SDSU Aztecs; How the West was won

Credit: Garrison/EVT

Credit: Garrison/EVT

For the third time since the conference’s inception, the Aztecs will play in the Mountain West Championship game. As part of the East Village Times’ preparation for the big game, we take a look back at the 2021 regular season. Each game on the schedule added a little to the canvas to shape how the West Division was won. The contests played a key role in preparing SDSU for its biggest challenge of the season in its quest to Win 22.

Game One: San Diego State University 28 New Mexico State 10

Picked to finish third in the West Division in the preseason poll, SDSU entered 2021 with a chip on its shoulder. Despite internal confidence, this was a 4-4 club in 2020 with a new coaching staff, and aside from the first two contests of 2020, the team had not shown any signs of dominance under the new regime. The first half against the Aggies reinforced the worst fears from a fan base that literally booed the team off the field. After the intermission, SDSU came out a different team. It took basically one quarter to put up 28 points and seal the win.

Star of the Game: Matt Araiza

The Aztecs trailed 10-0 at the half, but it could have been more if not for Araiza. NMSU tried to win the field position battle, but SDSU’s punter would not allow it. Kicking at sea level, Araiza averaged 56.8 yards on nine punts. He hit a long of 77 yards, nailed six kicks over 50 yards, and pinned four punts inside the 20. Inexplicably, he did not win MW Special Teams Player of the Week.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

SDSU has proven to be a terrific third-quarter team all season. Nothing that takes place in the first half against the Utah State Aggies will cause the team to panic. The message at halftime has been the same each week, “Play Aztec football.” This team has yet to play four complete quarters of football all season. The game against NMSU showed that when the Aztecs have all phases of the game working, they are an elite team capable of knocking off anyone.

Game Two: San Diego State University 38 Arizona 14

Week two found the Aztecs on the road for the University of Arizona’s home opener. For the Wildcats, it was the first time the Tucson faithful had a chance to see a Jedd Fisch-led team in person. SDSU entered the game as a slight underdog, but they wasted no time showing how foolish the betting line was. The Aztecs scored 35 of the team’s 38 points in the first half and coasted to a victory in the second half.

Star of the Game: Daniel Bellinger

While Jordon Brookshire received the most accolades postgame, Bellinger was the true star. During spring and fall camps, he worked to be more dangerous after the catch, and his efforts paid off against the Wildcats. Bellinger snagged only three receptions on the day but turned those few touches into a touchdown, two first downs, and 113 total receiving yards. Only one pass was thrown more than five yards past the line of scrimmage.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Arizona’s best player is Stanley Berryhill. He is the closest thing the Aztecs have seen all season to Utah State’s best player Deven Thompson. Berryhill is 5’11” and caught 83 passes, Thompson is 5’8” and caught 87. Thompson presents an even bigger challenge, but SDSU’s game against Arizona is the closest approximation to the MW first team all-conference performer. 

Credit: Garrison/EVT

Game Three: San Diego State University 33 Utah 31

Another Pac-12 matchup awaited the Aztecs as they returned to Carson to play the Utes. Utah, ranked coming into the season, was fresh off a loss to BYU in Provo and hungry to get back in the win column. SDSU, meanwhile, was looking for respect. The Aztecs dominated the Utes for three and a half quarters and led by 14 with 6:33 left. In the final stretch of the game, Utah came alive and sent the game to overtime. The teams needed three overtimes to settle the game.

It was the first time the Aztecs played with the new OT rules. After the team’s traded touchdowns and missed field goals in the first two overtimes, they headed to the two-yard line right in front of SDSU’s student section, with each squad getting one play to make a two-point attempt. The Aztecs got the ball first and scored on a pass from Jesse Matthews to Lucas Johnson. When replay showed Utah’s attempt failed, SDSU celebrated a 33-31 victory.

Star of the Game: Segun Olubi

The defense was nothing short of dominant for most of the game. They only gave up three points until the final two drives of regulation. Olubi led the team with eight tackles and was tied with Cameron Thomas for the lead with three quarterback hurries. The former walk-on turned team captain cemented his place in the lore of SDSU sports against Utah as one of the players who best embodies what the Aztecs have been for the past fifteen years.  

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Everyone knew the defense was going to be good coming into 2021. The question was how good. Dominating a Power Five school, whose success is predicated on being a physical football team, gave the unit even more confidence. SDSU will need one of its best performances of the year to win Saturday. They proved against Utah that they are more than capable of getting the job done.

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

Game Four: San Diego State University 48 Towson 21

San Diego State played an FCS school to close out its non-conference slate. Towson was down only seven at the half after SDSU’s defense collapsed in the waning seconds before intermission. Any thoughts of the Tigers registering an upset were short-lived. Less than a minute into the second half, Tyrell Shavers blocked a punt, and Trenton Thompson returned it for the score. Their efforts gave State a 28-14 lead, and the Aztecs easily moved to 4-0, building a 48-14 lead before surrendering a touchdown late.

Star of the Game: Tyrell Shavers

When Shavers transferred from the SEC, Aztec Nation dreamed of the receiver blessed with great size and speed, tearing up the competition on SDSU’s schedule. Shavers has played a lot of snaps at wideout and contributed with 16 receptions, 184 yards, and 1 TD, but the story of the junior’s season has been his embrace of the Aztec Way. Shavers’ toughness, grit, and desire to compete every snap has been exceptional.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Utah was the last team to play according to script against the Aztecs. SDSU’s defense played so well in stopping what the Utes do best. Every subsequent team played against their tape when matching up with Kurt Mattix’ group. This trend started with Towson, who abandoned their identity as a physical running team because it gave them the best chance to win. SDSU has grown to expect the unexpected.

 

Game Five: San Diego State 31 New Mexico 7

Rocky Long’s return to coach against his former squad went off without a hitch for the Aztecs. The defense pitched a shutout, with the Lobos only score coming by way of a fumble return. The game saw the return of Jordon Brookshire from injury, but his subpar game was the beginning of a downward slide that saw him demoted to third-string the following game.

Star of the Game: Cameron Thomas

The difference between SDSU’s defenses of the past and the 2021 unit is a dominant line and a true, unquestioned star. Following the New Mexico game, the trajectory of the Hometown Hero’s career became evident. Thomas will be a very high pick, possibly a first-round selection in the upcoming draft. On a defense with several talented and productive players, Thomas has been able to separate himself by quite a large margin.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

The game against New Mexico cathartically put to rest the Rocky Long era. As the team huddled around their former coach, a new chapter in the history of SDSU football started. The majority of the players on the squad were recruited under Long, but the team is Brady Hoke’s. Long won a pair of back-to-back titles as the head man for the Aztecs. Saturday will be Hoke’s first chance to raise a conference title. When Long “retired.” he said Hoke would be the coach to take the program to new heights. With a pair of wins to end the season, that prediction will go a long way to coming true.

Game Six: San Diego State 19 San Jose State 13

SDSU’s second conference game came against the reigning conference champions on the road. Brookshire’s offensive struggles continued leading to Johnson’s insertion into the game late in the fourth quarter. The defense was spectacular throughout, and the game went into overtime. After exchanging scores in the first extra period, Trenton Thompson intercepted a Nick Nash pass, setting SDSU up, needing only a field goal to win the game. Offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski called a run, but Johnson audibled the play and lofted a pass to Jesse Matthews for a walk-off touchdown.


Star of the Game: Lucas Johnson

The Hometown Hero entered the game with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the game tied at six. He did not provide an immediate spark for the team, but in overtime, he unlocked one of the team’s mysteries. Jesse Matthews has been SDSU’s best offensive player the last half of the season, but he was virtually non-existent before the overtime against SJSU. Johnson and Matthew’s connections against the Spartans reminded the league and, perhaps, the team’s quarterbacks where to turn to when they need a clutch play.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

If the win over New Mexico started a new chapter in Aztec football, the win over SJSU provided detail of the identity of the 2021 team. 1-0 is the weekly mantra, and in this game, they clawed and scratched their way to a victory. On Saturday, 1-0 brings the program its 22nd Championship. Whether the game is a shootout or a defensive struggle, the Aztecs will grind to come out victorious.

Game Seven: San Diego State 20 Air Force 14

SDSU went to Colorado Springs as underdogs against the Air Force Academy that needed a win to solidify their position atop the standings in the Mountain Division. Behind an offense that only managed ten first downs and less than 75 yards passing, the Aztecs comfortably took down a Falcons team that won nine games. SDSU relied on great defense and special teams to leave Colorado with a win.

Star of the Game: Matt Araiza

Araiza’s fame was beginning to rise, inviting the nation to tune into the contest. The electric punter did not disappoint. On five punts, he averaged 54.8 yards, including an 81-yard bomb that traveled more than 70 yards in the air. He also pinned Air Force inside the 20 on four of his five attempts. Araiza also provided the winning scoring margin by knocking in two field goals, the second of which was from 51 yards.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

The victory over Air Force cemented the Aztecs as the bully of the Mountain West. They out-muscled and out-toughed an academy team that is built on both of those. Underdogs in the game, the team found a way to move to 1-0 on the week. On Saturday, SDSU faces a team built on speed and skill. Their path to victory likely lies with playing their most physical game of the year.

Game Eight: Fresno State 30 San Diego State 20

The Aztecs bid for a perfect season ended against the Bulldogs, who celebrated recapturing the Old Oil Can. SDSU fell behind early and tried to claw their way back, but three turnovers by Lucas Johnson doomed the Aztecs’ comeback attempts. Not only did Fresno State walk away from Carson with a new trophy, but they also took control of the West Division.

Star of the Game: Jake Haener

Haener was a difference-maker for the Bulldogs. He threw for 306 yards, and his arm strength and accuracy troubled SDSU’s defense throughout the night. Haener announced his intention to transfer from Fresno State, but he left a lasting impression on the Aztecs.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Close coverage against an average QB and close coverage between an elite one is two different things. Against Haener, the DBs and LBs were often a step behind. Saturday, they face another elite QB in Logan Bonner. To stop Utah State’s passing attack, SDSU needs to cover the Aggies wide receivers closer than most games. It is a lesson they learned against Haener and Fresno State.

Game Nine: San Diego State 17 Hawaii 10

The Aztecs found themselves in control of their own destiny when they faced the Rainbow Warriors in Hawaii. Boise State did the Aztecs a favor by knocking off Fresno State. SDSU built a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, and they essentially played keep away the rest of the game from a Hawaii team that at 6-7 is bowl eligible. The Aztecs added a field goal late and held on as Hawaii’s final drive stalled inside the 20 as time ran out.

Star of the Game: Defensive Line

It is difficult to name one of the three starters as a star on the defensive front over the others. Each was fantastic for the Aztecs, and their dominance allowed SDSU to win without having to push the envelope on offense. They accounted for all four of the Aztecs’ sacks on the evening.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Traveling to Hawaii is never an easy task. Winning after a gut-wrenching loss the week prior proved the mettle of the team. Saturday, SDSU will face an up-tempo offense much like the one they saw in Hawaii. The only times the Aztecs faced a team playing with pace was in the late minutes of halves, and they did not always farewell. The confidence and experience gained by facing Hawaii should pay dividends Saturday.

Game Ten: San Diego State 23 Nevada 21

The second high-pressure game in three weeks pitted SDSU vs. Nevada. The loser of the contest was all but eliminated from the Mountain West title contention. The Aztecs led for most of the game, but the Wolfpack took the lead with under ten minutes to go. SDSU responded with a championship drive that culminated with a 35-yard field goal by Matt Araiza with only 1:21 left in the contest.

Star of the Game: Cameron Thomas

Carson Strong won back-to-back Offensive Player of the Year awards the past two seasons and played very well against the Aztecs. SDSU attacked the Wolfpack, sending only three or four defenders, but they were still able to apply pressure on the future NFL signal-caller. Thomas was a major reason why. His motor and skill were evident throughout.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

With all due respect to Utah State, Nevada is the Mountain West’s best passing team. While SDSU did not stop Nevada, they kept their point total low. They forced the Wolfpack to march down the field, which they were unable to do with consistency. Nevada also took advantage of a miscommunication in the secondary, which SDSU should be able to clean up now that they have seen the mistake. These lessons will be needed for the Aztec’s biggest game of the year.  

Credit: AP Photo

Game Eleven: San Diego State 28 UNLV 20

The new Las Vegas Stadium was the site for the annual Aztecs vs. Rebels tussle. SDSU brought the new facility up to speed on the series. The Aztecs are 8-2 in their last ten against the team from Sin City. In a switch of roles, the offense carried the load for the team late as coach Hoke chose to keep the offense on the field instead of kicking a field goal like he had done throughout the season. For an off night, SDSU’s defense was still very special, holding the Rebels to 20 points and scoring a touchdown of their own on Andrew Aleki’s second interception return for a touchdown this season.

Star of the Game: Lucas Johnson

The Mt. Carmel High alum produced his best outing of the year against UNLV. He was an efficient 18-24 for 192 yards and a score. But, more importantly, he was clutch and showed up in the most significant moments of the game. The output was his highest in a win, and he moved to 6-1 on the season as the starter.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Winning when the game does not go according to script may be important Saturday. UNLV was not supposed to be able to move the ball on the Aztecs’ defense, but they did with relative ease, especially through the air. Championship games rarely go according to plan, and their game against the Rebels should help the Aztecs deal with whatever oddities they see.

Credit: Garrison/ EVT Sports

Game Twelve: San Diego State 27 Boise State 16

Fresno State kept the heat on the Aztecs with a win on Thanksgiving. It set up a win-or-go-home matchup. A loss by SDSU would have eliminated them from title contention. Boise State held a 16-3 lead until Jordon Brookshire subbed into the game with 3:04 left in the first half. The former starter turned third-stringer promptly led the Aztecs on four consecutive scoring drives and a 27-16 lead. SDSU’s defense held Boise State to 71 yards on 32 plays in the second half.

Star of the Game: Jordon Brookshire

For most of the first half, the team, especially the offense, looked listless. Brookshire was the spark the team needed. His play not only propelled the Aztecs to a championship, but it provided a glimpse of what the coaching staff saw through Fall Camp that led to them naming Brookshire the opening game starter. The senior QB was quick to praise Johnson postgame, displaying the exceptional character that has endeared him to the entire team.

How the win impacts the Mountain West Championship

Brookshire looks to be the starter heading into Saturday’s game. His confidence should be at an all-time high. His exploits last Friday should give Utah State coaches pause when writing up a game plan to stop SDSU’s offense. The Aztecs should be riding a high into Saturday’s meeting, coming off a convincing win over the media darlings of the conference.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.
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