veteran guys that are included in that group. As disappointing as it is, we can get better. We know one thing that we have to work on this week and going forward, so that’s what we’re going to do day by day and week by week.”
Michael Shawcroft led the team in tackles with nine, but too many of them were on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage. When the team went zone, the linebacker did not provide much help in closing windows. Caden McDonald made a couple of plays in his move to MIKE linebacker. He played some snaps at SAM but was relatively silent on the day. The lone bright spot was Cooper McDonald, who played well at SAM linebacker. Much more is expected from one of the most veteran units on the team than what it showed on Saturday.
“The front can be pretty positive for us with Jonah, Keshawn, and Justus,” Hoke said. “I think Garrett Fountain is a guy who is going to be a real player for us. We moved him in (from linebacker). You look at Cooper McDonald. The way he played. You could feel him during the game. That’s one thing I always (say) as a coach, ‘If I can feel a guy, then he’s playing pretty well right now.”
The cornerbacks exceeded expectations as a unit and played well. Arizona threw for nearly 300 yards, but more than half of those came from Jacob Cowing in the slot. Noah Avinger showed terrific improvement as a tackler compared to his true freshman season. He led the team with seven solo tackles. While a few of those were on pass attempts to his man, many of the tackles came in run support. There were questions if the CBs could replace Tayler Hawkins‘ tackling ability, and for one game, they did. Noah Tumblin had an offseason goal of creating more turnovers, and he skillfully made a play on an interception that, for a brief moment, got SDSU back in the game.
In the preview to this contest, Andre Haghverdian wrote, “the matchup could be decided by Cowing versus Barfield in the slot. A large portion of Cowing’s production from last year at UTEP was catch and runs over the middle of the field. Listed as the Wildcats’ starter at WR-F, he and Barfield should be matched up frequently.” This proved true as Cowing beat Barfield in every way. There were numerous players with subpar performances on defense, so perhaps it was an off day for the senior safety, but SDSU’s defense will not be good unless it can cover slot receivers.
“Until I look at it on tape, I would not say it was Barfield,” Hoke said when asked about the matchup. “I would say everyone takes the blame.”
San Diego State Special Teams: B-
Jack Browning connected on both of his field goals. His best was a 44-yard attempt that briefly stopped Arizona’s momentum. As a punter, Browning had a good day, averaging 41.8 yards an attempt. His average fell a lot because one punt went 15 yards. The punt team gave up a block that led to the Wildcats’ first score, but they also pressured a punt of their own that led to a team block and was recovered for a touchdown. Jordan Byrd had a 22-yard punt return as well.
It is hard to recall a game where the Aztecs staff was as outcoached as they were on Saturday. Mattix typically gets the best of his counterparts, but Arizona did whatever they wanted offensively. For one game at least, it can be argued he got the three key decisions before fall camp incorrect. He did not play Jonah Tavai at nose tackle, he moved Caden McDonald more into the middle of the field, and he decided not to put a corner at the field warrior position. He even moved one of his best cover safeties, Dez Malone, to cornerback. One game does not make a season, but Saturday was the second time during Mattix’ tenure that SDSU gave up more than 400 yards.
Offensively, Jeff Hecklinski did nothing to quell the portion of the fan base who would like to see another offensive coordinator. Unlike Arizona, which had the better QB, SDSU did not establish a running game. After an offseason of work with Braxton Burmeister, the gunslinger was gun-shy. Hecklinski dialed up some designed runs for his undersized QB with a history of injury problems and predictably lost him for the game when a lineman landed on his throwing shoulder. On the crucial interception where Penny dropped the slant route, it was a catch the receiver should make. Penny had trouble making that catch throughout spring and fall camp, though, begging the question, did Hecklinski put his players in a position to succeed?
Hoke raised the grade from the lowest level to highlight some terrific game management. Down 31-10 on SDSU’s first possession of the second half, with his defense playing its worst game in years and facing a fourth and five at the Arizona 44, the Aztecs’ head man elected to punt. Browning responded by pinning the Wildcats inside the five. Hoke’s decision set in motion the final Aztecs touchdown of the game.