Before diving into this week’s keys, let us revisit last week’s three keys to victory against Nevada and how they impacted the Aztecs’ victory.
Get pressure on Carson Strong with a three-man rush
On Monday, defensive end Cameron Thomas said that the Aztecs utilized a three-man rush against Nevada more than he could ever remember. The Aztecs finished with three sacks and consistently moved Carson Strong off his spot and forced him to scramble out of the pocket.
With eight men in coverage on those three-man rushes, Strong was unable to find open receivers, forcing him to either throw the ball away or run out of bounds. The three guys up front (Thomas, Keshawn Banks, and Jonah Tavai) did a masterful job on maximum effort to not allow Strong to get comfortable and force him into -23 net rushing yards for the game.
Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns
The Aztecs scored touchdowns on their first two red zone opportunities and kicked the game-winning field goal with less than 90 seconds remaining on their third. Their biggest play of the game up until the two-minute mark in the fourth quarter was the final play of the Aztecs’ first drive into the red zone.
After their drive stalled on the five-yard line, coach Hoke opted to kick a 22-yard field goal. The kick was blocked by Nevada, but a defensive holding penalty on defensive tackle Dom Peterson negated the block and gave the Aztecs a 4th and 2 from the two-yard line. While typically, a defensive holding penalty is an automatic first down regardless of the down and distance, that rule is only on passing plays. Since the penalty came on a non-passing play, the Aztecs still faced a fourth-down, three yards closer.
This time, coach Hoke decided to go for the touchdown. “I felt we needed seven points instead of field goals,” he said on Monday when asked why he changed his mind. Lucas Johnson found Daniel Bellinger in the back of the end zone on the play, and those four points were monumental in a game the Aztecs won by two.
Stay under five penalties and less than 40 yards
After averaging 66 yards on seven penalties per game, the Aztecs played their cleanest game of the season against Nevada, committing only two penalties for 20 yards. In contrast, Nevada committed nine penalties for 77 yards. In a two-point victory, one additional Aztec penalty or one less Wolfpack penalty could have swung the outcome in a different direction.
The victory over Nevada kept the Aztecs in control of their own destiny as they pursue a berth in the conference championship. SDSU has a one-game lead over Fresno State and Nevada. The Aztecs can clinch their division with a win on Friday coupled with a Fresno State loss on Thanksgiving night to San Jose State. Here are the three keys to victory against UNLV.
Win the “Middle 8”
The “Middle 8” is considered the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo places a big emphasis on the importance of this period to his team. It is a good barometer of how a team can excel in a two or four-minute end of half situation and how well they understand and implement halftime adjustments at the start of the third quarter. Against Hawaii this past week, UNLV enjoyed a +10 scoring advantage in the “Middle 8.” The Aztecs have dominated the third quarter this season, holding an 89-24 scoring edge through ten games. After struggling at the end of half situations defensively last season, they have improved dramatically this season, only allowing seven points (touchdown to Towson) in the last four minutes of the first half. The Aztecs hold a 41-7 “Middle 8” scoring advantage this season.
Hold the “Chuck Wagon” to less than 75 yards rushing
UNLV’s running back Charles Williams comes off 266 rushing yards against Hawaii, his second 200+ yard performance of the season. Williams has also had some subpar games this season, held to only 42 yards on 19 carries by Iowa State and 30 yards on 17 carries by Nevada. Williams has played the Aztecs four times in his college career already, totaling 246 rushing yards on 55 carries (4.5 ypc) but zero touchdowns. If the Aztecs can hold Williams to less than 75 yards and force quarterback Cameron Friel to beat them through the air, the Aztecs secondary will have plenty of opportunities for interceptions.
Lucas Johnson continues to play confident and decisive with limited mistakes
In the Aztecs’ only loss of the season, Johnson committed all three turnovers in the game, throwing two awful interceptions and fumbling a handoff to running back Greg Bell. In the past two games, his only turnover came on a strip-sack from his blind side. He has completed 33 of 50 passes (66%) in those two games with no interceptions. Coach Hoke said after the Nevada game that Johnson’s improved play is due to him being more decisive and “not making dumb throws.” Johnson will need to continue this trend if the Aztecs want to win this game and eventually their 22nd conference championship.