The San Diego State Aztecs begin conference play by traveling to Boise, Idaho, for a Friday night contest against the Boise State Broncos. The matchup is one of only two games this weekend featuring teams from the top-20 winningest programs since 2015 at the FBS level (Michigan at Iowa is the other.)
Both teams enter with disappointing 2-2 overall records and faltering offenses. Each took different paths this week to improve that side of the ball.
Broncos head coach Andy Avalos fired offensive coordinator Tim Plough following their 27-10 loss to UTEP and elevated offensive analyst Dirk Koetter in his place. Koetter is a former head coach at Boise State with various stops around college football and NFL as offensive coordinator and head coach.
Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke did not replace offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski despite the dismal passing statistics through four games and vowed that the current coaching staff would work to get it fixed.
“We’re talking about winning championships around here,” said Hoke. “Our attitude is going to be everything that we do, we won’t blame anyone, we’re going to all do our part.”
Boise State won their opening conference game at New Mexico, 31-14, in Week 2. Their other victory came at home against UT Martin, 30-7, while they lost both of their non-conference road games, first to Oregon State, 34-17, and then the aforementioned loss to UTEP.
The Aztecs have beaten the Broncos in the last two matchups, including last year’s comeback victory on Black Friday, which clinched the West Division and SDSU’s spot in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game.
Boise State was picked to win the Mountain Division in the preseason media poll.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – Boise State
There are 131 teams at the FBS level. The fact that the Aztecs rank 130th in passing offense (73.8 yards per game) and 129th in third down conversion rate (21.2%) has not gone unnoticed and has fans clamoring for the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski (something this week’s opponent just did.)
Despite the victory over Toledo, the pass offense generated only 11 yards on six completions in the first half and 40 yards on ten completions for the first 57 minutes of the game. Then came a final drive in a no-huddle setting against a defense that dropped into deep zones that included three completions for 25 yards and led to a one-yard touchdown run by Jordan Byrd to win the game.
“It’s timing, we haven’t held the line of scrimmage enough, we are not getting off press coverage, it’s all of those things,” said Hoke when asked the root cause of the passing game’s ineptness. “It’s also obviously the quarterback not making good decisions … but we’re going to work like hell for execution.”
Quarterback Braxton Burmeister looked and played more comfortable in the tempo offense to close the game, but a lot of his long runs and pass completions outside the pocket were available due to the Rockets’ soft defense on the drive that is typically not played outside of two-minute drills.
Can tempo be used more often during the course of the game to provide a spark and rhythm for the Aztecs’ offense that is 117th in FBS in total yardage (293.5 yards per game)? Absolutely. However, until SDSU proves more consistent, no one should expect the same results as they had on their final drive.
“It’s on everyone on the offense,” said tight end Mark Redman when asked about the improvements needed moving forward. “Starting with the O-line, you saw what happened on that last drive when they gave Braxton some time to throw the ball … it’s something that they’re continuing to get better at every week. The overall offense is something that we’ll work on every week in practice, and I’m sure that we’ll see improvements in this upcoming game that carry through for the rest of the season.”
Burmeister’s pedestrian passing totals of 34/64 for 230 yards and two touchdowns for the season will need to improve if the offense is going to reach its potential and complement the team’s 18th-ranked rushing offense (219.8 yards per game.)
“The only thing is he has to keep his eyes downfield a little bit more,” said Hoke about Burmeister. “We have to execute better in all the other areas. It’s not just him, it’s all of us.”
Jordan Byrd’s 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns paced the offense against Toledo. Byrd leads the team with 29 carries for 224 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
Byrd’s 7.7 yards per carry is bested only by teammate Jaylon Armstead’s 10.6 yards per carry (2nd in FBS) over 18 carries. Armstead rushed for 30 yards on three carries early in the game before leaving with an ankle injury. Hoke said Tuesday he is hopeful but unsure whether Armstead will be ready to play on Friday night, but mentioned that starting running back Chance Bell should be back after missing the past two games.
Starting right guard, Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli missed the Toledo game with a right knee injury and is not expected back this week. Junior college transfer Dean Abdullah is expected to start in his place for the second consecutive week.
Key Player – Braxton Burmeister, Quarterback, 6-1, 205lbs
For all the various reasons why the offense has been dismal so far (poor playcalling and gameplan, lack of protection, penalties, etc.), talented quarterbacks are still able to overcome those and lead more productive offenses than what the Aztecs have shown so far. When the local product transferred to SDSU, the expectation was that Burmeister had the talent to take the offense to new heights. That talent was unseen until the game-winning drive against Toledo, when Burmeister’s three runs for 46 yards (18,13,15) and three pass completions for 25 yards (5,7,13) essentially won the game for SDSU. Given that a change in staff or game plan is not expected in the immediate future, it will fall upon SDSU’s starting quarterback to help propel the offense, particularly the passing game, from the bottom of the FBS rankings.
The strongest unit among the two teams is Boise State’s defense. They are 15th in FBS, giving up only 266.8 total yards per game, and 13th in FBS with a 26.4% third down conversion rate allowed.
They possess talent at all three levels, including defensive lineman Scott Matlock, a team captain and nominated for the Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy Preseason Watch Lists. Last season, Matlock led the Broncos’ defense with 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. This year, Matlock has collected 12 tackles, three quarterback hurries, and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Linebacker DJ Schramm leads the team with 33 tackles, while defensive lineman George Tarlas leads with four tackles for loss, two sacks, and four quarterback hurries.
Against New Mexico, the defense harassed Lobo quarterback Miles Kendrick into completing only 9 of 28 passes for 98 yards (69 yards came on one play) and collected six sacks.
Despite the great overall statistics, two areas the Broncos’ defense has struggled with are forcing turnovers (only four through four games) and allowing scores on every red zone opportunity for their opponents. Both areas have been a heavy focus for the team this week.
Key player – JL Skinner, Safety, 6-4, 220lbs
The senior from Point Loma High School is looking to complete his exemplary college career with a Conference Championship and parlay that into becoming one of the first safeties taken in the 2023 NFL Draft. He possesses the size and skills of a prototype strong safety and currently leads the team averaging nine tackles per game and is tied for first with one interception. Skinner will likely be around the line of scrimmage frequently, helping keep the Aztecs’ rush offense from getting any rhythm and not allowing Burmeister to rush for big gains.
When Boise State has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
Through four games under Plough and starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier, the Broncos’ offense regressed mightily from last season to the point that their total yardage per game is worse than SDSU’s so far (283.2 yards per game, 121st in FBS.)
Add in seven turnovers, a 35.7% third down conversion rate (89th in FBS), and only 177 total yards against UTEP last Friday, and one can understand the coaching change this week.
While Hoke agreed that it can be difficult to prepare for an offense with a new play-caller, he noted, “the coaches aren’t playing. This is a player’s game, so we got to prepare … They have good personnel.”
In addition to Koetter taking over as OC, Bachmeier, who started the past four years at Boise State, decided to leave the program and enter the transfer portal. After a turnover-laden opening first half against Oregon State, Bachmeier was benched. He returned and started the following three games, but after last week’s performance, he likely saw the writing on the wall that the offense would be turned over to redshirt freshman Taylen Green.
Green ran for 104 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown, when he entered the game against Oregon State. For the season, he has completed 19 of 28 passes for 155 yards and one interception.
“(Green) is a quarterback who was nationally recruited out of Texas,” said Hoke. “He’s a big guy, 6’6”, who can run. He’s a very talented young man.”
The only player on the Boise State offense to make the Preseason Mountain West All-Conference Team is left tackle John Ojukwu. The super senior was elected as one of two team captains for 2022. Despite the rest of the offensive line being experienced as juniors and seniors, the offensive line has struggled to open holes in the run game or provide ample time for the quarterbacks to find receivers down the field.
Key player – George Holani, Running Back, 5-11, 208lbs
The junior is an all-purpose back that excels in the run and pass game while also returning punts (11.2 yards per on six returns.) Holani leads the team with 261 rushing yards but averages only 3.6 yards per carry. He has caught 11 passes for 96 yards (both third best on the team) and tied for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns. His 110 rushing yards against New Mexico was the eighth 100-yd rushing game of his career. In last year’s matchup against SDSU, Holani caught a career-high six passes for 52 yards and added 70 rushing yards. With a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first start, look for Koetter to lean on his experienced tailback as much as possible on Friday night.
While the Aztecs’ offense has reached historic lows, it probably came as more of a surprise to some that their defense struggled through the first three games, allowing big passing plays and only forcing two turnovers. Both areas improved against Toledo, as the Aztecs’ defense shut down Toledo’s big-play passing attack and forced four turnovers, the most since the 2019 New Mexico Bowl against Central Michigan.
“Playing hard and being the most physical team on the field is usually what it comes down to, and that’s one thing that we preach every week,” said senior defensive end Keshawn Banks about the improved play. “We really take pride in that, and although in the first few games we may not have done it to the best of our ability, I think last game we looked a lot more like ourselves.”
The defense was without safety Patrick McMorris, who missed the game due to an injury but is expected to play this week. His backup, Kyron White, was ejected in the first half due to a targeting penalty, which meant former quarterback turned safety Jalen Mayden was forced to play the majority of the game. After never playing defense in his life before 2022 and only playing ten snaps in the first three games, Mayden played 65 snaps against Toledo and was tied for second on the team with eight tackles.
Overall, SDSU’s defense is still ranked only 84th in FBS (improved from 92nd last week), allowing 393.2 yards per game and an astronomical 43.3% third down conversions (107th in FBS).
When asked about the difficulty in preparing for a Bronco offense that has a new offensive coordinator and starting quarterback, Banks noted, “there’s not too much that we haven’t seen before–especially with the veteran group of guys on defense that we have.”
Playing against Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn last week should help the Aztecs against Green, a similar dual-threat quarterback with explosive running ability.
Linebacker Michael Shawcroft leads the team with 29 tackles, three pass breakups, and four quarterback hurries, tied with Garret Fountain for first with two sacks while adding 3.5 tackles for loss (tied for second with Fountain behind Caden McDonald.)
Key player – CJ Baskerville, Safety, 6-2, 210lbs
The sophomore safety is second on the team with 26 tackles and played his best game of the year against Toledo, earning a team-high 78.9 defensive grade per Pro Football Focus (PFF). His eight tackles and 0.5 tackle for loss were instrumental in holding down the Toledo offense without SDSU’s best player in the secondary. With a similar opposing quarterback this week, Baskerville will need to continue to be at his best, helping in run coverage and ensuring Green does not have glaring openings in the secondary to exploit in the passing game.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
One week after SDSU punter Jack Browning was added to the Ray Guy Award Watch List, he earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week by making a career-long 50-yd field goal and landing six of his nine punts inside the 20. Browning’s efforts through four games this season also earned him a scholarship on Sunday.
“He just goes out to work; he’s got a great mentality about him,” said Hoke on Tuesday about Browning deserving a scholarship. “I really respect his work ethic, how he competes. He’s well respected.”
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On the season, Browning has not missed a field goal or extra point attempt, averaged 43.8 yards per punt, and is second in FBS with 16 punts inside the 20.
While Browning performs all three kicking phases for the Aztecs, Boise State utilizes three different specialists. Placekicker Jonah Dalmas was named to the Preseason Mountain West All-Conference Team after earning First-Team honors in 2021. He has made 6 of 8 field goals this season, but both misses were in the 30-39 yard range.
Punter James Ferguson-Reynolds is averaging 43.5 yards per punt on 24 punts, with only six inside the 20. Will Ferrin has ten touchbacks on 20 kickoffs.
Date: Friday, September 30, 2022
Time: 5:00pm PT
Betting Line: Boise State -6 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Albertsons Stadium (Boise, ID)
Records: SDSU 2-2 (0-0), Boise State 2-2 (1-0)
Series: SDSU 4-3
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.