SDSU Athletics

Credit: Hawaii Athletics

The Aztecs bounced back from their week three loss against San Jose State.

In a must-win game, the Scarlett and Black kept their conference title hopes alive with a convincing 34 – 10 win.

Below is the report card for the game.

Offense

Quarterback: Grade F

On September 20, 1998, Ryan Leaf made the third start of his career against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Leaf would finish the game completing one of 15 passes for a total of four yards and two interceptions. For twenty-two years, Leaf’s performance was without rival for the worst performance by a quarterback representing San Diego at the two highest levels.

On Saturday, Carson Baker gave Leaf a run for his money. Baker completed four of 13 passes for 30 yards with two interceptions. Leaf continues to hold the dishonorable distinction of the worst passing performance in San Diego history, but just barely. Leaf finished the day with a 0.0 passer rating compared to Baker’s 0.64.

Running Back: Grade A+

Last week, the lack of explosive plays earned the running back game their lowest grade of the year. This offense simply is not good enough in the passing to move the ball consistently without the running backs breaking off long runs. The first quarter of Saturday’s game illustrated this point. Here are the drive summaries.

Possession

Starting Yard Line Passing Plays/Yards Running Play/Yards Result

SDSU

Own 25 3/1 2/0

Punt

UH

Own 42 2/6 1/-2

Punt

SDSU

Own 11 2/8 1/0 Punt

UH

Own 32 2/2 1/3 Punt

SDSU

Own 18 1/0 3/38

Punt

UH

Own 10 1/0 6/31

Punt

SDSU

Own 49 1/0 1/51

Touchdown

UH

Own 25 1/0 5/28

Punt

SDSU Own 38 0/0 1/62

Touchdown

The Aztecs and Rainbow Warriors opened the game battling for field position, with Hawaii’s average starting position for their first two possessions was their own 37. Meanwhile, SDSU’s average position on their first three was their own 18. Field position did not shift until Greg Bell broke off a 40-yard run. The Aztecs punted on that possession but backed UH back to their own 10. The next two drives resulted in two Aztec touchdowns on two explosive runs. Jordan Byrd and Greg Bell had 51, and 62-yard scoring runs, respectively.

Wide Receiver: Grade Incomplete

It is impossible to give a grade to the wide receiver unit that was underutilized on Saturday. On SDSU’s second possession of the game, Carson Baker found Elijah Kothe, who started the game in place of Kobe Smith, for an 8-yard game. That was the only reception by an Aztec receiver on the game. Mt. Carmel High grad, TJ Sullivan, added a terrific downfield block on Bell’s 62-yard touchdown run. Sooner or later, teams are going to put pressure on SDSU’s wideouts to beat single coverage in order to win, but Saturday was not that day.

Tight End: B+

In Fall 2017, current Aztec tight end, Daniel Bellinger, was a senior for the Palo Verde High School Panthers in Las Vegas, Nevada. On the last week of the regular season against league rival, the Bulldogs of Centennial High, the game was tied at 30 heading into the fourth quarter. Though Bellinger played well – 46 yards on offense and 11 tackles on defense – 22 unanswered points by the Bulldogs sent the visiting Mustangs home with a loss. Also on the field that night was current Hawaii defensive lineman Jonah Laulu. He was a star defensive lineman for Centennial. Fast forward three years, the two met head to head on the most important plays of the game.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

On Byrd’s 51-yard touchdown run, the 255-pound tight end lined up against the 280-pound lineman. Bellinger manhandled Laulu and linebacker Darius Muasua on the same play.

One possession later, Baker was in the pistol with Bell behind him. Bellinger motioned to the left side of the Aztec formation. Hawaii’s defensive scheme called for a run blitz to the same side, placing tremendous pressure on Laulu. At the snap of the ball, SDSU’s offensive line slanted left, and Bellinger trapped back to the right. Once Bell cut, the only player with a chance to stop him was Laulu, the pride of Centennial High. Despite giving up 25 pounds, Bellinger, the former Panther from Palo Verde High, got his revenge and blocked the defensive lineman to the ground. Bell scampered his way through the hole on his way to a 62-yard touchdown run.

Offensive Line: B

The offensive line welcomed a new starter at right guard, Chris Martinez, and were fantastic for the most part. Left tackle Kyle Spalding administered the block of the game that led the way to a Byrd touchdown. The Aztecs lined up in an unbalanced formation, and with Hawaii playing zone, there were three defenders, a lineman, a linebacker, and a corner, within a few yards of where Byrd ended up running. Spalding hit the defensive end at the snap of ball long enough to allow left guard Jacob Capra time to move to contain the defensive end. After passing the lineman to Capra, Spalding athletically went after the corner. Seven yards downfield, Spalding engaged the corner, turned him around, and drove him into the pursuing linebacker.

The offensive line gave up numerous plays in the backfield, but this was due mostly to the Hawaii defense design and the Aztec’s lack of passing game. Hawaii’s defense gambled a lot with blitzes that made them susceptible to the big play. The offensive line more than made up giving up the losses on the huge holes they opened for the running game.

Defense

Defensive Line: A+

The defensive line was the primary reason the Aztecs had their best defensive performance of the year. Hawaii came into the game averaging 428 yards and nearly 27 points per game. Starting for the first time this season, Jonah Tavai led the unit in tackles (five), tackles for loss (two and a half), sacks (two), and forced fumbles (one). But he was hardly alone. Senior Jalil Lecky had his best game as an Aztec with four tackles and 1.5 sacks. Lecky’s emergence gives the Aztecs another productive member in the defensive line rotation that on Saturday cumulatively recorded 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5sacks, five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, and a recovered fumble.

Linebacker: A+

Even on a smartphone, watching the linebackers on Saturday was spectacular. Caden McDonald continued his push for inclusion on the First Team All-Mountain West Team. He currently is tied for first in the conference in tackles for loss and second in sacks after adding three tackles for loss and two sacks to his season total on Saturday. He added a team-high (tie) seven tackles, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble. Lakaklaka played every bit like his brother Ronley Lakalaka by adding seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Of course, the play of the game was the 71-yard interception return for a touchdown by Segun Olubi.

Credit: SDSU Aztecs

Cornerback: B-

According to the coaching staff, missed tackles was the main sore spot for the defense, None bigger than Tayler Hawkins missed a tackle on Calvin Turner’s 75-yard touchdown reception. Take that play away and the Rainbow Warriors managed only 134 yards on 34 passing attempts against the Aztecs.

Safety: Paul: A-

Tariq Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr had another terrific game that, at this point, has become routine. The duo combined for 12 stops, a forced fumble, and a pass breakup. Trenton Thompson was conspicuously absent from the stat sheet, but defensive backs who go unnoticed is typically a good thing (see the note on Hawkins above).  The secondary completely bottled up Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro. He completed less than 50% of his passes and rushed for only 20 yards on 20 carries. Hawaii’s offense is most effective when they can throw deep to open up the short passing game, but the safeties took the big play away and were in a position to tackle or defend the short passes.

Special Teams: (as a whole) D

Another game with a  punt returners fumbling away a punt. The Aztecs have now fumbled a punt in three of the four games played. Ironically, Matthews looked better at returning the ball than Byrd but Byrd looked more sure-handed than Matthews. It was believed to be the opposite going into the season.

Several positives, however, salvaged the game for the special teams group. The issues with holding field goals seem to have been fixed as Matt Araiza hit two on the day. It is difficult to believe Tanner Kuljian did not win the starting punting job week one. He is currently second in the conference with a 45.3 average. Hawaii did not return a kickoff as Araiza sent seven off the tee into the end zone for touchbacks. Special teams gunner, Kyron White, forced a fumble on a kick. White started at his own 44-yard line, defeated a block, raced 42 yards to arrive just as UH’s returner, Melquise Stovall, caught the ball. Stovall side stepped the defender to allow White’s momentum to take him out the play. As his body flew to his right, White dove and somehow hit the ball with his left hand, causing the fumble. Tight end Andrew Alves jumped on the loose ball just under two diving Hawaii players. When White saw Alves’ recovery, he sprinted towards his teammates in euphoria. It is unclear if he moved quicker downfield to cause the fumble or to celebrate it.

Coaching: B-

The special teams and offensive passing continues to be an albatross around the neck of this team. The offensive philosophy has not matched the talent, and the special teams’ coaches have not found someone in the program who can catch a punt despite having trouble in this area for years. Despite these negatives, the coaching staff did a solid job. Jeff Hecklinski’s design on his running plays has been stellar. Greg Bell’s touchdown run was a perfect example of coaches putting his players into position to make plays. Described in detail above, the play exploited Hawaii’s aggressive play. Calling a back-side trap is a perfect way to set up Bellinger’s block that sprang the run. If Hecklinski had used the right tackle, for instance, it would have been much harder to sustain the backside block, and it would not have invited the linebackers to flow to the left side of the Aztecs formation with the slanting offensive lineman.

Defensively, Kurt Mattix designed a scheme that clearly confused Hawaii’s young signal-caller. He varied his blitzes and even used two down linemen at times. Best of all, he used different “spy” defenders, disguised in different formations, so Cordeiro could not feel comfortable where the extra defender would be when he scrambled. The deep pass was well defended. It was a terrific day by his defense.

Brady Hoke had his team motivated after a loss. They played fast, free, and for each other. A variety of players throughout the depth chart are making plays and contributing to the wins. Clearly, the team has bought into Hoke’s approach.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.