San Diego State suffered its first loss of the season, falling to San Jose State by a score of 28-17.
The loss moved the Aztecs to 2-1 and into a three-way tie for fourth place with Fresno State and Hawaii. SDSU will look to break that tie against the Rainbow Warriors on Saturday.
However, before turning the page to this week’s game, here are the grades for the team’s performance against the Spartans.
For two weeks, the coaching staff refused to name Carson Baker, a “game manager,” but they called the game as if he were. Leading up to the game against SJSU, they called Baker a “game manager,” but built the success of their offense on his ability to make plays. In the most important regard – winning and losing – Friday’s start was the worst of Baker’s career. He turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter on a fumble and interception. His fumble, due to his indecision on how to avoid intentional grounding on a well-defended screen, led to SJSU’s game-winning touchdown. These negatives did overshadow some bright spots. Through three quarters, Baker had already set his career-high for passing yards with 196; he finished the game with 261. He completed 70% of his passes, but these positives were far outweighed by two turnovers, which kept his side from winning.
Running Backs: C-
Greg Bell was once again the most used skill player. He carried the ball 25 times and caught six passes. His yards per attempt of 4.4 would be terrific if he were in the NFL, but for this offense to be good, they need more from Bell. His longest run was 13 yards. The passing game is not at the level yet to compensate for the workman-like performance. It got out of its star running back. Bell needs to break explosive plays to continue to justify the number of touches he received on Friday. His 25 rushes were more than double the rest of the running backs received together. His backups were not productive, but they also did not receive many opportunities because Bell has been anointed the primary back.
Wide Receivers: C+
For the second week in a row, SDSU had a player named to the Pro Football Focus national team of the week. Jesse Matthews was placed on the team as one of the three best receivers for his performance on Friday. Matthews caught six passes for 139 yards, a staggering 23.2 yards per reception. His receiving yards were nearly 80% of the SDSU receivers’ yardage for the game, which shows the lack of production from the rest of the unit. Kobe Smith’s three catches for 26 yards and BJ Busbee’s one reception for eleven yard were the rest of the receivers’ output. In the blocking game, the receivers did not open up the big plays by containing the last level of defenders. As mentioned above, there were no big plays for the Aztec ground game.
Tight Ends: D+
Daniel Bellinger was second on the team in receptions with four, but only two of them came with the game in doubt. On Carson Baker’s interception late in the fourth quarter, it is difficult to know who was at fault, but it did appear Baker expected Bellinger to continue his route. Still, the junior tight end from Las Vegas changed direction. Even if Bellinger was not at fault, the tight end group is integral in the running game. SDSU took a giant leap back in this regard as SJSU held SDSU 246 yards below its rushing average coming into the game.
Offensive Line: D-
As good as SDSU’s offensive line had been for two weeks, there was hope the group had turned a corner and would be a dominant force throughout the season. Friday, however, the group turned in its worst game of the season. San Jose State recorded nine tackles for loss, seven QB hurries, and four sacks. The Spartan defense was designed to prevent the big play and force the SDSU offense to march downfield a few yards at a time. The offensive line’s inability to win at the scrimmage line was a big reason SDSU was only 6-15 on third-down conversions. It was hoped that with three seniors starters, the unit had put behind the inconsistency that has been the hallmark of this class under Coach Mike Schmidt. That hope was not realized Friday.
Defensive Line: B
On a night when the defense held its opponent under 300 yards of total offense, it is difficult to be too low on the men upfront. They did not have many tackles as unit (four), but their stunting and twisting along the line put constant pressure on the SJSU offense. The defensive line accounted for three tackles for loss and five QB hurries. Defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix has had the luxury of keeping seven or eight players defending the pass because this unit up front has been able to get consistent pressure. On the team’s only interception, Connor Mitchell’s zone blitz caused Nick Nash’s high throw. Mitchell attacked the line of scrimmage, convincing Nash he had an easy completion, but Mitchell jumped into the passing lane at the perfect time, forcing the errant throw.
The LB unit was solid, but aside from Michael Shawcroft, unspectacular. Shawcroft recorded seven tackles, five of them solo, and two of those tackles were for a loss. Caden McDonald had three tackles and a pair of QB hurries. With the defensive line putting as much pressure on the offense, the linebackers need to do more if the Aztecs are going to be great. Most troubling was the Aztecs’ inability to stop the run in the fourth quarter. With the game slipping away from the Aztecs, SJSU lined up third and 10 from the SDSU 27. A stop would have forced a field goal attempt and given the offense one more drive to send the game into overtime. Instead, SJSU got 12 yards, and the game was essentially over.
A third consecutive week had Tayler Hawkins listed as the starting corner, and Cedarious Barfield actually starting. Hawkins started at the Warrior position. SJSU was held to 182 yards passing. There were plays when the Spartans receivers were open, but much of their yards were from skillful receptions with Aztec defenders close in coverage. Even with those spectacular catches, no SJSU receiver caught more than five passes. Darren Hall, Barfield, and Hawkins all were sure tacklers, limiting the yards after the catch.
Safeties: A –
The safeties were once again, the heart and soul of the defense. Warrior safeties Tariq Thompson, Trenton Thompson, and Tayler Hawkins were second, third (tied), and fifth (tied) on the team in tackles, respectively. Aztec safety Dwayne Johnson Jr added five tackles of his own and the team’s only sack. Tariq Thompson added yet another interception to his Aztec Hall of Fame career. He now has 12 since joining the program from local St. Augustine High School. This unit is quickly proving to be one of the best since SDSU moved to the 3-3-5 defense. If the unit continues at this high level, it could eclipse the 2013 unit with two NFL draft picks, Nat Berhe and Eric Pinkins, as the best of its era.
Special Teams (as a whole): D
In lopsided wins the first two weeks, the Special Teams gaffes were easy to overlook. Still, yet another week with more special teams problems have fans longing for the days when under current Montana Coach Bobby Hauck, SDSU’s Special Teams units were arguably the best in the country. Jesse Matthews will replace Jordan Byrd at punt returner this week after Byrd again had trouble catching. While the referees missed a clear kick-catch interference, Byrd’s indecision was evident. Instead of calling for a fair catch early, Byrd waited until the last second to make the signal, far too late with Tre Walker bearing down on him. The kickoff return unit averaged only 17.4 yards a return. SJSU’s kicker was unable to kick the ball into the end zone, but the Aztecs rarely capitalized on this advantage. One bright spot was Punter Tanner Kuljian. In his first game as the starter, he averaged 45.8 yards on four punts, including a 70 yarder on his first punt as he stood in the back of his own end zone.
Identity is built by choices made year after year. Under former coach Rocky Long, the identity was to depend on his defense late in games to bring his team victories. With new coaches come new identities. Leading 17-14 early in the fourth quarter, Jeff Hecklinski did not call a direct handoff to Greg Bell but instead called a read option and screen pass. Both place pressure on the QB to make the correct play. On their next possession, SDSU found itself in a third and 14 from the SJSU 15. Instead of setting up a field goal and tasking the defense to stop the Spartans, Hecklinski depended on his passing attack, and Baker threw an interception. In both of these instances, forcing SJSU to navigate a long field against the best defense on the West Coast would have put the Aztecs in the best position to win. Compounding the error was watching San Jose State’s coaching staff choose this approach against the Aztecs. They never put their sophomore QB in pressure situations during crunch time, so he never had the chance to show his inexperience.
In addition, the Special Teams units continue to have issues going on three weeks now. Second, third and fourth chances for players is important at this level, so credit Special Teams Coordinator Doug Deakin for allowing Jordan Byrd another opportunity at the punt return position. However, coaching is about putting players in the best position to succeed, and Byrd has had trouble catching punts for years. Deakin should not have left the decision to call a fair catch up to his junior returner. The coach should have called that from sideline. If Byrd’s only job was catching the punt and not worrying about the return, Byrd would still be listed as the starter on punt returns.
Though effective on Friday, the defense was not the aggressive, attacking unit fans are used to seeing. A hallmark of the 3-3-5 is the gambling nature of the defense. Coach Long would talk about the tradeoffs of giving up big plays in exchange for causing turnovers. Kurt Mattix has not shown that he is the gambler his predecessor was, and the defense is not as good because of it.
This loss falls squarely on the coaching staff. Despite Athletic Director JD Wicker’s best effort at continuity, there are always growing pains when a new staff takes over. Aztec fans have every reason to believe Head Coach Brady Hoke will hold his lieutenants accountable, and the first loss to San Jose State in eight years will make the program better going forward.
In every game, there are missed calls. The closer the game, the more important the calls become. Not throwing a flag on Tre Walker interfering with Jordan Byrd’s opportunity to catch a punt was one of the most important plays of the game. It is fair to credit Walker for sprinting 40 yards and arriving at almost the perfect time. It is fair to chastise Byrd for his indecision. The fact remains, Walker was within a yard before the ball bounced off Byrd’s helmet. When player safety is supposed to be paramount in a day and age, protecting punt returners with their attention on the ball in the air should have made that an easy call. That said, the referees were not the reason the Aztecs lost. The players and coaches decided the outcome, and the officials did their job.