The San Diego State Aztecs defeated the Nevada Wolf Pack, 23-7, and still control their own destiny for a 22nd conference championship. At 2-1, the Aztecs are tied with San Jose State and Fresno State atop the West Division and play both teams in the final five games of the season.
The victory was the Aztecs’ first on the road in three tries this season and came in front of a Homecoming crowd at Mackay Stadium.
The Aztecs forced two critical turnovers at the start of each half to spearhead their victory.
Linebacker Michael Shawcroft, the team’s leading tackler despite missing the last game due to injury, returned and made his presence felt on the second play of the game. Shawcroft forced his fifth career fumble, knocking the ball out from running back Cross Patton, which safety Patrick McMorris scooped up and returned 30 yards for a touchdown to give the Aztecs a quick seven-point lead. It was McMorris’ second career fumble recovery and first career touchdown.
“Setting the tone early and letting everyone know this is how we are going to play,” said Shawcroft postgame on AM760 when asked about the importance of that defensive turnover and touchdown early in the game.
On Nevada’s first drive of the second half, defensive lineman Justus Tavai intercepted his first career pass that gave the Aztecs the ball at the Wolf Pack’s 25-yard line and led to a 23-yd field goal by Jack Browning.
Browning made two other field goals on the night, from 30 and 27 yards out, and has now made 12 of 13 attempts to start his collegiate career.
Jalen Mayden, in his second start at quarterback for SDSU, completed 12 of 25 passes for 156 yards. He did not throw an interception for the second straight start.
But the play of the game was Mayden’s dazzling 32-yd touchdown run midway through the third quarter that saw him evading multiple defenders in the pocket before scrambling left, outrunning several defenders down the sideline, and finishing the run with a dive into the end zone.
“He is getting better as we go,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said on the field postgame on CBS Sports Network. “He has some toughness to him, and you like that.”
Mayden finished with 50 net rushing yards. Chance Bell led the Aztecs with 55 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister returned from a concussion sustained three weeks ago against Boise State and caught a 19-yd pass lined up as a wide receiver in the second quarter.
Tyrell Shavers led the team with three catches for 36 yards, while tight end Mark Redman added two catches for 34 yards (both came on third and ten situations.)
Nevada’s starting quarterback Nate Cox played the first four drives of the game, only completing 2 of 8 passes for 11 yards and zero points before being replaced by Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth.
On Illingworth’s first drive, he took the Wolf Pack down the field for a touchdown, completing 7 of 8 passes for 63 yards. The 20-yd touchdown pass to Spencer Curtis was only the third passing touchdown of the season for Nevada and the first against an FBS opponent.
Illingworth finished the game 20 of 32 for 165 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Curtis finished with five receptions for 83 yards.
Toa Taua, Nevada’s all-purpose running back, rushed for 43 yards on 12 carries and added five receptions for 45 yards.
The Aztecs outgained the Wolf Pack 317 to 227.
Penalties continue to be a big problem for SDSU on both sides of the ball, registering 11 for 91 yards. Two consecutive false starts by the offensive line derailed a promising drive early in the first half. On Nevada’s touchdown drive in the first half, cornerback Noah Tumblin was called for defensive pass interference on a deep jump ball pass on fourth and three. The replay angles shown by CBS did not appear to justify the call. The touchdown pass to Curtis was a free play for Nevada after defensive lineman Jonah Tavai jumped offside before the snap.
Starting right guard, Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli did not start after missing the last three games due to a right knee injury but came into the game to start the Aztecs’ third drive. Thomas Mirabella made his first career start at right guard in Maseuli’s place.
Coming into the game, Nevada’s 15 forced turnovers and 1.29 turnover margin were seventh and ninth, respectively, in FBS. But the Aztecs only turned the ball over once (a fumble by Jesse Matthews during a run after catch) and held a +1 turnover margin for the game.
The Aztecs’ defense’s three-game streak of shutting out its opponents in the first half was snapped by Nevada’s touchdown late in the first half.
After allowing a startling 166.7 rushing yards per game this season (92nd in FBS), the Aztecs looked more like their usual defensive selves against Nevada, shutting down the Wolf Pack run game for only 35 yards on the night.
Jonah Tavai continued his impressive play with two sacks. Shawcroft added another sack in addition to a team-high seven tackles. Keshawn Banks had his best performance of the season, with five tackles and three tackles for loss.
Safety Bentlee Sanders, who was named on the AP Midseason All-American Team this week, led the Wolfpack with nine tackles and a forced fumble. Dom Peterson was held in check with only one tackle for loss.
The Aztecs will stay on the road and play at Fresno State next Saturday night in the annual Battle for the Oil Can Trophy.