Following two losses, SDSU put together a complete team win with production from all three phases of the game. Below are the grades for the game. Beginning with Special Teams is appropriate this week because it was two 90 plus yard returns that provided the bulk of the Aztecs’ scoring.
Special Teams: (as a whole) A-
Describing Jordan Byrd and his ability to bounce back from a difficult start to the season, Coach Hoke said, “He’s a little guy, but he’s a tough little guy, and he loves to play the game. He really does a tremendous job every day out there. Works his tail off, is consumed with the game of football.”
That work ethic, on full display Saturday, put Byrd in a position to celebrate the two key plays in Saturday’s game.
On those plays — his 93-yard kickoff return and BJ Busbee’s 90-yard punt return – Byrd was in the center of the euphoria in the end zone. Asked which score he was more excited about, Byrd said he was more ecstatic for Busbee’s score and enjoyed celebrating by throwing up “Backendz” with his teammates.
— BJ BUSBEE (@bj_busbee23) December 9, 2020
Byrd going from losing his starting role, after key muffed punts earlier in the year, to earning Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week is one of the best redemption stories this season.
“I give credit to my coaches and my team,” Byrd said when asked what led to the turnaround. “They knew I messed up a couple times, and they still had confidence in me. They gave me the chance to go out there and give my all. I did that, and that gave me more confidence this week to do it again. I feel better about that. My coaches have been there supporting me. I’ve been practicing every week and playing hard.”
Turner Bernard was named as a semifinalist for the Patrick Mannelly Award, given to the nation’s top senior long snapper. The award is voted upon by a committee of former NFL long snappers, punters, kickers, coaches, and others. The preseason list started with 20 players and was cut in half to name the semifinalists. The next step is to cut the list to three finalists before naming a winner later this month.
Making his first start of his career, Jordan Brookshire earned his first career victory. The “W” was the most important stat, and after six quarters where the Aztec offense looked below Division, I level, Brookshire’s performance was a welcomed sight. Brookshire led the offense on two successful drives – a 12-play 81-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter and a 15-play drive in the second half that ate up over seven minutes of game time. Most important, Brookshire did not turn over the football. With the way the defense played in the second half and the dominating performance in the return game, not giving the game away was all he had to do.
Running back, Jordan Byrd described Brookshire this way.
“He came in confident,” Byrd said. “You know, a lot of quarterbacks come in nervous, and they don’t get the chance to get their feet wet. He got his feet wet, and he showed what he could do. The offense has confidence in him, and I know the defense has confidence in him, too. The coaches gave him a chance, and he took that chance, and it showed. He’s a really good guy, and I’m glad he’s the starting quarterback.”
Running Back: F
The running backs were not very good against the Rams. Together they had 80 yards rushing on 23 carries. Brookshire was the team’s leading rusher, though many of his official carries were sacks. Kaegun Williams added one pass reception for the unit, but his drop on a deep pass — Brookshire’s best pass of the game — was a missed opportunity.
Jordan Byrd received most of the carriers, which makes sense. The offense’s best chance of scoring is on big plays, and Byrd has proven to be SDSU’s best chance at hitting a long run. Interestingly, Byrd has yet to make an impact in the passing game.
Wide Receiver: D+
For the second year in a row, Jesse Matthews was named to the Bulsworth Trophy Watch List. The award is given annually to the best player in the country who began his career as a walk-on. SDSU has a long history of walk-ons, becoming key contributors. Since 2013, Chad Young, Joel Alesi, Dakota Gordon, Daniel Brunskill, Kahale Warring, and Jesse Matthews have all been on the award list. When asked about the secret to SDSU’s success with walk-ons, Hoke pointed to the talent available in Southern California and the terrific job his coaching staff does in developing players.
The main job of the wide receivers on Saturday was to catch any ball in their vicinity. Brookshire’s decision making is not always the issue, but his accuracy is. On the two long drives, SDSU’s receivers made these plays. On the drives when they stalled, they were unable to. They cannot be blamed for failing to bring in inaccurate passes, but that is what the team needs to succeed.
Tight End: B+
In last week’s report card, one bright spot noted in Brookshire’s game against Colorado: he looked confident throwing to Daniel Bellinger. This strength continued this week. Bellinger led the team with five receptions and 53 yards. Nolan Givan pitched in with his first reception of the year as the tight end group matched the production of the wide receivers. Each had six receptions on the day.
Offensive Line: B
There has been a trend. When any running back other than Greg Bell is in the backfield, the running game stalls. When #34 carries the ball, the offense looks competent. It is difficult to believe the offensive line goes from terrible to effective only for Bell. The offensive line played well against a good Colorado State defensive line that came into the game ranked in the top ten in several defensive categories. Brookshire had time to throw the ball; there were lanes to run the ball, and with the return of Will, Dunkle push along the line of scrimmage.
Speaking of Dunkle, he saw action in the second half on Saturday.
“He’ll be a guy who will get a lot of snaps for us,” Coach Hoke said of how the coaching staff handled Dunkle’s return.
“Coming back, we wanted to take it easy with him a little bit because he hasn’t had much practice. So I think we monitored him really well, and he’ll play more as we get into this week.”
Defensive Line: A+
For the second week in a row, Cameron Thomas was named to the Pro Football Focus Team of the Week. Thomas downplayed the move from defensive tackle to defensive end, but the numbers suggest it was an important move. In the first three games of the season, Thomas had four total tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, including one sack. He did lead the team with five quarterback hurries during that time.
Since inserting Jonah Tavai into the starting role and sliding Thomas out to defensive end four games ago, Thomas has 26 tackles and six tackles for loss, including two sacks. He has continued hounding quarterbacks with nine quarterback hurries. Credit the coaching staff for unleashing one of their best playmakers.
This past week, Thomas led the team in tackles with eight, Tavai was tied for second with seven, and reserve lineman, Connor Mitchell, added three. The unit was responsible for four tackles for loss and both of the team’s sacks. Add in three quarterback hurries, and it is not difficult to see why Colorado State had only 265 total yards.
Cameron McDonald continues working his way to earning all-conference recognition. No longer a secret, McDonald continues to produce despite offenses game planning to stop him. Normally his speed and pursuit is responsible for his pressure on the quarterback. On Saturday, it was his decision making and playing within the defense that led to his impact. Colorado State banked on McDonald being too aggressive and called multiple play-action passes with the quarterback bootlegging. McDonald stayed home instead of chasing the running back. He fulfilled his role in the defense and trusted his teammates to do the same. The result: three quarterback hurries and 2.5 tackles for loss.
The rest of the unit was solid, if unspectacular. Andrew Aleki, Seyddrick Lakalaka, and Michael Shawcroft all had chipped in with ten tackles and three tackles for loss between them.
Going into the game, if you would have said Jordan Brookshire would out gain his Colorado State counterparts through the air, SDSU would have liked its chances of winning. This did not happen Saturday, but it was close. SDSU threw for 130 yards, CSU for 144. While the Aztecs are built to win even if their offense is not stellar, the Rams are not. The major reason for the CSU’s lack of production was the cornerbacks.
Darren Hall and Tayler Hawkins each had an interception. Their interceptions late in the fourth quarter ended any thought of a comeback. Hall and Hawkins added ten tackles between them. Dallas Branch added a pair of tackles as well.
Safety: Paul: B+
A sign of the Aztecs’ success: they dominated defensively, particularly in the second half, and Tariq Thompson recorded only two tackles. Thompson was playing basically nickel corner most of the night and led the team in pass breakups. Fellow Warrior safety, Trenton Thompson, picked up the slack, turning in one of his best games of the season. He was second on the team with seven tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss. Dwayne Johnson had six tackles and a quarterback pressure.
The safeties did a good job of containing the future NFL tight end; he had five receptions for 62 yards. More importantly, for the first time all season, McBride was held without a touchdown. It should be mentioned only three Rams caught passes on the night.
Rocky Long is one of the greatest college football coaches ever. His ability to consistently develop top college defenses over multiple decades should punch his ticket into the College Football Hall of Fame.
How do you replace a legend? Ask Kurt Mattix.
Kurt Mattix was named a Boyles Award Nominee this week, given to the nation’s top assistant coach. Mattix beat out more than 1,200 other coaches across the country to become one of 56 nominees. His defense’s performance Saturday was more evidence of why.
The offense was nothing special on Saturday, but they did not need to be in order to win. Jeff Hecklinski called more plays that fit Brookshire’s skill set. There were not as many rollouts to Brookshire’s left like there was the week prior, and Bellinger was emphasized in the passing game. In the second half, Hecklinski allowed the defense to carry the team to a win and never put undue pressure on the offense.
Doug Deakin deserves a lot of credit this week. His design on Jordan Byrd’s kickoff return was outstanding. Colorado State angled their kickoff toward the sideline, and Deakin set up a return to the opposite side. The two factors put Jordan Byrd’s greatest skill, his speed, on full display. There were still some problems on Special Teams – kick coverage and a missed PAT – but they were far outweighed by the positives.
Stephan Baron’s crew did a fine job on Saturday. The crew was able to keep control of the game without assessing penalties that impacted the game. A terrific example was the off-setting, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called on SDSU’s Tayler Hawkins and CSU’s Barry Wesley. The play ended. There was no penalty flag thrown on Hawkins. On after Wesley pushed over Hawkins, did the refs throw a flag? There was nothing egregious about the play from either player. Calling off-setting penalties kept it that way. It was a solid move that kept the refs in firm control without impacting the game.