SDSU came into the night tied for first in the West Division of the Mountain West with Nevada.
Following a thrilling, come-from-behind, 23-21 victory, the Aztecs virtually eliminated the Wolf Pack from title contention and kept their championship aspirations alive. SDSU controls its own destiny and will likely have to win their remaining two games to hoist the division crown and secure a spot in the conference championship game.
Special Teams: A+
Jae’vien Gill is a defensive lineman from Mississippi Gulf Community College. Gill received an offer from SDSU this past week. When he announced SDSU’s interest in his services, he included a picture of Matt Arazia. It was the latest and possibly clearest indication that the Rancho Bernardo High alum has become the face of the program. All of Araiza’s national publicity has centered on his punting ability, but Saturday night, he reminded everyone that he is a terrific field goal kicker as well. Adding a game-winning kick to his resume should do nothing to temper the calls for including him on some Heisman ballots.
Defensive Line: A+
In EVT’s Three keys to an SDSU victory vs. Nevada, Andre Haghverdian’s first key was “Get pressure on Carson Strong with a three-man rush.” Not only was the line able to do that, recording three sacks and three quarterback hurries, but they were able to dominate in the run game as well. They held the Wolfpack to eight net yards on the ground on 15 carries. It was another masterful performance by Cameron Thomas (10 tackles, two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and one quarterback hurry). He belongs on every All-American list and should be the favorite for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. His play, which was already stellar in seasons past, has improved to the point where it would not be surprising if these last handful of games were his last in an Aztec uniform.
Playing against Carson Strong and Nevada is maddening for a defense because their passing game attacks at multiple levels. With the skill they possess at quarterback, if the linebackers jump the short routes, they will potentially open space for huge plays behind them. In this light, the short passes the linebackers allowed was the disciplined style needed to hold Nevada to their second-lowest point total of the season.
An opening drive injury to Cedarious Barfield opened the door for true freshman CJ Baskerville to get his most extended playing time to date. He was tasked with manning the center of the field. The extent of Barfield’s injury is unknown, but he was healthy enough to return as a sub later in the game. Whatever the case, the coaching staff stuck with Baskerville, who did not look like a freshman in any regard. Patrick McMorris ended Nevada’s night with a pass breakup. Team captain Trenton Thompson continues to play as well as any Warrior safety in Aztec history.
Kurt Mattix put tons of pressure on his corners throughout the night. Playing against an NFL-caliber QB with potential NFL WRs, the group was tasked with playing on an island outside and had an up and down performance. Tayler Hawkins was terrific on one side of the field. Noah Avinger played as the top reserve and played with confidence as the game went on. The story of the night for the corners was Noah Tumblin. He started opposite Hawkins and was picked on frequently. The sophomore responded with the play of the night. He knocked down a pass on 3rd-and-2 on a play that had been an easy completion for much of the game. It was a terrific play by an outstanding player.
Offensive Line: A-
Nevada entered the game tied for fourth in the nation with 33 sacks but had only one on the night against the Aztecs. While part of that low total had to do with Lucas Johnson’s escapability and the way the Wolfpack defended SDSU, most of the success was due to the terrific offensive line play that did not allow penetration. Johnson was praised postgame for his ability to work through multiple reads, but he was only allowed to move from one progression to another because his line created clean pockets all night.
Wide Receiver: A-
The receiving core poured in its best performance of the year. Ethan Dedeaux and BJ Busbee failed to reel in some difficult catches that would have lifted the group’s grade. Aside from this, the WRs were clutch and effective. Much of their work came on a wrinkle to one of their passing routes. Throughout the season, a hitch and a hitch and go were the go-to moves. This week, they ran hitch, go and then stop about ten yards down the field. Nevada corners had trouble defending it because Johnson accurately threw the pass before the receiver’s final stop.
One of the more interesting aspects of the group is how liberally WR coach Hunkie Cooper substitutes in different receivers. He was rewarded Saturday. Though he came into the contest with zero receptions on the year and only six in his career, Cooper called the number of hometown hero TJ Sullivan with 1:47 left in the game. The Mt. Carmel High product responded with a 17-yard reception. Additionally, each of Jesse Matthews’ four receptions were clutch. He deftly came back to the ball to prevent Wolfpack defenders from disrupting the pass. Elijah Kothe was terrific with six catches for 71 yards.
Tight End: B+
Like every other team on SDSU’s schedule, Nevada set out to stop the Aztecs’ run game. The trio of Daniel Bellinger, Jay Rudolph, and Dominic Gudino were their typical selves in this facet of the game. Bellinger was active in the passing game until an apparent leg injury prevented him from finishing the contest. SDSU’s lead tight end opened up the middle of the field early, got involved in the screen game, and was on the receiving end of Lucas Johnson’s only touchdown pass on the evening. Bellinger’s involvement in the passing game in the middle of the field was significant because his presence kept defenders inside and further isolated receivers outside.
Running Back: B-
In the weekly press conference, Coach Hoke spoke of getting an explosive play in the running game as a key to getting the group back on track. They accomplished that on Greg Bell’s second carry of the game when he ran for 50 yards. Chance Bell provided a spark that led to SDSU’s second touchdown—showing amazing balance, C. Bell absorbed a hit and somehow stayed on his feet to extend the run. He would score a few plays later. The group’s grade suffered a bit because aside from that sequence by C. Bell, the running game was not effective enough when the Aztecs had the ball in Nevada territory and the offense settled for three field goals.
When the QBs received a high grade throughout the season, it was usually graded on a curve with extenuating circumstances inflating the final mark. Saturday night, Lucas Johnson objectively played winning football. He left a couple of key throws on the field, but the San Diego native was poised, in command of the offense, and came through with clutch plays throughout. Aztec nation has been wanting to see balance on offense, and for one night, they got it. If Johnson continues playing at this level, the Nevada game will be remembered as the first stop of his apology tour, where all of Johnson’s doubters and detractors will gladly eat a little crow with their Thanksgiving leftovers.
Brady Hoke was masterful with his game plan on Saturday night. He opted for a 48-yard field goal in the first half instead of going for a makeable 4th and 2. He set up a field goal in the fourth quarter by running on third down to put the Aztecs up six. When Nevada responded by taking the lead, Hoke, despite having three timeouts, went against convention, electing not to punt on 4th-and-4 from his own 36 with a little over four minutes remaining. All of these moves positioned the Aztecs to win with a field goal in the end. Coaches are criticized when they make the wrong decisions, and they should be praised when they play the chess game correctly. Hoke deserves a ton of credit for how he managed Saturday night.
Upcoming Schedule: F
As SDSU works for a berth in the conference championship game, television partners have dictated two Friday affairs to close out the season. Though Friday games typically produce odd results, they are embraced because of the national television audience they command. Unfortunately for SDSU, the games’ start times preclude this advantage. An 8:30 pm kickoff against UNLV and a 9 am kickoff against Boise State the following week are far from ideal when a team is zeroing in on a division title.