Report Card: SDSU vs Colorado

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(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Originally scheduled for 2 pm, the game with Colorado was pushed back 37 minutes to allow for the results of the Aztecs’ COVID test to be returned.

The 30-minute interval allowed those watching on the Pac-12 network to watch a countdown of the top 10 football players in CU’s history, and it gave a window of time for a fitting tribute. At 2:18, PTS, team captain Dwayne Johnson Jr., sent a quick tweet “#longlivevern.” After the game, Johnson clarified its meaning, “I tweeted that for my grandmother. Long Live Lavern. Lavern was here name.”

As we are often reminded, Saturday’s game meant more than the 20 – 10 final score. It was a game a young man born in Oceanside will forever remember because it was the first game without her. Dwayne Johnson Jr, the rock of this team, missed the Aztecs’ game against Nevada the previous week to attend her funeral and celebrate the rock of his family. Speaking on behalf of the team, Coach Hoke summed up what Johnson means to the program.

“Obviously being voted by his teammates as a captain, I think guys really think the world of Dwayne,” Hoke said. “It was tough for him to miss the Nevada game because his grandmother passed away. She really helped raise Dwayne. When he told me about it, I said you’ve got to go. Missing a game is not that significant like being there and missing out on being with family for your grandmother.”

Aztec nation sends out thoughts, prayers, and condolences to the Johnson family. #LongLiveVern


Cornerback: A+

Following a 13-play touchdown drive that ate up 7:09 on the clock, SDSU’s offense came out on the field. After three quick plays and 1:21 of game time, the Aztecs defense took the field again. A 13-yard punt return gave the Buffaloes possession at midfield. Up 14, against a team who had been in Boulder less than 24 hours, the home team looked to crush the Aztec spirit. Numerous teams in the same situation would have folded, chalked the loss up the circumstances, or pointed fingers at their beleaguered teammates on the offensive side of the ball. SDSU is not one of those teams. With their backs against the wall, Darren Hall stepped in front of Sam Noyer’s pass along the sideline, returned an interception 57 yards for a touchdown and temporarily breathed life into his team. After the game, Coach Hoke addressed the play.

“That was awesome,” Hoke said. “Darren Hall ended up playing 87 snaps on defense, which is by far more than you like to play. To have D. Hall step in front of it and take it back. We talked about scoring on defense. We talked about getting the ball back for the offense. Obviously, that was a lift for everybody.”

Pro Football Focus, which grades every game in College Football, graded two Aztecs the highest at their position last week. Cornerback Darren Hall was one of the recipients for his performance on short notice against the Buffaloes.

Hall’s partner in crime on the opposite side, Tayler Hawkins, chipped in with seven tackles. SDSU’s pass defense ranks eighth in the nation, giving up only 172.5 yards a game. Hawkins and Hall, who are tied for fifth on the team in tackles and are first and second (tied) on the team in pass breakups, are a big reason why.

Safety: Paul: B-

Following Hall’s interception, there was a glimmer of hope the Aztecs might pull off the upset. It ended when an apparent interception by Dwayne Johnson Jr was ruled incomplete for all intents and purposes. In a game that saw more replays than possessions early in the first quarter, it was strange the play did not trigger a review. Though not an interception in the box score, it will count for the sake of this report card!

Johnson’s athleticism on the play showed why he will be playing on Sundays next fall. Colorado quarterback. Sam Noyer threw a jump ball to his tight end, CJ Schmanski. Johnson leaped and caught the ball at its pinnacle and landed with the tips of his toes in bounds before his heel touched out of bounds.

“We asked if they were looking at it,” Hoke said when asked why there was no review on the play. “They looked at it and said it wasn’t an interception. So that’s the way it goes.” Hoke did not sound convinced.

Defensive Line: A+

Joining cornerback Darren Hall on the Pro Football Focus National Team of the Week was defensive end Cameron Thomas. Thomas had a staggering 11 solo tackles. With the way SDSU swarms to the football, any lineman recording those kinds of numbers is impressive. By way of comparison, fellow starters Keshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai had terrific games in their own right. Combined, they had 12 tackles, two tackles for losses, and a quarterback hurry. But of their 12 tackles, only seven were solo. Thomas added three more assists for a final line of 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, including one sack, and four quarterback hurries.

Linebacker: C+

Seyddrick Lakalaka missed the contest with the Buffaloes. Coach Hoke was hopefully for his return this week, but the linebacker’s physical play was missed. Due to SDSU’s stagnant offense, the Aztecs’ stingy defense, and the style of the offense they faced, Colorado had 82 plays on defense. Despite plenty of opportunities, the linebackers did not make many impactful plays. Combined, the unit finished with 23 tackles but only 2.5 tackles for loss.

Special Teams: (as a whole) D

With key players out on offense with injuries, the only way the Aztecs were going to pull off an upset was to be exceptional in their other phases. The defense was nearly near there except for a second-quarter drive where penalties kept a Colorado drive that eventually led to a touchdown. “Defensively, I thought they played well,” Coach Hoke said, but we had the one drive that really hurt us when we had four penalties on defense. They were all aggressive penalties. One was a dumb penalty.” Special Teams, on the other hand, continues to be a problem for the team.

Colorado defeated San Diego State by 10 points. The ref’s miss on Johnson’s interception described above gave CU three points. Matt Araiza’s two missed field goals – the first of which was blocked – took six points from the Aztecs. Together, those nine points make for a lot closer game.


Quarterback: F

The Davey O’Brien Trophy is annually given out to the nation’s top signal-caller. On Tuesday, the Davey O’Brien Foundation named its 35 candidates for the award. It was another reminder about SDSU’s problems recruiting for the position. On the list, joining the likes of Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence were two signal-callers from division rivals, San Jose State’s Nick Starkel and Nevada’s Carson Strong.

Meanwhile, on the Mesa, Carson Baker continues to look shaken as a player. It is a valid question to wonder if the coaches are handling him correctly. With each snap, he seemingly digs deeper into a confidence void it may be too difficult to climb out of. Why not allow Baker to sit the rest of this season and try to rebuild his once-promising career? Jordan Brookshire clearly is not a capable passer at this level, but the plays called for him do not always fit his style. Offensive Tackle Kyle Spalding said, “You know, the game plan doesn’t change too much when we go from quarterback to quarterback.” Why is that?

Running Back: F

When mentioning the running back rotation for this upcoming week against Colorado State, the first running back Coach Hoke mentioned was Kaegun Williams. Williams has been the forgotten man among a deep running back group. After earning 11 carries in week one against UNLV, he has not had double digits in any other game. In key games against San Jose State and Nevada, he had one combined carry. His 22-yard run against Colorado was the lone bright spot for the group.

Wide Receiver: D

Scoring a touchdown on offense had the same improbable feeling as throwing a perfect game in baseball.  Every no-hitter is aided by a spectacular defensive play where a defender makes a play on a ball and takes away a hit to keep hope alive. On Saturday, the offense needed amazing plays from their wide receivers to keep going but did not get them. It is clearly not the fault of the receiving group that their best opportunity for impact in the game was catching inaccurate passes, but this was the reality of the day. BJ Busbee, in particular, had a few opportunities to extend drives. He made terrific attempts at catching the passes but came up empty.

Tight End: C

There was a bright spot on the offense on Saturday, though the group’s dull glow only appeared luminous compared to the darkness elsewhere. Brookshire’s best, most confident passes were in the middle of the field to Daniel Bellinger. Hopefully, offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will be able to design more opportunities for the offense around this strength.

Nolan Givan continues to provide good reps for his role. When the Aztec running game runs lines up with running backs behind the quarterback, they often employ Givan as a lead blocker or extra pass blocker.

Offensive Line: C

It is difficult to place too much blame on an offensive line that faces defensive fronts where they are outnumbered, and the opposing team is not worried about the passing game. One indication that the line played alright was the lack of statistics from the Colorado defensive line. The SDSU offensive line controlled the first level. On the other hand, credit CU’s scheme because they designed their defense to place their best tackler, Nate Landman, against SDSU’s substitute guard Chris Martinez. Time and again, Martinez was free to block into the second level but was unable to hunt down Landman.

Coaching: C-

Rocky Long’s coaching tree saw his disciples gain high-profile jobs around the country. Danny Gonzalez was hired to be the head coach at New Mexico. Tony White brought the 3-3-5 to Syracuse as the Orange’s defensive coordinator, and Mike Leach hired Zach Arnett to bring the same to Mississippi State. When Long joined Gonzalez at New Mexico, there were few coaches left for the Aztecs to hire with experience running this unique defense. Upon hiring Kurt Mattix, Coach Hoke assured fans that despite not having experience running the defense, Mattix had been studying it for a decade.

In 2020, Coach Mattix has delivered. In fact, it isn’t easy to believe any of the coaches above could have led this year’s defense in a noticeably better manner. SDSU’s defense is among the best in the nation. They are eighth in points given up per game, 10th in rushing yards allowed per game, eighth in passing yards allowed, and third in total defense.

Unfortunately, Jeff Hecklinski’s offense continues to sputter. Key injuries to Greg Bell and Lucas Johnson certainly hurt, but their absence alone does not account for an offense gaining only 155 yards and scoring only three points. His handling of the quarterback situation, from continuing to run Carson Baker on the field to not having plays designed for Brookshire’s strengths, have left a lot to be desired. In general, though, there does not seem to a coordinated philosophy between the offense and the defense.

One change the coaching staff could consider would be designing the offense to set up third and short. Passing on first down or running stretch plays resulted in a lot of third and long plays. Only twice did the Aztecs have third and under 4 yards, and they converted both attempts. Four times, the Aztecs had third down and between four to six yards. They were 0-4 from that range. They had 12 attempts from seven yards and greater and were 2 – 12 from that distance. A couple of drives illustrate the problem.

On the Aztecs’ second possession of the game, they had the ball first and 10 from the Colorado 47. SDSU ran the ball and lost five yards. Losing that many yards on a running play happens most often on stretch plays or tosses that allow safeties or linebackers to attack the gaps and bring down a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. In this case, it was Colorado outside linebacker Carson Wells who made the play. A second illustration: SDSU had the ball down seven late in the third, needing to answer a Colorado field goal the previous drive. On first down, Kaegun Williams rushed for three yards, putting the offense on schedule for a third and short. On second down, however, another five-yard loss in the running game set up a third and twelve.

Referees: F

With a smirk on his face, Coach Hoke said, “This was a game where I’ve never seen so many targeting calls, then reviewed and (ruled it wasn’t) targeting. I think we were going for a record.” Chris Coyte’s crew delayed the game, called unsportsmanlike penalties they did not have to call, missed an interception, and generally did not call a clean game.

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