San Diego State Aztecs vs Utah State Aggies – MW Championship/Game Preview

Credit: Garrison/ EVT Sports

Credit: NBC Sports

San Diego State Aztecs vs. Utah State Aggies

Dignity Health Sports Park – Carson, CA

2021 Mountain West Conference Championship Game

Kickoff: Saturday, December 4th @ 12 pm

TV: Fox

“We sure are tired of saying ‘win 22’… it’s been due time to stop saying ‘win 22’ and get it done,” said San Diego State Aztecs senior linebacker Caden McDonald referring to the Aztecs mantra of winning the 22nd conference championship. It has been SDSU’s slogan since 2016 when they won the second of back-to-back titles. 

The fifth-year seniors, like McDonald, who stepped foot on campus in 2017 and have grown tired of the mantra over the past four years, finally get their opportunity when they host Utah State in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game on Saturday. 

“That’s been the goal the last five years [to win 22], and we plan on making that happen,” added senior running back Chance Bell. “It’s something that we talk about every day… it’s always been win 22,” said Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke. 

The preseason pundits surely did not expect these two teams to be playing for the conference championship. The Aztecs were picked to finish third in the West Division after a 4-4 season last year, while the Aggies were picked to finish fifth in the Mountain Division after a 1-5 record last year. The Aggies were also implementing a brand new coaching staff with a large roster turnover. 

“[I am] not sure anybody expected us to be here,” said Utah State head coach Brady Anderson during his Monday press conference. “These opportunities are rare, and we feel very fortunate to be in this game. [A] huge challenge to find a way to beat a team as well built and well-coached as SDSU.”

Due to the unexpected success of both teams this season, the game pits the top two coach of the year candidates in the Mountain West. On Tuesday, the Mountain West announced Hoke as the conference’s Coach of the Year winner over Anderson. 

San Diego State moved up two spots to 19th in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings after defeating a red hot Boise State team riding a four-game winning streak. The Aztecs also moved up several spots and landed at 19th in both major polls this week. Utah State received eight votes in the Coaches Poll to rank 32nd. 

In last year’s matchup, the Aztecs throttled the Aggies, 38-7, in Logan. The Aztecs scored touchdowns on their first four drives of the second half after holding a narrow 10-7 halftime lead. The running back trio of Greg Bell, Chance Bell, and Jordan Byrd each scored rushing touchdowns and totaled 407 yards on the ground, helping the Aztecs hold a 38 to 22 minute time of possession advantage. Quarterback Carson Baker completed 18 of 27 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, while the Aztecs defense forced three turnovers and held the Aggies to only 215 total yards of offense. 

With a win, the Aztecs keep their slim hopes of an invite to a New Year’s Six Bowl alive. If Cincinnati loses to Houston in the AAC Championship Game, the CFP committee will choose between the Aztecs and Cougars as the Group of 5 representative in the CFP bowls. Otherwise, a win would likely cement an invite to the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on December 18 at SoFi Stadium. The Aztecs are 5.5 point favorites over the Aggies. 

Opponent Information

Team: Utah State Aggies

City: Logan, UT

2021 Record: 9-3 (6-2)

Series Record Against SDSU: 2-13

Opponent

Anderson is in his first year as head coach at Utah State and 28th overall as a collegiate coach. Anderson was the head coach at Arkansas State for the past seven years in the Sun Belt Conference. His 38 conference wins are the second most in Sun Belt history. Arkansas State ranked as one of the top offensive teams in the nation during Anderson’s tenure, including 15th nationally with 489.7 total yards per game in 2020. 

Anderson was hired for his first coaching job in Division I by Rocky Long in 1999 at New Mexico, where he served as the running backs and wide receivers coach for three years. He later moved on to offensive coordinator positions at Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi, and North Carolina. 

Anderson played as a quarterback and wide receiver at Baylor for two years (1988-1989) before transferring to Sam Houston State and finishing his career as a wide receiver (1990-1991). 

The quick turnaround for the Aggies led by Anderson was aided heavily by multiple incoming transfers, including Logan Bonner, his starting quarterback at Arkansas State. The junior is the prototypical pocket passer with enough mobility to roll out and find receivers down the field. 

Utah State, the 16th best offense in the nation at 457.1 yards per game, is a pass-first team, ranking 15th with 304.8 passing yards per game. Bonner completed 228 of 377 passes for 3,242 yards, 32 touchdowns, and ten interceptions. 

Credit: SDSU Athletics

The best player on the Aggies and possibly the most dangerous player in the conference is senior wide receiver, Deven Thompkins. The senior leads the nation with 1,543 receiving yards, the single-season record by an Aggie receiver and fifth-highest by a Mountain West player (San Diego State’s J.R. Tolver is first with 1,785 in 2002). 

Thompkins hauled in 87 catches and nine touchdowns, leading to First Team All-Conference honors and a strong case for Offensive Player of the Year, which was awarded to Nevada quarterback Caron Strong instead. 

In last year’s game against the Aztecs, Thompkins caught six passes for 55 yards, including an incredible 37-yard touchdown reception on the last play of the first half. “He has a great feel for getting open, [is] really disciplined in routes…[has] very good hands,” said coach Hoke when asked why Thompkins is so effective. 

His fellow wide receivers have also found success this season. Senior Derek Wright caught a team-high ten touchdowns on 39 catches (699 yards.) Senior Brandon Bowling, another graduate transfer from Arkansas State, added seven touchdowns on 44 catches (630 yards.) Junior Justin McGriff, a transfer from Nebraska, utilizes his 6’6 and 215 lbs frame to take advantage of shorter cornerbacks in the red zone, catching 31 passes for 368 yards and five touchdowns. 

Senior wide receiver Savon Scarver is their only other offensive player named to an All-Conference team, but it was as a kick returner on the Second Team. Scarver is tied for first with four others, including Rashaad Penny, in FBS since 1976 with seven kickoff returns for touchdowns. He returned a kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown against UNLV earlier this season. The dangerous returner is a big weapon for the Aggies. Still, coach Anderson noted that given Matt Araiza’s strong leg and touchback ability, they do not expect Scarver to have a chance to return any kickoffs this week.

Junior running back and Oregon State transfer, Calvin Tyler, Jr., leads the team with 723 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Elelyon Noa, the career rushing record holder at Helix High (5,830 yards), is second on the team with 546 rushing yards and four touchdowns. 

The Aggies run an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, spreading out their skilled receiving corps to take advantage of safeties and nickel cornerbacks in coverage down the field. When they have been able to protect Bonner, their offense has hit big play after big play. Keeping Bonner upright has been a challenge, evidenced by the 20 sacks and numerous quarterback hits they have allowed. Bonner was sacked eight times by Colorado State, but no more than two in any other game this season.  

“Logan is as tough as any guy I’ve seen on film,” said coach Hoke, adding, “[he] has been hit a lot… he’s tough, he’ll stand in and take the hit and get right back. Up.” 

“We’d like to keep him upright this week…[he] has gotten hit a lot more than we would want,” said Anderson. “If we can protect well, our quickness and speed in space can be our advantage [against San Diego State’s size, length, and power].” He also noted that playing with tempo will allow them to overcome the size disadvantages at the line of scrimmage. 

Another aspect of Bonner’s play that coach Hoke admired was his ability to draw offsides penalties with a hard count. The Aztecs’ defensive line has struggled with offsides penalties all season, including against Boise State. Running tempo and mixing in hard counts can be a recipe for disaster for some defensive linemen, and the Aztecs unit will need to be cognizant of that.   

The Aggies defense has allowed 26.3 points per game and nearly 400 yards of total offense this year. However, they are third in the nation (first in the conference) with 7.8 tackles for loss per game. Senior defensive end Nick Heninger (Utah transfer) leads the team with 15.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Heninger also forced five fumbles, a team-high, earning him Honorable Mention for the All-Conference teams.  


While Heninger may be the most disruptive player upfront, their best all-around defensive player is senior linebacker Justin Rice. Rice, another Arkansas State transfer, began his collegiate career with four years at Fresno State, earning First Team All-Conference as a junior in 2019. He transferred to Arkansas State for the 2020 season and led the nation with 18.5 tackles for loss.   

This season, Rice leads the Aggies with 104 tackles and tied with two others on the team with three interceptions. He is second behind Heninger with 12 tackles for loss. Rice’s stellar play earned him Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week twice and Second Team All-Conference.

The Aggies won three of their four non-conference games. They handled North Dakota and New Mexico State by an average of 23 points and won at Washington State (6-3 in the Pac-12 Conference, one game behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North) by three to open the season. 

Their lone non-conference loss was against #12 BYU, 34-20. BYU overpowered Utah State with its size and physicality, rushing for 221 yards on 6.1 yards per carry and three touchdowns while holding the Aggies to only 22 rushing yards on 0.6 yards per carry.  

A 6-2 conference record was good enough to finish tied with Air Force for first place in the Mountain Division. The Aggies won the tiebreaker based on their 49-45 victory against Air Force. Their two conference losses (both at home) came against Boise State and Wyoming by 24 and 27 points, respectively. The loss to Wyoming was particularly surprising given the Aggies were on a five-game winning streak and controlled their own destiny heading into the last two games of the season. The Aggies allowed 362 rushing yards on 7.4 yards per carry, primarily on rushes between the tackles, and 604 total yards in the lopsided loss.

Utah State rebounded and beat New Mexico, 35-10, to finish the regular season. It was the first game all season they did not turn the ball over. When asked this week whether Utah State has an advantage because they just prepared for and played against the 3-3-5 defense, coach Hoke downplayed the significance, but provided this nugget: “I called coach Long and asked him what he thought… we want to know so we can play our best football.”

The Aggies rallied from double-digit deficits in six of their nine wins showing their resiliency and composure despite adversity. They also played their best football away from Logan, finishing a perfect 6-0 on the road. 

There is also no denying that the conference schedule greatly benefited the Aggies this season. While Boise State played the top three teams in the West Division and Air Force played two, Utah State avoided all three. The final Mountain Division standings that saw Utah State, Air Force, and Boise State finish one game apart could have ended differently with a more balanced schedule between the three teams. 

Aztecs

In addition to winning Coach of the Year, the Aztecs were very well represented on the All-Conference teams and individual awards.  

Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Thomas anchors the vaunted San Diego State defense that is second in the nation, allowing 78.5 rushing yards per game, ninth allowing 17.2 points per game, and 11th allowing 314.2 total yards per game. Thomas leads the conference with 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks while adding a team-high 19 quarterback hurries. His 18 quarterback hits are the most by any defender in the nation. 

“[Thomas] is a self-motivated guy…first one on the field [and] last one-off,” said coach Hoke when asked about the leap Thomas made this season. 

Coach Anderson credited the Aztecs’ defensive line for being the foundation of the defense. “Length combined with speed, built very well, a lot of movement and freestyle of play,” said Anderson when asked to describe the challenges they present to an offensive line. 

Senior defensive tackle Jonah Tavai, referred to as a “monster” by his teammates and “the spark plug of the defense” by coach Hoke, comes off a three-sack performance against Boise State, all registered in the fourth quarter.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Junior safety Patrick McMorris continues to lead the team with 79 tackles and intercepted Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier twice in last week’s win. In his first season as a starter, McMorris was selected First Team All-Conference after a superb season.

If coach Hoke has one complaint about his defense, it is the number of big plays they have given up this season. Hoke cited the Fresno State game as one example, but UNLV and Nevada were also able to push the ball down the field in the passing game. Against the Utah State pass offense and their explosive weapons, the Aztecs secondary will need to stay in sync on coverages to avoid any further miscommunication issues and keep receivers in front of them. 

The season-long quarterback carousel continues. The competition between Jordon Brookshire and Lucas Johnson, which started in the spring and continued into the fall, added a new chapter during the Boise State game. An injured and ineffective Johnson was pulled late in the second quarter with the Aztecs trailing by 13 points, and Brookshire led the Aztecs to 24 unanswered points and an 11-point victory. 

“[Brookshire] came in and did a great job running the offense,” said coach Hoke. “Some of [his] runs sparked the team…he was not looking to go down, he was looking to go through guys.” Brookshire completed 11 of 15 passes for 192 yards and rushed for 56 yards on eight carries. He threw a 29-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jesse Matthews and ran one in from 16 yards out. 

Coach Anderson indicated this week that they will prepare for both quarterbacks (without knowing Johnson’s injury status) but added that while the quarterbacks have some differences, schematically, it is not much of a difference. “You know what [SDSU] wants their personality to be regardless of who is quarterback,” said Anderson alluding to the Aztecs style of physical, smash-mouth offense. 

“If you show numbers, they are not afraid to put the ball in the air…[their] vertical and back shoulder fade throws are the best we’ve seen all year, and both quarterbacks throw that ball very effectively,” added Anderson. 

Senior running back Greg Bell leads the team with 949 yards on 209 carries (4.5 ypc), only needing 51 yards to reach 1,000 yards on the season. 

Junior right guard William Dunkle, one of two Aztecs offensive linemen selected to First Team All-Conference, initially committed to Utah State in December 2017. He de-committed two weeks later and signed a letter of intent with San Diego State one week later. Per Pro Football Focus, Dunkle has the sixth-highest overall offensive line grade and third-highest run-block grade in the nation. 

 Coach Anderson said that the Aztecs’ run game, especially the outside zone play, is hard to defend because “their offensive line is long and athletic and light on their feet.”

Senior Jesse Matthews is the team leader in receptions (39), receiving yards (400), and receiving touchdowns (six). The majority of that production has come in the past two games, though, where he collected 18 receptions for 208 yards and four touchdowns. 

“Jesse is not the fastest guy on the field, he’s not the biggest, strongest, quickest guy, but he is a football player,” said coach Hoke. “He makes plays. He’s a great teammate.”

The nation’s leading punter, Matt Araiza, will look to rebound after missing two of four field goals against Boise State from 48 and 42 yards out, respectively. His 51.5 yard per punt average continues to be a potential single-season FBS record, although the margin has decreased by a couple of yards over the last month. Coach Anderson marveled at Araiza’s ability to flip the entire field on one play but added he hopes Araiza will be kicking a lot of punts signifying that their defense is stopping the Aztecs’ offense from scoring. 


Injury Updates

The Aztecs’ main injury concerns are at quarterback and field goal holder. Coach Hoke stated on Monday that he is unsure whether Lucas Johnson (right knee) will be a full participant at practice this week, so all signs point to Brookshire starting on Saturday. He also did not specify the status of holder Jack Browning who missed the Boise State game with an unspecified illness, but indicated he expects backup kicker David Delgado to continue as the holder. 

The Broncos have not reported any injuries for this game. 

Opponent’s San Diego Connection

  • Sophomore wide receiver Quinton Hadnot attended Mission Hills High
  • Sophomore running back Elelyon Noa attended Helix High
  • Sophomore tight end Jack Drews attended Ramona High
  • Junior wide receiver Tim Patrick Jr attended Morse High
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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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