San Diego State Aztecs vs. New Mexico Lobos
Dignity Health Sports Park – Carson, CA
Kickoff: Saturday, October 9 @ 6 pm
After starting the season 4-0 for only the second time in 40 seasons and entering the AP Poll at #25 for the first time this season, SDSU begins their quest for a 22nd conference championship this Saturday night at home against New Mexico. The Aztecs, coming off their only bye week of the season, will attempt to reach 5-0 for just their second time in the last 46 seasons.
SDSU is one of only 17 undefeated teams in FBS and one of two in the Mountain West along with Wyoming. Aztec head coach Brady Hoke stated last week that while being undefeated at this point in the season is great. They want to use what they have learned so far to win a championship.
The contest will be former head coach Rocky Long’s first game against his former school since resigning as head coach in January 2020. Long took over as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the Lobos after nine seasons as head coach at SDSU.
The game also marks the return of former Aztec safeties coach and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who left the Aztecs in 2018 after seven years to become the defensive coordinator at Arizona State. Gonzales is now in his second year as head coach of the Lobos.
Both coaches played football at New Mexico and spent time coaching at their alma mater before coming to San Diego State, which makes their return a little different than usual. Coach Long was the head coach at New Mexico from 1998 through 2008, while coach Gonzales was either a player or an assistant on his staff in that eleven-year span.
During an interview this week, coach Gonzales even admitted that while he was a coach at SDSU, he would root for the New Mexico basketball team anytime they would play the Aztecs.
This game should be an emotional one for not only the two Lobo coaches but for the Aztec players and coaches as well. A large percentage of the current Aztecs players were recruited to and played at San Diego State during Long’s tenure as head coach. Two players, running back Jordan Byrd and defensive end Keshawn Banks, are from the New Mexico area and were recruited by Gonzales when he was a coach at SDSU.
Both Byrd and Banks remarked on Tuesday about the positive influences the New Mexico coaches had on them. Byrd mentioned that “it’s going to be really cool to see them and will be happy to see them after the game.”
Banks reiterated Byrd’s sentiments and went a step further for his praise for coach Long. “I’m sure anybody [at SDSU] will tell you that they have nothing but the utmost respect for coach Long. He helped me develop as a player, as a young man…getting better, and being mentally and physically tough.”
In addition, coach Hoke and coach Long were on each other’s coaching staffs at some point during their tenures as Aztec head coaches. “I don’t like playing against friends. I never have,” answered coach Hoke when asked his thoughts on facing New Mexico this week. ”It’s not fun for wives, especially on how friendly you are with that person.”
The two teams have not met since the 2018 season when the Aztecs defeated the Lobos 31-23 in New Mexico. The Aztecs are 19.5 point favorites for this game.
Team: New Mexico Lobos
City: Albuquerque, NM
2021 Record: 2-3 (0-1)
Series Record Against SDSU: 15-27 (7 game losing streak)
After enduring a very difficult 2020 season that saw them relocate and play games in Las Vegas due to COVID-19 restrictions in their state and become the first team in FBS history to play an entire season without a home game or a game inside its home state, New Mexico is back to normalcy this season.
They finished last season strong with two consecutive victories after starting the season 0-5. The Lobos winning streak reached four games following wins in their first two games of this season over Houston Baptist and New Mexico State. However, their winning streak ended with losses against Texas A&M and UTEP in their final two non-conference games this year.
This past Saturday, the Lobos lost to Air Force 38-10 in their Mountain West Conference opener, falling to 2-3 on the season.
The biggest question mark for the Lobos heading into the season was who their starting quarterback would be. That competition was won by Kentucky transfer Terry Wilson. Wilson is second all-time at Kentucky with 17 wins and is the only player in school history with at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. Prior to his three seasons at Kentucky, Wilson played one season at Garden City Community College and was named the Jayhawk Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He began his college football career redshirting for one season at Oregon.
Upon announcing Wilson’s transfer to the Lobos, coach Gonzales stated that Wilson “is a true dual-threat quarterback who should fit in very well into what we are trying to do offensively.” So far this season, Wilson has completed 88 of 149 pass attempts for 931 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions. His lone spectacular game was against New Mexico State, where he passed for 381 yards and three touchdowns. He has not surpassed 180 passing yards in any of his other four games.
Wilson has yet to get fully on track in the rushing department, only collecting 66 net rushing yards this season, although that yardage takes into account yardage lost on sacks. Against Air Force, he collected 43 rushing yards on seven non-sack carries. Coach Gonzales reiterated this week that he would like to see Wilson run more as the season progresses.
During his Monday press conference, Aztec defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix stated Wilson running the ball is a big concern and described the Lobos offense as “an option scheme that makes you have to be very assignment and gap sound.” He also complimented the Lobos skill position players’ pure athleticism and speed on the edges.
Banks echoed his defensive coordinator’s comments, stating they “are focused on keeping [Wilson] in the pocket and getting pressure on him…just taking away [his] ability to extend plays.”
The Lobos average only 302.6 yards of total offense per game, which ranks 121st in FBS. While admitting that “our entire offense is frustrated,” coach Gonzales attributes the lack of success to assignment mistakes that the coaches need to do a better job with and ill-advised penalties that they are not equipped to recover from.
Additionally, he is disappointed with the performance of the offensive line. “With the number of super seniors we have, we should be better than we are upfront,” stated coach Gonzales. They are moving forward with sophomore Jack Buford at right tackle over senior Ben Davis and will start giving playing time to some of the younger guys to give them a chance to show what they can do.
“Year two was always going to be the toughest year…there will be growing pains as we try to build this up,” stated coach Gonzales as he discussed the three-game losing streak. The 3-3-5 defense usually takes a few years for players to understand, and it is no different than what the Lobos are encountering currently.
In their most recent loss to Air Force, they had a miserable first half which included lost fumbles on back-to-back offensive plays leading to ten points and a 24-0 halftime deficit. The ten points off turnovers were the first points the Lobos had allowed off a turnover this season. They had held their opponents scoreless after their first four turnovers of the season.
The Lobos gained just 47 yards rushing, which is the fewest rushing yards for the school since September 4, 2010, when they gained 25 against Oregon.
Despite the offense’s ineptitude, they were not as poor as the defense, which allowed 408 yards on the ground to Air Force, extremely rare for a Rocky Long led 3-3-5 defense focused on stopping the run. Coach Hoke, though, stated this week that the “Air Force tape isn’t a great tape for us to watch because [the Lobos] play Air Force differently on defense because of the triple option.”
The Aztecs and Lobos have played one common opponent, New Mexico State, this season. The Aztecs beat the Aggies 28-10 in their opening game. The Lobos beat them 34-25 the following week. The Lobos’ offense dominated the game, collecting 559 total yards on offense, including 381 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air and 178 rushing yards, and one touchdown on the ground. The Lobos defense was able to harass the Aggies quarterbacks into only completing 18 of 45 passes and forcing two interceptions.
The Lobos will be without starting running back Bobby Cole for the first half against the Aztecs due to an ejection for a targeting penalty he committed during the second half against Air Force on a block on a kick return.
Players to Know
Senior wolf/safety Jerrick Reed II (#9). Reed was named to the 2021 MWC Preseason All-Conference Team and leads Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 defense. Reed, a First Team All-MWC performer in 2020, led the conference and was tied for eighth nationally with four interceptions last year. As a team captain, his stellar play has continued this year. He is first on the team with 42 tackles through five games and has also broken up four passes and collected one interception.
Senior defensive end Joey Noble (#98). Noble, also a team captain, has collected nine and a half tackles for loss, four of which are quarterback sacks so far this season. He recorded a career-high 18 tackles against Air Force.
Junior quarterback Trae Hall (#10). While Hall is officially listed at quarterback on the roster as a backup, he was utilized last week as a skill position player on offense, given the players, the Lobos were missing at those positions. He lined up as running back and wide receiver throughout the game and caught the only touchdown of the game for the Lobos, a 21-yard catch after lining up in the slot. Coach Gonzales believes Hall can help the offense significantly, stating he is “too good of an athlete to stay on the sidelines…his role will get bigger as we progress.” When asked about Hall’s multidimensional abilities, Banks understood that “we’ve got to be wary of trick plays. Just anything that could give us trouble and try to confuse us defensively.”
The Aztecs are coming off a bye week in which they got healthier and focused on improving certain areas of their team. While being ranked in the Top 25 is good for the program, coach Hoke explained the “need to keep working hard and hopefully correct some of the things we have not done as well during the bye week.” Specifically, coach Hoke would like to “start faster, end first halves better, and end games better,” as the Aztecs have had issues with all three of those areas in their four games to date.
What has not been a problem for the Aztecs is their dominance on both sides of the ball in the run game. The Aztecs are eighth in FBS with 254.8 rushing yards per game on offense and second in FBS with only 46 rushing yards per game allowed on defense. The only other team in the country in the top ten in both categories is Army.
In their previous game against Towson, three different running backs not named Greg Bell ran for at least 75 yards. SDSU eclipsed the 200-yard mark for the fourth consecutive game. They will look to continue that trend against a defense that, at least scheme-wise, is a replica of the defense they practice against every day and was designed by the same man, coach Long.
The Aztecs players know their former head coach well enough to expect some wrinkles out there by the Lobo defense. “Coach Long will probably bring out something different; he’ll switch some things up for us,” admitted Byrd when asked if the familiarity with the defense will aid the Aztecs.
One area that has taken a back seat to the running game is the pass offense. Outside of the Arizona game, the Aztecs have struggled to move the ball downfield through the air. While they have been able to still win all four games, they realize that at some point, they will play a game where the run offense is contained, and they will need the passing game to win it.
Regardless of whether Lucas Johnson or Jordon Brookshire start at quarterback for the Aztecs this week and for the remainder of the season, there is no doubt that they will need to perform better.
“The biggest improvement we have to make is hitting the intermediate and down the field shots while still keeping our strengths,” stated offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski during the weekly press conference this week. “We are looking for explosive plays all the time.”
In the game against Towson, the Aztecs called several passing plays downfield, none of which materialized into completions. Specifically, quarterback Lucas Johnson and wide receiver Tyrell Shavers were unable to connect on any deep throws down the field. The one successful pass between the duo, which resulted in defensive pass interference, was underthrown to a wide-open Shavers. An accurate throw would have resulted in a touchdown. The Aztecs will look for the correct times to call the deep shots and expect to execute them moving forward.
Another focus for the passing game is to generate targets for tight end Daniel Bellinger. Outside of his breakout game against Arizona, Bellinger has only caught two passes for 25 yards in the other three games. “We need to get [Bellinger] not as inline as he is right now, get him outside of the core of the formation a little bit more,” stated coach Hoke.
In an interview this week, coach Gonzales called the Aztecs the best team in the conference and a “bunch of mean guys that play the game the right way.” He is trying to build at New Mexico what is already built at San Diego State.
One of those players who plays the right way (but would not be characterized as a “mean guy” off the field) is junior defensive end, Cameron Thomas. So far this season, Thomas has 19 tackles, including six tackles for loss and two sacks, along with a team-high ten quarterback hits. He has led the charge for a defensive front that has dominated every offensive line they have faced this year.
As amazing as the defense has performed this year, the strongest aspect of SDSU’s team so far this season might be their special teams. The Aztecs have four non-offensive touchdowns this season, tied for first in FBS with Houston, Auburn, and Ohio State. Three of those have been on special teams, two punt block returns, and one kickoff return.
“I think [special teams coordinator] Doug Deakin does a great job cultivating guys on special teams and how he presents a game plan,” praised coach Hoke. “Deak has a lot of pride in being an Aztec. He does an unbelievable job in his teaching, and I think it makes the guys want to play better.”
Junior punter Matt Araiza continues to lead the nation in punting with a 55.1-yard average. Araiza is currently 4.12 yards ahead of the NCAA record set by Braden Mann of Texas A&M in 2018.
“[There’s been] multiple games this season where Matt’s been able to change the field and really help the defense,” stated coach Hoke. “He at times could be the defensive player of the game because of what he’s done with changing the field.”
If the Aztecs are going to reach their goal of winning their 22nd conference championship this year, they will need to continue doing the things they have done very well so far, plus make improvements in the areas they have struggled in.
The Aztecs went into the bye week with injuries to six starters that forced them to miss significant playing time. They had already been without cornerback Dallas Branch all season, plus were without quarterback Jordon Brookshire, cornerback Tayler Hawkins, wide receiver Kobe Smith, and linebacker Andrew Aleki for the game against Towson. Added to that list was star running back Greg Bell, who was injured in the first half against Towson and missed the remainder of the game.
During his Monday interview on XTRA 1360 radio, coach Hoke stated the team’s “health is pretty good” and they expect most of the starters back to practice this week and to play against New Mexico. This includes Brookshire, who “is much healthier than he was a week ago” and would regain his starting role if back to 100% healthy.
The Lobos were without six of their eight wide receivers in their game against UTEP two weeks ago due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. They were able to get three of those six back for their game against Air Force this past Saturday. Coach Gonzales stated this week that they expect freshman Keyonta Lanier back this week, and the other two players (Elijah Queen and Zarak Scruggs) should get healthier throughout the week and be able to play.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Senior linebacker Devin Sanders attended Mira Mesa High and San Diego Mesa Community College
- Freshman offensive lineman Nathaniel Gomez attended Lincoln High
- Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Vincent Santos attended Eastlake High
- Freshman wide receiver Kai Jessie attended Helix High and Patrick Henry High
- Defensive line coach Jerome Haywood played for San Diego State from 1998-2001 as a defensive tackle and was a three-time second-team All-Mountain West selection