Idaho State head coach Charlie Ragle is in his first year with the program. Prior to moving to Pocatello, ID, to take the Bengals’ top job, he spent the previous decade in the Pac-12 as the Special Teams Coordinator for Arizona (2013-2016) and Cal (2017-2021). Ragle’s resume highlights the terrific job of SDSU Special Teams Coordinator Doug Deakin in finding a weakness in Ragle’s coaching.
During the week of preparation, Deakin went back and looked at most of the special teams plays Cal ran under Ragle the past five seasons. He found a tendency, showed it to head coach Brady Hoke, and taught punter Jack Browning how to recognize it.
On the final play of the first quarter, Browning saw ISU in the key formation, took the snap, and ran to his right for a 26-yard run and a first down. Browning had the chance to take the ball out of bounds but looked for contact instead. “That’s Jack,” Hoke said postgame following SDSU’s 38-7 victory when asked to comment on Browning’s decision.
Deakin’s excellence should not be overlooked. During the same span, numerous teams had the same opportunity to exploit Ragle’s blind spot, but it was the Aztecs’ coach who had the ability to see it, the work ethic to confirm it, and the skill to teach it.
“Deak, on Monday said, ‘they have a tendency,’” Hoke said postgame on the genesis of the fake punt. “For Deak to see this, you’ve got to understand, their head coach was a special teams coach, so Deak went all the way back to when (Ragle) was at Cal and when he was at Arizona. So, he got all that film off our servers and went through all those punt returns. Think how long that took, and he said, ‘Coach if they line up like this, it’s there.’ They lined up like that. Jack is smart. Jack looked at it, and that was a big part of some momentum that we needed at that time.”
San Diego State Special Teams
Browning was nothing short of spectacular on Saturday. His first punt on the night was his worst. He kicked it 46 yards, and Bengals returner Christian Fredrickson caught it at the 13-yard line. Browning’s next five punts were downed or went out of bounds at the seven, three, one, four, and one, respectively. On the punts, ISU’s average starting field position was within the five-yard line. Add to these the above-mentioned fake, a 65.7 yard average on kickoffs, five made extra points, and a field goal, and he might be able to steal the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week from one of the three returners in the conference who scored a touchdown in week two of the season.
“I’ll give credit to Jack,” Jordan Byrd said postgame when asked about downing the punts inside the five. “We’ve been practicing … it was really good to have him come out and show that. Jack is a real good player. He knows how to put the ball where he needs to put it. I just had the extra credit of grabbing it.”
One way to describe Saturday’s game, especially in the first half, is Idaho State, a 37-point underdog, was able to match up well enough with every Aztec except Byrd. The conference’s preseason special teams player of the year might have been better at covering kicks than returning them. The Bengals were not on Byrd’s level, and the Aztecs’ coaching staff would do well to increase his touches moving forward.
“The punt return felt good,” Byrd said. “We were working all week. We knew what we had to do. Everybody had their assignments. That was really good. I give all the credit to the guys out there blocking for me.”
San Diego State Defense
Defensive Line: D+
The final stat line for SDSU’s starting defensive line was four assisted tackles. For a unit that is being depended upon to lead the defense, it was a subpar performance. One specific area where the line has struggled in both games this season is stopping the run early in their opponents’ set of downs. On four instances in the first half, ISU had runs of six, ten, eight, and nine yards on first down. They accomplished that twice against the starters and twice against the reserves.
The backups prevented the unit from earning the lowest grade. Daniel Okpoko had a sack that knocked out the Bengals’ starting QB Tyler Vander Waal. Garret Fountain was tied for fifth on the team with six tackles. Okpoko and Fountain seem more of a fit for the movement and stunting the line is known for than Justus Tavai. Perhaps, utilizing them more with the starters could help the group find their stride.
Following last week’s game, Hoke said a player’s performance can be judged on whether his presence could be felt on the field. By this measurement, Aztec LBs Michael Shawcroft and Caden McDonald had a banner day. Their physicality could be felt throughout. More than just effort, the duo was effective. They combined for half of the team’s nine tackles for a loss. They each got their hands on a pass and punished anyone in their vicinity. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix utilized Shawcroft on the line of scrimmage more this week, and the senior responded by providing a good burst off the edge.
After Arizona exploited Cedarious Barfield in the passing game in the opener, he was benched in favor of walk-on Davaughn Celestine. Celestine led the Aztecs with nine tackles and made plays throughout the evening. He was far from perfect, and the jury is still out on if he is the long-term answer at field warrior, but for one night, he dramatically improved the play at the position. The junior safety explained in the postgame press conference that he had a pair of preferred walk-on offers from SDSU and Oregon State and was originally headed to junior college before his mother gave him the green light and support to come to the Mesa.
“I had the chance to learn behind Tariq Thompson and Trenton Thompson, so it was good being intuitive and learning, always having pointers and things like that,” Celestine said, reflecting on his journey. “When my time came, I didn’t miss a beat. So, if someone goes out, I go in, just like I did last week. Ced got out for a play or two, we didn’t miss a beat. That’s how it should be with our defense. I feel like having that next man up mentality knowing that you can go in at any point in time.”
Noah Avinger’s day shows the challenge players have at the position. On the second play of the game, Avinger was beaten on a slant for a 75-yard touchdown. He was benched for the next few series. On his first snap back in the game, he missed a tackle on a short play. The coaches stayed with him. Two plays later, the Bengals attacked him deep, and Avinger blanketed his man. Later in the game, ISU dialed up a mass-protect, double move, and Avinger stopped it again.
Aside from the 75-yard play, the corners were fine on the evening. True freshman CB Chris Johnson saw his first non-special teams action of the season and actually played more snaps (25) than Avinger (16) and Noah Tumblin (21), according to Pro Football Focus. With the game still in question at 21-7, he made a huge play. On third and ten inside the red zone, Johnson came off his man and buried ISU receiver Xavier Guillory without allowing the receiver to fall forward. It set up a fourth and two, which the Bengals failed to convert. Johnson also had a smart fumble recovery on special teams after a shanked punt hit Tumblin’s leg.
San Diego State Offense
Another week, another underwhelming performance from the passing game. Braxton Burmeister’s accuracy stood out in practices and scrimmages in spring and fall camp, but in two weeks as SDSU’s starter, he has been off target frequently. Heading into next week’s matchup against Utah, they will likely need a great performance from their senior signal caller to have a chance at an upset.
“I don’t know how I would answer that,” Hoke said honestly when asked if the hits Burmeister takes in the running game impacts his precision in the passing game. “I think his aggression that he plays the game with, his competitiveness, you really like. You’d like for him not to take some of those hits. But that’s something we have to continue to work through.”
Running Back: A+
Three hundred eighty of SDSU’s 488 total yards came on the ground. One hundred and six of those came from Browning and Burmeister, giving the running backs 274 on the evening. Dividing that by their 34 attempts and they put up a staggering 8.1-yard average per carry.
Jaylon Armstead led the team with 96 yards on only five attempts. Kenan Christon had a 34-yard run, but his most promising carry came the play afterward. On an inside give, he planted his foot and moved into a small crease for a five-yard gain. It was the kind of strong run that will make him a complete back.
The RBs were the only part of SDSU’s offense that was effective, and their total effort was not diminished by Byrd and Christon’s (special teams) fumbles. This was the second game where a back put a ball on the ground, so ball security is important to watch going forward.
“You have to come hard at practice,” Byrd said when asked about how to solve the fumbling issues. “That’s one thing coach Horton always pushes on. One is too many fumbles. We can’t have that. I had one, I don’t know who else had one, but we can’t do that. That’s on us, and we know we have practice. We are going to have to pay for it.”
Wide Receiver: C
Another game without a clear idea of how the receivers played. The WRs had ten receptions, including another red zone touchdown by Tyrell Shavers, but their opportunities were limited throughout the day. The longest reception Saturday was only 16 yards. Brionne Penny had a pair of catches. One was an 11-yard completion on third and long for a first down. All total, the group appeared to create space in their routes, but the ball did not arrive on target.
Tight End: B-
Whenever the running backs have a huge day, the tight ends deserve credit for blocking. Mark Redman hauled in one pass for four yards to contribute in the passing game. In only a couple of catches, he has yet to show the ability to break a tackle after the catch. Jay Rudolph was not on the depth chart for the game and remains out for an undisclosed reason. Aaron Greene started as the blocking tight end.
Offensive Line: B+
The line gave up six tackles for loss but overall was a lot better than a week ago. Burmeister was not running for his life like he was at times against Arizona. It was encouraging to see the line dominate a group that, frankly, they should be better than. The more time the line has together, the better they will be. They appear on pace to reach their stride by the time conference play rolls around.
EVT's highlights of SDSU's 38-7 victory over Idaho State.
— East Village Times (@EVT_News) September 12, 2022