San Diego State Aztecs vs. Towson Tigers – Week 4/Game Preview

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

San Diego State vs. Towson Tigers

Dignity Health Sports Park – San Diego, CA

Kickoff: Saturday, September 25 @ 1230pm

TV: Stadium (streaming)

Fan Giveaway: SDSU hat to first 10,000 fans

The Aztecs look to complete a sweep of their 2021 non-conference schedule and start the season 4-0 for only the second time in the past 40 seasons this Saturday afternoon against Towson. 

This will be the first-ever matchup for the Aztecs against this particular FCS opponent. The last FCS team the Aztecs faced was Weber State to open their 2019 season. The Aztecs were fortunate to win that game in a defensive struggle, 6-0.  

The first 10,000 fans will receive an SDSU hat for attending the game. Given the afternoon kickoff time, those hats will come in very handy, especially for season ticket holders who have seats behind the Aztec sideline that is not on the shaded side of the stadium. When asked what factored into the decision to have the home sideline be on the sunny side of the stadium instead of the shaded side, head coach Brady Hoke answered, “I like the sun. I like exactly where we are at.”  

Those Aztec fans who will not be able to make the trip up the freeway to attend the game will need to make sure they have their wifi and favorite streaming and casting devices ready to go to watch the game. While the game will be televised on Stadium TV, that is a channel very few carriers provide. Therefore, streaming via the Stadium website will be the primary option.

This will be the second non-conference opponent the Aztecs will have faced this season which had its 2020 season canceled due to COVID-19 (the first being New Mexico State.) The Towson players also voted to opt-out of playing a six-game spring season. 

Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After two consecutive victories against Pac-12 opponents, the Aztecs have begun climbing the polls. While not yet in the Top 25 of either of the major polls, they received 41 votes in the Coaches Poll and 16 votes in the AP poll this week. While a victory against an FCS opponent this week will likely not ascend them into the top 25, it should get them a little closer as teams in front of them lose. 

A win will get the Aztecs to 4-0 heading into their only bye week of the season before beginning their eight-game in eight weeks conference schedule. 

Coach Hoke was mindful of the complacency that may come upon a team that is coming off a huge emotional victory against Utah and looking ahead to a bye week instead of an FCS opponent. It would be a “recipe for disaster if they are complacent,” stated coach Hoke, while reiterating he believes his team will prepare and be ready to play on Saturday. 

Left tackle Zachary Thomas backed up coach Hoke’s sentiments, stating, “as a team captain, I’m just making sure we are treating this game the same as every other because every game is just as important as the last, no matter if it’s FCS, FBS, Pac-12, Mountain West, whatever it may be.”

Opponent Information

Team: Towson Tigers

City: Towson, MD

Conference: Colonial Athletic Association (FCS) 

2021 Record: 1-2

Series Record Against SDSU: N/A

Opponent

Towson head coach Rob Ambrose began his time at the university in 1989 as a player, then served as an assistant coach for seven years before departing for other coaching opportunities. He eventually returned to Towson in 2009 as the team’s head coach. 

Credit: Twitter/ @enpphotography

Towson has not won a CAA title since winning the conference in back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012.  The 2011 title made the Tigers the first team in NCAA history to make the postseason at the Division III, Division II, and the FCS levels of college football. The Tigers have never won the FCS championship in their history. 

The two most successful NFL players from Towson are punter Sean Landeta and running back/kick returner Dave Meggett. Landeta played 22 years in the NFL from 1985 through 2006, while Meggett played ten years from 1989 through 1998. Landeta was named to the NFL 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams. Meggett amassed 3,708 punt return yards throughout his career, which are second-most in NFL history behind Brian Mitchell. Both players were key contributors on the 1990 New York Giants Super Bowl championship team, while Landeta also won a Super Bowl with the Giants in 1986. 

This year’s Tigers are a very experienced team. They have the most seniors of any team at the FCS level. While some of those seniors are grad transfers who are new to the program, their years of experience at prior FCS and FBS schools have helped them get acclimated to a new program and scheme sooner.

The biggest question mark for the Tigers heading into fall camp was who would replace departing starting quarterback Tom Flacco, who was a two-year starter through the 2019 season and is now playing in the Canadian Football League. Flacco is the younger brother of Joe Flacco, who has played in the NFL for the past 14 years and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. 

Coach Ambrose admitted in a fall camp interview that he was very disappointed with his quarterback play in spring camp. Still, with the addition of graduate transfer Chris Ferguson, in June, he was pleased with where they ended up heading into the season opener. 

Ferguson played at Maine for three years, leading them to the 2018 CAA title and to the FCS semifinals. He totaled over 6,000 passing yards and 28 TDs while at Maine. He transferred to Liberty and played the 2020 season there before transferring again this year to Towson. So far this season, Ferguson has had mixed results, completing 44 of 75 pass attempts for 463 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs, including a 73 yard TD pass to Darian Street in their opening game. 

The core of the Tigers offense, though, is built around their offensive line, which coach Ambrose credits as the “age, experience and wisdom of the offense.” Their line is anchored by All-CAA standout senior left guard Aaron Grzymkowski.

Aztec defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix called coach Ambrose “old school” based on his hard-nosed principles of running the ball and controlling the clock. Coach Hoke affirmed coach Mattix’s assertion about their power run game with big, physical running backs and likened their power offense to Wyoming’s based on the “the different sets bringing in a jumbo offensive lineman as a tight end in a position to gain the line of scrimmage.”

Aztec defensive tackle Jonah Tavai further reiterated his coach’s statements stating, “They want to run the ball. They are a good-sized o-line. They are very physical. They are trying to run downhill.”

On defense, coach Ambrose believes this is the most talented front seven depth they have ever had, which allows them to rotate players and keep them fresh throughout the game. Linebacker Christian Dixon was the leading tackler in the front-7 in the 2019 season with 77 along with 4.5 sacks. 

Their best defensive player is safety SJ Brown II, who led the team with 87 tackles in 2019. He has continued his great play so far this season, collecting 29 tackles through three games. In their last game against North Dakota State, Brown led all players with 16 tackles plus an interception in the red zone to thwart a Bison scoring attempt. 

Despite being an FCS team, the talent level on the Tigers is evident and further cemented by the official Towson Football Twitter account’s tweet thanking the New York Jets scouting department for visiting their practice this week. 

The Tigers opened their season with a 31-0 victory against Morgan State in the “The Battle for Greater Baltimore.” It was their first shutout since 2017.

They followed their victory over the Bears with a 26-14 conference loss to New Hampshire. They played tough until the very end, but four turnovers were ultimately too much to overcome. They changed quarterbacks in the second quarter after several mistakes by Ferguson and inserted redshirt junior Jeff Miller, who attended nearby Murrieta High School. 

In the 35-7 loss to North Dakota State, the Tigers were soundly beaten on both sides of the ball by a very talented Bison team who have won eight of the past ten FCS championships. Ferguson was sacked five times in the game, and the Tigers only rushed for 37 yards while allowing 328 to the Bison.     

After last week’s game, Ferguson was ready to move on to the San Diego State game, which he stated was a “big opportunity for us.” He and the rest of the players are looking forward to making the cross-country trek to the West Coast and playing an undefeated team and nationally ranked in most defensive categories. 


Player to Know

Senior running back Jerry Howard Jr. The graduate transfer who played with Lucas Johnson at Georgia Tech is the primary skill position player for the Tigers. At Georgia Tech, Howard rushed for 850 rushing yards. Coach Ambrose described Howard, who is 6’0 and 230lbs, as a big, smart back with great vision and balance. “Once he gets going, tackling him sounds painful,” exclaimed coach Ambrose. Aztec defensive tackle Jonah Tavai says his defensive front is excited to play against such a physical back and added, “We like the challenge.”

Through three games, Howard has rushed for 187 yards and 1 TD while adding six catches for 47 yards. He has carried the ball 18 times in each of the past two games, so the Aztecs know they will need to key in on Howard to stop the Tigers running game. 

Aztecs

Despite being 3-0 and showing dominant flashes in each of the first three games, the Aztecs are still looking to put together a complete, 60-minute performance in all phases. 

Regardless of who has started at quarterback for the Aztecs, they have been able to run the ball at will against their opponents. Greg Bell enters this game fourth in the FBS with 405 rushing yards. After rushing for over 100 in every contest this season, he now has passed the century mark in seven of his ten career games with the Aztecs.

SDSU, Aztecs
Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

A big part of that rushing success is due to the stellar play of the offensive line. Senior left tackle Zachary Thomas is the top-rated offensive line blocker in the nation according to Pro Football Focus (minimum 90 snaps this season) with a grade of 94 over 202 snaps. He was also named to the Pro Football Focus Week 3 Team of the Week for his performance against Utah. While Thomas admitted it was super satisfying to get highly rated, he was quick to give credit to his teammates. “I couldn’t do it without the rest of my offensive line and my running backs, so big shout out to them.”

Given Jordon Brookshire’s continued health issue, Lucas Johnson will likely get his second consecutive start this Saturday. Outside of a 54 yard run in the 3rd quarter, a TD pass in the first overtime, and the game-winning catch on the “Aztec Special” in the third overtime, Johnson’s performance was uneven as the Aztecs pounded the run for 45 carries. 

Johnson protected the football well and did not commit a turnover against Utah. He will need to be just as careful with the ball as his carries and pass attempts increase this week.  

“Lucas has great energy and great confidence,” stated offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski, which they used to their advantage coming out of halftime against Utah. Look for the Aztecs to get their passing game back on track by targeting the tight ends and wide receivers much more than they did against Utah.

The Aztec defense will look to regain their dominance against Towson after giving up two late touchdowns to Utah to send the game to overtime and then giving up a touchdown in the first overtime after only surrendering three points over the first three quarters. Coach Mattix attributed the defensive breakdown late in the game to poor tackling and allowing Utah’s backup quarterback to break contain and make plays outside the pocket.  

The Aztecs will also get Patrick McMorris back to start the game after he was ejected in the first half against Utah for a targeting penalty. If McMorris had been called for targeting in the second half of the game, he would have to sit out the first half of the next game as well. 

Special teams continued to delight for the Aztecs as Jordan Byrd returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD against Utah to tie the game at 10. The punt coverage team would have had another block returned for a TD if not for an offside penalty by Andrew Alves that resulted in a Utah first down. 

Credit: Deseret News

Kicker Matt Araiza continued his stellar punting on the season, now averaging an FBS high 53.8 yards per punt over 25 attempts. He is also tied for first in FBS with ten punts inside the 20-yard line. While he added a career-long 51-yard field goal, he also missed two field goals, including one in the second overtime from 36 yards out. Coach Hoke does not believe the missed field goals are attributed to having too heavy of a workload performing all three phases of the kicking game but stated that they would alter Araiza’s duties if the kicker came to the coaching staff and told them that it was affecting his performance.  

After committing sixteen penalties for 165 yards over the first two games and drawing coach Hoke’s ire, the Aztecs only committed five penalties for 49 yards against Utah. One of those penalties was a pass interference call against Noah Tumblin that coach Hoke disagrees with and believes Tumblin played it well. 

However, two of the penalties (Alves offside and McMorris targeting) led to the Utes scoring three points on that drive. “Any pre-snap penalties are really dumb penalties, and you can’t have them,” said coach Hoke. “Part of it is the guys are playing hard and all that, but there’s got to be some composure and some discipline that we have to have.” 

The Aztecs will have another chance this Saturday to show their composure and discipline by not committing any more “dumb” penalties. 

Injury Updates

While Brookshire returned to practice in a limited capacity this week, coach Hoke stated that if the game were to be played on Wednesday, he would not start. While he left the door open depending on how the rest of the week goes, it is expected that Johnson will get his second consecutive start this Saturday. If Brookshire is unable to go, true freshman William Haskell will be one snap away from playing. Hoke confirmed the former Arizona prep star would be the backup to Johnson if Brookshire is unable to play.

Cornerback Dallas Branch is no longer listed on the depth chart for this week, which suggests he will miss his fourth consecutive game due to injury. Noah Tumblin has solidified himself as the starter for the second cornerback position, with Noah Avinger still expected to get snaps there as the backup. 

It’s possible that both cornerbacks may start against Towson depending on cornerback Tayler Hawkins’ availability. Hawkins was injured late in the fourth quarter and missed the remainder of the game. SDSU has provided no update on Hawkins. 

Right guard William Dunkle also did not finish the game against Utah, and no update has been provided by the Aztecs on his condition. It is possible that the coaching staff may play cautious and hold out some of their banged-up players this week, considering the opponent and the upcoming bye week giving them an additional week for full recovery.  

The Tigers have not reported any injuries for this week’s game. 

Opponent’s San Diego Connection

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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America's Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.

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