San Diego State Aztecs vs. Utah Utes
Dignity Health Sports Park – Carson, California
Kickoff: Saturday, September 18 @ 4pm
TV: CBS Sports Network
For the second consecutive contest, the Aztecs will take on a Pac-12 team coming off a loss to the BYU Cougars. Last Saturday, the San Diego State Aztecs played on the road at Arizona, who lost to BYU 24-16. This Saturday, the Utah Utes will come to Dignity Health Sports Park on the heels of a 26-17 loss to the Cougars.
The first meeting between the two teams was in 1978. Over the next three decades, they met nearly every year. When they renew their series this weekend, it will be the first meeting between the former conference mates in ten years. The Aztecs and Utes last met in 2010 before Utah transitioned from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011. SDSU’s attempt to upset the 25th ranked Utes led by Ryan Lindley’s 528 yards and four touchdowns fell short, 38-34.
The Utes were ranked 21st/18th in the two major polls before the BYU game, are now unranked but in the “others receiving votes” section of both. The Aztecs are in the “others receiving votes” section of the Coaches Poll with nine votes, and received no votes in the AP Poll.
The Aztecs and Utes are first and second among all FBS teams in the longest active streak of holding opponents to 450 yards or less. Utah is first at 26 games, while San Diego State is second at 24. No other team has a streak of longer than 18 games.
The Aztecs are eight-point underdogs according to BetMGM Sportsbooks going into this game, which is surprising given last week’s outcomes and the Aztecs playing at home.
After defeating Arizona this past Saturday night, the Aztecs are now 6-2 against Pac-12 teams since 2016, improving their winning percentage against the Power 5 conference to .750. It is the best non-conference winning percentage against the conference in the nation. Half of SDSU’s six victories have come on the road.
This game is the annual “Blackout” that urges Aztec fans to wear black to the game. Given the quality of the opponent, San Diego State expects a higher turnout than the 10,112 announced attendance for the home opener against New Mexico State.
In his postgame remarks on Saturday, head coach Brady Hoke spoke about the importance of a great turnout for this game. “We need Aztec Nation! We need everyone that we can get who bleeds that Red and Black up to Carson because it’s going to be a heck of a football game.”
Team: Utah Utes
City: Salt Lake City, UT
2021 Record: 1-1
Series Record Against SDSU: 17-12-1 (5 game winning streak)
Know your Opponent
Head coach Kyle Whittingham has led the Utes to a winning season in 14 of his 16 years as head coach after replacing Urban Meyer, who left to become head coach at Florida, in 2004. He was the defensive coordinator at Utah for ten years before becoming the head coach.
The Utes return 19 starters from last year’s team, which went 3-2 in a shortened season after three of their eight scheduled Pac-12 conference games were canceled due to COVID-19.
This year, they added Baylor transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer to the returning starters. Brewer was a three-year starter at Baylor and threw for 9,700 yards and 65 touchdowns for the Bears. When asked for his assessment on Brewer, coach Hoke stated, “he is athletic enough to extend the pocket and make some things happen and he has a strong arm…has really good touch.”
The Utes beat Weber State in their opening game at home, 40-17, before their loss to BYU in the annual “Holy War” rivalry game. It was the first time Utah had lost to BYU since 2009.
The Utes, who are typically known for their physical presence on both lines of scrimmage, were pushed around and bullied by BYU’s offensive and defensive lines all game.
They allowed BYU to rush for 231 yards, including 92 yards on eight carries by quarterback Jaren Hall, after failing to seal off the edges on multiple rush attempts. “I would have bet my house going in tonight that we would not lose the line of scrimmage,” coach Whittingham said. “I would never have seen that coming where we didn’t control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we do best. Had zero sacks, zero takeaways on defense.”
The turning point in the game could have been a fourth and two that Utah faced at the BYU 8 yard line, down 10-7. In lieu of kicking a 25-yard field goal to tie the game, the Utes went for it but were stuffed short on a draw play up the middle. Coach Whittingham cited a blown assignment on the play. BYU took the ensuing possession 93 yards for a TD for a huge momentum changer and never looked back.
One aspect of the game that the Utes performed well in, statistically, was in the running game. Running back Micah Bernard rushed for 146 yards on 12 carries and one TD. 102 of those yards came on three plays, including a 50-yard run. The previous starting running back, Tavion Thomas, lost a fumble in each of the first two games of the season and seems to have lost the feature role to Bernard.
“I thought Micah Bernard was a big bright spot on offense, rushing for nearly 150 yards. It was insane. His average per carry was over 12 yards and added four catches for another  yards. He was a big part of the offense,” expressed coach Whittingham.
Coach Whittingham was very impressed with the Aztecs’ performance against Arizona last week and realizes they pose big problems for his team.
”It was impressive to watch that tape and see how they operate…the offensive line is physical. We’re going to see every bit as physical an o-line this week as we did last week, which means we have to rise up and play much better.”
The Utes will be counting on their team leaders to refocus and re-energize the team after last week’s loss and prepare them to face the Aztecs.
Player to Know
Chula Vista native, junior linebacker Devin Lloyd. The former Otay Ranch High star is the leader of the Utes defense. He was named to the Pac-12 Conference First Team in 2020 and selected to the Preseason Pac-12 Conference First Team in 2021. He has been a force in the first two games of the season, collecting 25 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass defensed, and an interception. He earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after the game against Weber State.
“He’s always been a leader, ever since day one,” exclaimed Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan about Lloyd. “He brings not only defensive guys along, offensive guys too. He demands a lot from himself, a lot from his teammates. He’s constantly striving for success. He’s very compelling in the fact that he tries to bring others along.”
Lloyd is a prototypical linebacker that can run sideline to sideline and disrupt plays in the running and passing games. The Aztecs, and specifically quarterback Jordon Brookshire, will need to identify where Lloyd lines up pre-snap and potentially audible into plays going away from his side.
After starting the season playing one of the worst halves of Aztec football in some time, the Aztecs have put together three consecutive stellar halves since then, including the dominant first half last week, where they raced out to a 35-7 lead at intermission. “We wanted to start fast. We didn’t do that the week before,” stated coach Hoke.
The Aztecs come into their matchup against the Utes with all three phases of the game clicking.
On offense, Brookshire bounced back after a poor first game and showed why the Aztecs coaching staff selected him as the starter heading into the opening game. When asked why Brookshire was more successful leading the offense this week, coach Hoke reiterated that “it takes all eleven. [We] ran the ball well. Blocked well at the line of scrimmage [which] gives the quarterback more confidence and a better feel of what is going on. Playing in rhythm is very important.”
While the running game continues to excel, the spark plug for the offense was the different ways the Aztecs schemed to get tight end Daniel Bellinger the ball quick and let him make plays in the open field. He ended with 113 receiving yards and a TD.
“We had it schemed up all week,” admitted Bellinger. “They were great designed plays by coach (Hecklinski). We practiced it all week, we practiced it all spring and all fall, and we finally got a chance to run it. It was executed great. The overall scheme was set up by great plays before that, but the execution by the receivers and (quarterback Jordon) Brookshire really made the play.”
In order for the Aztecs offense to be balanced, Bellinger will have to be a big factor in the passing game, whether it’s catching screens, quick outs, or as a safety valve in the middle of the field.
The Aztecs’ defense continued where it left off against New Mexico State and dominated the line of scrimmage against Arizona. While they only forced one turnover, they forced ten “3 and outs,” and Arizona only completed 1 of 13 third-down conversions. This week, they will face a tough task defending against the Utes run game and keeping Brewer in check, throwing down the field.
Special teams will once again be a crucial aspect for Aztec success. Punter Matt Araiza leads the nation in average yardage per punt with a 55 yard average on sixteen punts. The Aztecs coverage teams are also wreaking havoc after running back Kaegun Williams blocked a punt in the first quarter that was returned for a TD by wide receiver Tyrell Shavers. For his efforts, Williams was named the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week.
One aspect that has drawn coach Hoke’s ire after both games this season, but especially after the Arizona game, is penalties. After committing eight penalties for 81 yards in the opener, the Aztecs added another eight penalties for 84 yards against Arizona. On one drive in the 4th quarter, the defense gave up 45 penalty yards, allowing Arizona to march down the field and score their second TD of the game.
Since the New Mexico State game, Coach Hoke has spoken about the need to eliminate penalties in every press conference or media interview. “We have to prepare with an edge, and we have to play with an edge. At the same time, you can play with an edge, but when you start to hurt your football team, you have to look internally and say ‘hey, I have to be smarter than that.’” We will find out on Saturday whether the Aztecs have turned the corner in this regard.
Brookshire hurt his lower leg during the first half against Arizona and limped off the field after the completion of the drive. While he did not miss a play until being replaced by Lucas Johnson when the game was out of reach in the second half, his status for Saturday’s game is unknown. If Brookshire is unable to play, Johnson would get his first start of the season.
Starting cornerback Dallas Branch has missed the first two games of the season and no update has been provided on his status. Expect Noah Avinger and Noah Tumblin to continue to play in his place.
Utah has not reported any injuries for the upcoming game.
Three Keys to an Aztec Victory
- Rush for over 200 yards
If you have read our first two-game previews of the season, this statistic will not come as a surprise. The Aztecs, after rushing for over 200 yards and winning each of their first two games this season, are now 49-2 in their last 51 games when rushing over 200 yards. The Utes allowed 231 yards in their loss to BYU. This sets up a recipe for the Aztecs to continue their rushing dominance. Given BYU QB Jaren Hall’s ability to get to the edge numerous times against the Utes and rush for 92 yards, look for whichever quarterback starts for the Aztecs to have a bigger role in the rush offense this week.
- Win the turnover margin
Utah was even in the turnover battle (2-2) against Weber State and won the game by 23. Against BYU, they were 0-2 in the turnover battle and lost by nine. Conversely, SDSU was even (3-3) against New Mexico State and won by 18 and were 1-0 against Arizona and won by 24. SDSU has now committed one turnover or less in 18 of its last 23 games. If they can make it 19 out of 24 while forcing at least one turnover from Utah, they will have an excellent chance for victory.
- Win on Third Down
Utah allowed BYU to convert 11 of 19 on third-down conversions while only converting on 2 of 9 themselves on offense. In contrast, SDSU converted 5 of 14 while holding Arizona to only 1 of 13. “You want to get the opponent’s offense off the field… and we want to get our offense back out there,” answered coach Hoke when asked why third-down success is important. San Diego State is 47-5 the last 52 times it has held the opposition to a 33% or less mark on third down. In a game that will be won in the trenches, whichever team can get themselves in more favorable third and short situations than third and long should have the upper hand in a higher conversion percentage and a great chance to win the game.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Linebacker Devin Lloyd attended Otay Ranch High in Chula Vista, CA
- Cornerback Elisha Lloyd attended Mission Hills High in San Marcos, CA
- Linebacker Andrew Mata’afa attended Mt. Carmel High in San Diego, CA
- Wide receiver Devaughn Vele attended Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, CA
- Fullback Joe Ludwig is from Poway, CA