San Diego State Aztecs vs. New Mexico State Aggies
Dignity Sports Health Park- Carson, California
Kickoff: Saturday, September, 4 @7:30 pm
TV: CBS Sports Network
Fan Giveaway: Replica SDSU jersey for the first 10,000 fans
“Our team, all we want to go do is go out and play football. That is what we want to do.”
This statement by coach Hoke, who is in the second year of his second stint on the Mesa, during his Tuesday press conference echoes the feelings of all the coaches and players on the Aztecs.
They will get that opportunity when they begin their 2021 football season and quest for a 22nd conference championship by hosting the Aggies of New Mexico State on Saturday night.
Unlike last season, fans are allowed to attend home games at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson this year. Players are almost as excited about playing in front of their families, friends, and the fans as they are lining up against NMSU. “It’s exciting,” team captain Segun Olubi said. “Obviously, having fans in the stands puts a certain electricity in the stadium and makes us play a little bit harder.”
“This season, I’m really excited that we are going to have fans. Last year not having the fans, the atmosphere was a little different, but having the fans this year to support the atmosphere will be good,” senior wide receiver BJ Busbee added.
Saturday will be a rematch of the Aztecs victory against the Aggies on the road in the 2019 season by a score of 31-10. The Aztecs used a familiar formula to dominate that game: rush offense (281 yards) and big-play defense (four turnovers and seven sacks).
New Mexico State Aggies
City: Las Cruces, NM
2021 Record: 0-1
Series Record Against SDSU: 1-10-1 (8 game losing streak)
The Aggies did not play their 2020 season due to COVID-19 but opted to play two exhibition games against FCS opponents in the spring. Head coach Doug Martin said they chose to play the spring games because it afforded them the opportunity to hold 30+ practices instead of the otherwise mandatory maximum of 15 alloted during a normal spring camp. They had been away from football for 400 days up to that point.
“We would be light years behind,” stated coach Martin when asked about the prospects of the team had they not played the two spring games. “We are struggling to catch up now, but we would have no chance [without the two games].”
In addition to the long layoff, the Aggies are also incorporating 40 new players on their roster. While some are transfers from Power Five schools, including former Missouri Tiger, starting wide receiver Dom Gicinto, some are experiencing their first college game preparations, according to coach Martin.
They played their first game of the season this past Saturday at home versus UTEP and were soundly defeated 30-3. Statistically, the Aggies were dominated on both sides of the ball, outgained in total yardage, 452 to 190. The UTEP defense collected three sacks, four quarterback hurries, and six tackles for loss.
However, coach Martin liked what he saw from his team and how physical they played, given the circumstances. He lamented on three key plays in the game, a touchdown pass negated by a penalty he thinks was a “ridiculous call,” a catch in the back of the end zone that was ruled out of bounds, but the receiver may have had a toe inbounds and a dropped deep pass that, if all flipped in their favor, would have “made a huge difference” in the outcome of the game.
He believes they “showed a lot of promise,” and while they improved from game one to game two in the spring, “if we want any chance to win [this week], we will have to improve a lot.”
When asked about why the Aztec defense has been so good for so long, he stated, “they play fast, run to the ball, and can play man coverage on the back end.”
Player to Know
Aggies left tackle Sage Doxtater. He was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts with the 12th pick in the second round of the Canadian Football League (CFL) Draft in May but chose to exercise his super senior option to return to college football for one more year. The 6’7, 350lb Doxtater has been a starter for the Aggies in each of his previous four years and could potentially elevate his NFL Draft stock with a stellar final season.
Only Canadian nationals are eligible to be drafted in the CFL, while non-Canadian nationals can be signed via free agency. NCAA college football players with Canadian nationality can be drafted after completing their senior season of eligibility.
Aztec fans should take note. Backup nose tackle, junior Daniel Okpoko, will be eligible next season. Okpoko is a native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. If the current Canadian Football League draft rules are in place, Okpoko will have the same decision Doxtater had this past May.
The Aztecs are looking to start the season off strong with a home game against a team they are favored to beat by 31 (according to Caesars Sportsbook) before they head into a two-game stretch against Pac-12 teams.
On defense, the Aztecs return all the starters from their front six last year, which saw the defense ranked third in FBS, allowing only 283.5 yards per game. There is no doubt this unit is the team’s greatest strength at the start of the season, which includes two of the three defensive captains, Caden McDonald and Olubi.
Olubi has had quite the week on the Mesa. Last week he was awarded a scholarship by SDSU in his super senior season. This week, he was named a captain after the players voted over the weekend. Olubi looks to take this momentum into the season.
The third and final defensive captain is returning safety Trenton Thompson, who is poised for a big senior season as the new leader of the secondary. The Aztecs, however, need to replace three starters in the secondary after losing all three to the NFL. While coach Hoke is pleased with how the new starters have fared in fall camp, the true test will come under the bright lights Saturday night.
Rounding out the group of five captains are offensive players Zachary Thomas (left tackle) and Daniel Bellinger (tight end), who will look to keep the offense on track with newly appointed starter Jordon Brookshire. Brookshire won the starting role after a lengthy competition among three players dating back to spring camp. Coach Hoke has repeatedly acknowledged that Brookshire’s consistency and toughness were big reasons why he won the starting role.
Brookshire started the final two games at the end of last season, which afforded him valuable experience that he can utilize at the start of this season. Brookshire and the rest of the Aztecs will lean heavily on their deep and versatile group of running backs, which includes senior Greg Bell, a preseason selection to the Maxwell Award Watch List for player of the year.
The Aztecs also look to continue their good fortunes in special teams. Junior Matt Araiza, who has been the placekicker for the Aztecs for the past two seasons, will also start the season as the team’s punter in addition to also handling kickoffs. Araiza has the talented leg to perform all three kicking roles. Coach Hoke emphasized this week that special teams are critical and a big emphasis for them, exclaiming, ”I cannot tell you how many times first games are lost because of poor special teams.”
Starting Aztec cornerback Dallas Branch has been battling a hand issue through fall camp. There is hope that he may be able to play in the season opener, but coach Hoke was unsure as of Tuesday. If Branch is unable to play, true freshman Noah Avinger would likely start in his place.
Coach Martin noted that the Aggies came out of the UTEP game with no serious injuries to report and do not expect anyone to miss the game.
Three Keys to Aztec Victory
- Do not underestimate the opponent.
During a radio interview with XTRA 1360 Fox Sports San Diego on Monday, coach Hoke detailed the importance of the players selecting their own team captains every season. “If I have to lead this team, we won’t win. It has to come from the locker room.” Leadership from the team captains will be vital to keep the team focused against a 31-point underdog opponent who lost their first game by 27 points. Coach Hoke mentioned that while the Aggies have talented skill players, they were unable to get in a rhythm due to penalties and inopportune mistakes, which “they have a week to clean up.” Olubi also noted that “everybody makes their best improvement from game one to game two, so we’re definitely not taking that lightly.” If one of the newly elected team captains has heightened awareness about the talents and skill level of the Aggies, this should trickle down to the entire team and prevent any type of letdown from the Aztecs.
- Win the turnover margin
In any football game where the talent disparity is evident, turnovers can quickly “level the playing field.” For the Aggies in their first game, they won the turnover battle 2 to 1 but still lost. However, the circumstances and timing of the turnovers can be more crucial to the outcome of the game than the number of turnovers. In recent history, the Aztecs have done a tremendous job protecting the football and taking it away from the opponent. The Aztecs are 35-2 the last 37 times they won the turnover margin. SDSU has committed one turnover or less in 17 of its last 21 games, and its 19 turnovers since the start of the 2019 season are tied for the sixth-fewest in the country.
- Dominate the running game on both sides of the ball
It’s not surprising to hear coach Hoke state, “we have to run the ball and stop the run.” It’s been the staple of the Aztecs’ success for over a decade and the successful philosophy of many winning programs. SDSU is 47-2 in the last 49 games; it has rushed for at least 200 yards. UTEP rushed for 203 yards against the Aggies in their first game. Leaning on Greg Bell and the rest of the backs and the experienced offensive line should wear down the Aggies defensive front over the course of the game. The Aggies offense includes a dual-threat QB, something the Aztecs defense is familiar defending against. They will need to continue their dominance up front and force the Aggies to rely on the passing attack to move down the field.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Kicker Ethan Albertson attended Mt. Carmel High in San Diego and Grossmont College in El Cajon
- Wide receiver Ron Vann attended Bonita Vista High in Chula Vista
- Linebacker Dylan Zolezzi attended Otay Ranch High in Chula Vista
- Offensive lineman Dylan Smith attended Carlsbad High in Carlsbad
- Quarterback Trevor Appelman attended Mater Dei Catholic in San Diego
- Defensive back Olan Cazad Jr attended Kearny High in San Diego