San Diego State Aztecs vs. Boise State Broncos
Dignity Health Sports Park – Carson, CA
Kickoff: Friday, November 26th @ 9 am
Massive Mountain West title implications are on the line when #21 San Diego State meets perennial powerhouse Boise State. The Aztecs look to win the West Division and secure a berth in the conference championship game by beating Boise State on Black Friday.
Boise State is also fighting for a division crown and a trip to the conference championship game for the fifth consecutive year. In order for Boise State to win the Mountain Division, they must beat SDSU and hope UNLV defeats Air Force. If Boise State makes it to the title game, they will host the championship game.
The Aztecs 10-1 record matches their best 11-game start since their first year of Division I football in 1969. In addition to being ranked 21st in the College Football Playoff standings, the Aztecs are ranked 22nd in both major polls.
While much has been made about the unusual early morning start time for this game, Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke does not consider it an issue for his team. “I think our kids are excited about it…I don’t think they care when we play,” said Hoke.
The Aztecs will honor 32 seniors before the game, although given the one-year eligibility exemption due to COVID-19, 24 of the celebrated seniors could end up coming back for one more year. “No doubt it will be strange,” said Hoke, “but it’s something that’s always been important to me. I have a lot of respect for the guys who have come through (our program).”
The Aztecs won the last matchup between the teams, 19-13, in Boise on October 6, 2018. In typical fashion, the Aztecs won the game with a formidable rush offense and a dominant defense. Chase Jasmin led the Aztecs with 78 rushing yards and a touchdown, and Jordan Byrd added a 72-yard touchdown run to seal the victory. The defense held the Broncos to only 229 total yards of offense and picked off three passes.
The Aztecs are the only school in the Mountain West that the Broncos do not have a winning record against, although a Broncos’ win Friday will give them a 4-3 series edge.
Aztec Stadium mini replicas will be handed out to the first 10,000 fans in attendance for this “Redout” game which encourages Aztec fans to wear red attire.
Boise State is a 2.5 point favorite.
Team: Boise State Broncos
City: Boise, ID
2021 Record: 7-4 (5-2)
Series Record Against SDSU: 3-3
Head coach Andy Avalos took the reins after Bryan Harsin left to become the head coach at Auburn after last season. Avalos, a team captain and all-conference linebacker played at Boise State from 2000 through 2004. He was named to the All-Blue Team during the 2016 season, recognizing the 30 greatest players at Boise State since the inception of The Blue in 1986.
Avalos coached at his alma mater on the defensive side from 2012 through 2018 before becoming the defensive coordinator at Oregon for the past two seasons. He also spent time on coaching staffs at Colorado, Sacramento State, Nebraska-Kearney, and Corona High School.
The Broncos lost two of their first three games in non-conference play, including a one-point loss to the current 7th ranked Oklahoma State. After splitting their first two conference games, a 27-3 win against Utah State and a 41-31 loss to Nevada, the Broncos played their final non-conference game at current 14th ranked BYU. Staring at a potential 2-4 record to start the season, the Broncos upset BYU, 26-17, by forcing four turnovers.
After losing to Air Force by a touchdown the following week, the Broncos came out of their bye week as a refocused and dominant team. They have won their last four games, including a 40-14 win on the road over Fresno State. The win over the Bulldogs is arguably the most impressive victory of the conference season. Fresno State, fresh off handing the Aztecs their only loss of the season, were in the driver’s seat to win the West Divison until they were run off the field by the Broncos. The Broncos’ defense sacked Jake Haener five times and intercepted three passes, while the Bulldogs committed 11 penalties.
“They’re definitely playing their best football right now,” said Aztecs senior linebacker Caden McDonald. “They’re peaking at the right time. They’ve got a bunch of great athletes on their team. A good wide receiver core, great running backs, great quarterback, and offensive line as well. Their whole offense is rocking and rolling right now.”
The strongest positional unit for the Broncos is their receiving corp, led by senior Khalil Shakir from Murrieta, CA. In 2020, he caught 52 passes and six touchdowns in only seven games, earning All-Mountain West First Team honors and a finalist for Polynesian College Football Player of the Year.
He has 71 receptions for 1,043 yards and six touchdowns through 11 games this season, including 166 yards against UTEP. His lowest receiving output in a game this season was 66 against BYU. His 14 consecutive games with at least 65 receiving yards are the second-longest streak in the country. He is a speedster who can also make plays out of the backfield as a runner and as a returner on special teams.
The biggest improvement for the Broncos since the bye week is the emergence of the rush offense. Sophomore George Holani is the Broncos leading rusher with 499 yards this season, but 376 of those yards have come in the last four games, including three straight 100-yard performances. Running back, Andrew Van Buren has only rushed for 217 yards on the season but scored seven touchdowns.
When asked on Monday why the running game has been more successful since the bye, offensive coordinator Tim Plough attributed it to the stability and continuity on the offensive line after a lot of moving parts early in the season.
Junior quarterback Hank Bachmeier is 23rd in the country with 259.7 passing yards per game (2,857 total yards) and has thrown for 18 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Bachmeier has 5,886 passing yards in his Boise State career, the seventh most in school history.
After playing New Mexico and Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 defense (which San Diego State still employs) on Saturday, Plough admitted that once the Broncos took a sizable lead in the game, he held back on the play-calling “so we don’t give too much away since we have a game five days later against a similar defense.” He did note, however, that the Aztecs’ defensive personnel, especially up front, is much stronger than New Mexico’s, allowing the Aztecs to not have to blitz to get pressure as much as Rocky Long does currently with New Mexico’s personnel.
The Broncos defense is allowing the 11th fewest points per game in the country (18.3) and have not allowed a touchdown in the second half in six of their 11 games.
Safety JL Skinner, a San Diego native, leads the Broncos’ defense with 7.6 tackles per game (84 total) while adding six tackles for loss, five pass breakups, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.
Defensive lineman Scott Matlock leads the team with seven sacks, while his running mate on the line, Isaiah Bagnah, has six. Cornerback Tyric LeBeauf leads the team with three interceptions, one of which he returned for a 100-yard touchdown against UCF.
The twelve opponents on the Broncos schedule this year have posted a combined record of 82-39 in 2021, tied with Indiana for the highest winning percentage among opponent schedules in the country.
Impressively, the Broncos have won 14 straight road games in the conference, including at Utah State, at BYU, and at Fresno State this season. Broncos co-defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson credits Avalos with creating plans for road trips to set the players up for success and keeping them in a locked-in mindset.
“The 36 hours we are in that town is on the mission [winning the game] and the mission only, and that’s what we are focused on,” he said. “Everything we do from when we land to kickoff is a direct correlation to how we are going to play on game day.”
The Broncos will look to continue that road warrior mentality one more time this Friday to keep their conference championship hopes alive.
Entering the final regular-season game of the season, the Aztecs defense is still the strength of the team. They are third in FBS, allowing 77.4 rushing yards per game, 10th allowing 17.4 points, and 11th allowing 313.7 total yards per game.
But they are coming off a game in which coach Hoke admitted postgame that he decided to go for it on 4th and 1 inside the 15-yard line late in the fourth quarter due to not having confidence that the defense could stop UNLV on a potential game-winning drive. The defense allowed backup quarterback Justin Rogers to pass for 305 yards after entering the game in the second quarter. They did, however, shut down running back Charles Williams and scored a touchdown on an interception return by linebacker Andrew Aleki.
The offense saving the day for the Aztecs is atypical but a welcome sight to Aztecs coaches, players, and fans. “It feels good because it says the head coach has confidence in your offense picking up the first down,” said quarterback Lucas Johnson. “When the coach shows confidence in us, we know we have to go out there and do our jobs.”
Johnson completed 18 of 24 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns, all to wide receiver Jesse Matthews. Johnson’s rapport with Matthews and fellow senior wide receiver Elijah Kothe has been the spark the team needed to get the passing game to produce in the second half of the season.
Coach Avalos and co-defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson called the Aztecs offensive line the best they will play this year. “They are all big but can move and have quick feet,” Avalos said. Danielson compared the Aztecs’ “physical, but very athletic” line to BYU’s, who they played earlier in the season.
Right guard William Dunkle and left tackle Zachary Thomas are playing exemplary. According to Pro Football Focus, both Dunkle (289 passing opportunities) and Thomas (272 passing opportunities) have only allowed eight pressures each this season and one combined sack. Dunkle has the fourth-highest overall offensive lineman grade (91.7) in the country, while Thomas has the eighth (90.7).
Both Broncos coaches heavily complimented the Aztecs running backs, especially Greg Bell, for having great vision and burst to get through holes. Danielson believes Bell is explosive, noting that “not only can he make you miss in the hole, but take it all the way.” Bell is fourth in the Mountain West with 898 rushing yards this season.
Danielson also credited the Aztec offensive coaches for mixing up their run formations to keep the defense from keying in on one particular play or player.
Kicker/punter Matt Araiza was selected as one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award, which is handed out to the nation’s top punter. Araiza is the first Aztec finalist for a major award since Rashaad Penny in 2017 for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. The other two finalists alongside Araiza are Adam Korsak of Rutgers and Jordan Stout of Penn State.
Araiza continues to lead the nation with a potential record-setting 51.8 punt yard average. After five punts inside the 20 against UNLV, he is also now tied for first in that category in the nation with 34. With the Aztecs holding a narrow 21-20 lead, his last punt of the night was downed at the one-yard line, allowing the Aztecs defense to force a “3 and out” and give the offense great starting field position at midfield for the game-clinching touchdown drive.
After the eight-point win against UNLV, the Aztecs are 6-0 on the season in games decided by one score or less. Five of those wins came in their seven conference games. “I think (the team) is pretty resilient,” answered coach Hoke when asked for the primary reason the team has won every close game this season. “When one side of the ball is now doing well as another side, there’s been none of [finger-pointing]. They’ve believed in each other, and it’s been a fun group to be around. The older guys who have been here, including the ones in their sixth year, there’s been some good leadership from those guys.”
The Aztecs have not reported any injuries for this game.
The key injury concern for the Broncos is starting center and San Diego native Jake Stetz, who was injured and carted off the field on Saturday with a knee injury. Stetz has started at three positions on the offensive line this year but solidified the unit after moving to center after the bye week. While Broncos beat writer B.J. Rains tweeted on Monday that he was told Stetz will likely miss the rest of the season, Plough said during Monday’s press conference that he is hopeful Stetz can play against SDSU. If Stetz is unable to play, Donte Harrington will start at center in his place.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Junior safety JL Skinner attended Point Loma High
- Senior linebacker Ezekial Noa attended Helix High
- Junior defensive end Demetri Washington attended Santa Fe Christian High
- Senior offensive lineman Jake Stetz attended Mission Hills High
- Junior offensive lineman Garrett Curran attended Granite Hills High
- Freshman wide receiver Cole Wright attended Carlsbad High
- Freshman tight end Matt Lauter attended Torrey Pines High
- Freshman linebacker Marco Notarainni attended Torrey Pines High