SDSU blows 14-pt lead with dreadful performance against MTSU in Hawai’i Bowl

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: SDSU Athletics

The San Diego State Aztecs (7-6) fell to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (8-5), 25-23, in the EasyPost Hawai’i Bowl to conclude their 2022 season. 

After Jack Browning’s 52-yd field goal, a Hawai’i Bowl record, gave the Aztecs a one-point lead with less than six minutes remaining in the game, the Blue Raiders marched down the field and retook the lead, 25-23, on a 37-yd field goal by Zeke Rankin, his fourth made on the night. 

A last-minute drive by the Aztecs for a potential game-winning field goal was thwarted by the Blue Raiders’ defense and ended on a fumble on 4th and 24. The turnover was the fifth forced by the Blue Raiders, who entered the game 6th in the country with 25 forced turnovers and 3rd with 17 interceptions. Three of their five turnovers were interceptions. 

In addition to the turnovers, the Aztecs committed nine penalties for 79 yards, continuing a season-long trend. The Blue Raiders committed five penalties for 50 yards. 

SDSU quarterback Jalen Mayden struggled for most of the night, completing only 19 of 43 passes for 309 yards. Both of his touchdowns came in the first quarter, while all three interceptions came from the second quarter on. 

Wide receiver Jesse Matthews, who could have played in his final collegiate game, caught seven passes for 99 yards. Matthews has yet to announce his decision to either return for a final season or enter the NFL Draft. 

MTSU quarterback Chase Cunningham completed 26 of 44 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He became just the second Blue Raider to top 3,000 yards in a season. 

His favorite receiver on the night was Jaylin Lane, who caught ten passes for 111 yards and a touchdown. 

The Aztecs’ defensive front harassed Cunningham for most of the night, recording seven sacks, a school record in bowl games. Defensive lineman Keshawn Banks tallied a career-high four tackles for loss in his final collegiate game and finished his career ranked sixth in program history (42). 

The Aztecs outgained the Blue Raiders 364-170 thanks to the massive yards lost on a majority of those seven sacks. 

But on the final drive that led to the game-winning field goal, Cunningham used a quick passing game that nullified the Aztecs’ pass rush. 

It appeared the defenses forced 3-and-outs on the first four drives of the game. But the Aztecs backed up on their own 32 on a 4th and 7, ran a fake punt, and defensive lineman Garrett Fountain took it 27 yards for a first down. Mayden found Jesse Matthews for 31 yards to the MTSU ten-yard line and connected with tight end Mark Redman two plays later for a 9-yd touchdown. 

Credit: SDSU Athletics

On the Aztecs’ next drive, Mayden found running back Kenan Christon on a short screen pass on 3rd, and 10, and the former San Diego track star sped fast everyone for a 73-yard touchdown. 

The Aztecs outgained the Blue Raiders 177-12 in the first quarter to take a 14-0 lead. But as good as the first quarter was for the Aztecs, the second quarter was exactly the opposite allowing the Blue Raiders to cut the lead to 14-13 by halftime.  

In the second quarter alone, the Aztecs committed six penalties, turned the ball over twice, missed a 43-yard field goal, and failed to convert a 4th and 1 from their own 41 with less than 45 seconds remaining in the half. 

Zeke Rankin connected on a 44-yard field goal for the Blue Raiders’ first points of the night early in the second quarter. 

After a botched toss from Mayden to Christon that was recovered by MTSU’s Christian Dixon at the SDSU 17, the Blue Raiders scored a touchdown on a 4th and 1 pass to defensive lineman Jordan Ferguson. In their “diesel” package, Ferguson lined up as a tight end on the right side of the line and ran a drag route in the back of the end zone for the 8-yd catch. 

After the failed 4th down by the Aztecs late in the second quarter, Rankin connected from 49 yards out just before halftime. Before this game, Rankin had not made a field goal longer than 35 yards this season. 

The quarter could have been much worse for the Aztecs if not for the defense coming up large twice. Cornerback Dez Malone intercepted a pass down the left sideline after Keshawn Banks pressured Cunningham into an overthrow. 

On another drive, after Decorian Patterson intercepted his seventh pass of the season and handed the ball to the MTSU offense at the SDSU 28, Banks sacked Cunningham on back-to-back plays, and Kyron White finished off the drive with a sack on 4th and 19. 

The third quarter began in the same way. The Aztecs’ offense went 3-and-out on the opening drive, and Mayden threw an interception to Teldrick Ross on the second drive. Both ensuing MTSU drives ended in field goal attempts, although Rankin missed the first from 42 yards out but made the second from 26. 

After the Aztecs retook the lead (17-16) on a 39-yard field goal by Jack Browning, Mayden threw his third interception of the night at the start of the fourth quarter. A pass intended for Tyrell Shavers was tipped by defensive lineman Parker Hughes and landed in the arms of Ferguson as he fell to the ground at the SDSU 25. 

Cunningham found Jaylin Lane for a 16-yard touchdown, and the Blue Raiders regained the lead, 22-17 (failed two-point conversion attempt). 

The Aztecs’ offense showed some life on a 38-yard catch and run from Christon to the MTSU 19. Safety Tra Fluellen, who led the Blue Raiders with seven tackles, pushed Christon out of bounds and saved the touchdown. The Aztecs were unable to gain a yard on the next three plays and were forced to cut the lead to two (22-20) with a 36-yard field goal from Browning.

Browning’s 52-yard field goal, which would have been good from close to 60 yards out, looked to give the Aztecs a chance to squeak out a victory, but the lead was short-lived. 

The game signified the final collegiate performance for several Aztecs, including linebacker Michael Shawcroft. Despite being eligible to return for one more season, Shawcroft announced earlier this week that the bowl game would be his last football game ever due to the numerous injuries his body has endured over his four-year career. Shawcroft led the team with eight tackles and added a sack and pass breakup. 

Defensive lineman Jonah Tavai added 1.5 sacks to cap off his collegiate career and Second-Team All-American honors. 

The matchup featured two of the top four red zone defenses in the country. The Blue Raiders (67.4%) finished second, while the Aztecs (67.5%) finished fourth. However, the teams combined to score on seven of eight red zone opportunities, an 87.5% conversion rate. 

The most perplexing aspect of the SDSU 2022 season was the inability to establish any semblance of a rushing offense. After finishing the Air Force game with -1 rushing yards, it would have been difficult to imagine a repeat performance tonight. Although the Aztecs finished with 55 rushing yards as a team, eliminating Fountain’s 27-yard run on a fake punt and Mayden’s 21-yard scramble after the pocket broke down, the team rushed for seven yards. 

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Even more remarkable, the three running backs to receive carries on the night, Jordan Byrd, Chance Bell, and Kenan Christon, rushed for two yards on 16 carries. 

Starting left guard Cade Bennett missed the game, and Thomas Mirabella started in his place. Bennett has been battling several injuries over the course of the second half of the season but still started all 12 regular season games. Linebacker Cooper McDonald also missed the game after sustaining an injury in the first half of the final regular season game against Air Force. 

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