Brady Hoke’s first road game as a head coach occurred on Sept 13, 2003, against No. 11 Pitt. Future NFL great Larry Fitzgerald scored the first of six touchdowns for the Panthers as they handed Hoke and the Cardinals a 42-21 defeat.
Twenty years, two months, and five days later, Hoke coached his final road game. San Diego State traveled north to take on one of its sister schools, San Jose State. The Spartans (5-5) entered the game still in contention for the Mountain West Championship. The Aztecs, eliminated from bowl eligibility, competed for pride and the opportunity to send their head coach out a winner.
As if tipping its hat to SDSU’s head man for a terrific career, the weather gods provided midwest football weather throughout the day suitable for Hoke’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio. But, as game time approached, the storm subsided, giving a perfect night for the contest and SJSU’s Senior Night activities, where the school honored 17 players, including starting QB Chevan Cordeiro.
“It was another game,” Hoke said when asked if this game held any special significance. “Those are the guys we coach for (pointing to his players).” Later, he added that his message to his players remained unchanged, “play for our seniors.”
SJSU received the opening kick. Sophomore LB Brady Anderson lined up opposite Cordeiro and the Spartans, making the first start of his young career. Anderson wasted no time impacting the game; he pressured Cordeiro on the game’s first third down, forcing an incompletion.
Following a punt, two more Aztecs earned their first starts. Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley lined up the Aztecs with fullbacks Nick Gardinera and Leo Kemp ahead of RB Jaylon Armstead. The three new starters brought the running total to 20 Aztecs, who made their first starts in 2023.
Behind these bruising blockers, SDSU marched down the field for the game’s opening touchdown. Armstead capped the 13-play 77-yard drive with a one-yard score. All but five of the yards came on the ground. Armstead rushed for 57 of those yards and finished it with his seventh TD of the year.
“I thought he showed up,” Hoke said of Armstead. “Him and I had a conversation about finishing downhill, and that’s what I saw him do more today. I thought he also made some good cuts, took care of the ball, did the things he normally does. It was great to see him run and punish people.”
SJSU came into the game with one of the best offensive attacks in the nation, averaging 403.5 yards, split nearly equally on the ground (182 ypg) and through the air (221.5 ypg). On its second drive, it showed off that versatility.
Four runs and four passes took the Spartans from their 29 to the Aztecs’ 17 as time expired in the first quarter. The second opened with a consequential 3rd and 4 that Cordeiro completed for seven yards and a first down to WR Matthew Coleman. On the next play, Cordeiro rolled to his right and threw a laser to TE Dominick Mazotti for a ten-yard touchdown to even the score. SJSU’s QB finished 6-6 on the drive for 57 yards.
“He’s been in the Mountain West for a while,” LB Cooper McDonald explained postgame. “I watched him when Cade (Cooper’s brother) was in the Mountain West. He’s a very versatile player. We knew that coming into the game. He could run around and extend plays.”
After a promising drive by SDSU that ultimately ended in a punt, Cordeiro’s mastery ended. He launched a deep ball down the left hash mark. CB Chris Johnson came off his man, who was streaking down the left sideline, to intercept the pass and return it 44 yards. It was the first interception of Johnson’s career.
“He’s a ball player,” McDonald said when asked what that play says about Johnson. “He wants to make plays, and he’s out there making a statement for himself and his team.”
Taking over at the Spartans’ 33, the Aztecs took advantage of the turnover. SDSU’s offense earned just four yards on six plays, but K Gabriel Plascencia, starting for the second consecutive game, saved the drive by connecting on a 46-yard field. SDSU led 10-7 with 3:03 left in the first half.
Playing without urgency, Cordeiro drove the Spartans quickly down the field on six plays. With 51 seconds left, SJSU had the ball 1st and 10 at SDSU’s 19. LB Vai Kaho pressured the Spartans QB on first down to force a throwaway. CB Noah Tumblin broke up a pass attempt in the end zone on second down.
After a short completion on third down, the Spartans let the clock run down to four seconds before calling its final timeout. Hoked called a timeout of his own to ice K Kyler Halvorsen. It did not work; Halvorsen nailed a 35-yard kick on the last play of the half.
SDSU and SJSU were tied 10-10 at the half.
Mayden’s 39 passing yards, Armstead’s 56 rushing yards, and Wesley’s 27 receiving yards paced the offense. Johnson’s interception provided the key stat for the defense. Cedarious Barfield also had five tackles. There were no accepted penalties in the opening 30 minutes.
The pace of play favored the Aztecs. SJSU only had four drives, scoring on two. SDSU had three, and they also converted two.
Including all four dives in the second half against Colorado State, the SDSU’s offense scored on six of its last seven possessions heading into the locker room. The only drive that failed ended inside the opposition’s territory.
As it opened the game, SDSU’s offense leaned heavily on its ground game on the opening drive of the second half. Seven of ten plays were rushes, but the last of them failed to convert a 4th and 1 from SJSU’s 26.
The new wrinkle on the drive was Mayden motioning out of the backfield and Armstead rushing after a direct snap from center. The Wildcat formation did not fool SJSU, but the drive ate up 6:03 of game time.
SJSU took a 17-10 lead on its first drive. They connected on subsequent big plays. Cordeiro hit WR Isaac Jernagin for a 42-yard completion. RB Quali Conley followed that with a 20-yard touchdown run.
The big plays for the Spartans continued when SDSU had the ball. On 3rd and 12, Mayden tried to fit a ball between three defenders to find TE Mark Redman. Instead, LB Bryun Parham intercepted the pass and returned it 20 yards to SDSU’s 39.
Aided by an SJSU fumble that cost the Spartans 17 yards, SDSU’s defense forced a three-and-out, erasing any harm done by Mayden’s turnover.
Three more SDSU runs brought the third quarter to an end and gave the Aztecs a first down on its own 26 to start the final fifteen minutes of regulation.
Two plays into the fourth quarter, Mayden faced another 3rd and 12. This time, he delivered, finding Wesley for a 15-yard completion. The throw was delivered low, but Wesley made a terrific catch. As the referee reviewed the play, rain and wind started pouring onto the field.
Three runs later, Hoke kept his offense on the field on 4th and inches. Armstead ran the ball to the left for 21 yards. An SJSU facemask tacked on 15 more yards.
Three plays later, Armstead marched into the end zone, but a hold on TE Cameron Harpole negated the score. It pushed the ball back to the 13. SDSU had to settle for a 21-yard field goal. SJSU clung to a 17-13 lead with 8:54 left in the game.
“Everybody can agree that was a big play,” Armstead explained postgame. “We just have to go back in the lab, tighten up on the small mistakes that we have, and execute those plays in future games.”
Aside from Johnson’s interception, SDSU could not contain Cordeiro most of the night. Mother Nature did the job in the fourth. With the ball wet due to rain, the wind swirling, and the Bay Area cold descending into the stadium, SJSU did not attempt a pass the rest of the game. It didn’t matter.
The Spartans marched 94 yards for the game-sealing touchdown in just six attempts. Conley’s 57-yarder provided the big play. Hoke said postgame, it was due to an assignment error.
RB Kairee Robinson capped the drive with a five-yard score. It was Robinson’s 16th of the year, which set an SJSU program record for rushing touchdowns in a season. He has at least one in every game so far this season. It also gave SJSU a 24-13 lead with 5:08 left.
Postgame, McDonald could not offer an explanation why the Aztecs’ defense continues to struggle with tackling. Hoke and the players have brought it up all year. They have not found a solution to their issues.
SDSU fought back. Mayden found WR Mekhi Shaw for 11, and Armstead had another explosive run for 21 more to give SDSU life with the ball inside SJSU territory. The comeback, though, fell short. Mayden, under duress, tried to throw back across his body, but S Joshua Jenkins stepped in front of the pass and intercepted it.
The Spartans tried running out the clock. SDSU’s defense did not oblige. Conley found another gaping hole for 32 yards and moved the ball deep into SDSU territory. Three more runs by Conley, however, moved the chains. SJSU ran out the clock from there and secured a 24-13 victory.
SJSU won their fifth straight game, became bowl-eligible, and moved to 6-5. SDSU fell to 3-8 on the season.
Armstead finished the game with 134 yards. It was the first 100-yard game by a running back this year. It surpassed Lucky Sutton’s 86 against Utah State for most by a back this season. When Sutton was elevated on the depth chart, Armstead dropped to the scout team. He used it to help the team.
“My mindset is, ‘I’m here for the team,’ Armstead said. “If they put me down there, it was for a reason. They are not trying to put me in a bad position. They are trying to put me in a good position. So, when they put me down to scout team, I thought it was for the defense to help them tackle better, help them catch better. I just looked at it as a positive thing.”
Barfield finished with seven tackles. No other Aztec had more than four. LB Zyrus Fiaseu had a tackle for loss but left the game early in the first half with what appeared to be concussion symptoms
Hoke’s first year with Ball State ended with a 4-8 record; the Aztecs have one more chance to match that record. They host Fresno State on Senior Night on November 25th at 7:30 pm.
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.