The San Diego State Aztecs will close out their non-conference schedule by hosting the Toledo Rockets from the Mid-American Conference (MAC). The Aztecs will look to even their record at 2-2 before beginning Mountain West play.
The Rockets began their season 2-0 after home blowout victories against Long Island University (LIU) and Massachusetts by a combined score of 92-10 before losing on the road to #3 Ohio State, 77-21, on Saturday evening.
This will be the first time the two programs will be facing off in football. The teams will complete the home-and-home series when they meet in Toledo in 2026 to make up for the canceled game there during the 2020 COVID season.
Toledo head coach Jason Candle has been with the program since 2009, working his way up as an assistant coach on the offensive side of the ball until reaching his current position in 2015.
Toledo was picked to finish second in the MAC West Division in the preseason media poll.
SDSU head coach Brady Hoke served as the outside linebackers and special teams coach at Toledo from 1987 to 1989.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – Toledo
The story of the Aztecs’ season through three games has been its inability to construct any semblance of a passable offense (pun intended) outside of 380 rushing yards against Idaho State. EVT writer Paul Garrison outlined five ways to improve the offense on Wednesday.
With the announcement of Will Haskell’s departure from the program on Tuesday, it will be even more paramount to keep starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister healthy for a complete game (Burmeister has been unable to complete two of three games this year due to injuries sustained mid-game).
The quarterbacks have completed less than 50% of their passes (29/63) for only 230 yards, an average of 3.7 yards per pass, while the team has rushed for 663 rushing yards on 119 carries, an average of 5.6 yards per carry. The longest completion on the season is 18 yards, which came on the Kyle Crum to Josh Nicholson touchdown at the end of the Utah game.
Burmeister is 21/40 for 165 yards, two touchdowns (both to wide receiver Tyrell Shavers), and one interception. He is also third on the team with 105 rushing yards (one touchdown), largely due to runs when his protection has broken down.
“We have to protect our quarterbacks,” said center Alama Uluave. “Me as a senior, I got to get our guys right and get us protecting our quarterback better.”
While Hoke and offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski have continually spoken about wanting more balance, it is clear that focusing on a dominant rush game at the start of games to help open opportunities in the passing game is in order.
Jaylon Armstead leads the team with 160 rushing yards. His 10.7 yards per carry average is third best in FBS, and the coaching staff will look to get him more involved early and often with starting running back Chance Bell expected to miss his second game due to injury.
“(Armstead) ran the ball hard and is a hard guy to get down,” said Hoke.
Jordan Byrd is second on the team with 109 rushing yards on 13 carries, while Cam Davis leads the team with 24 carries (98 rushing yards).
When asked Tuesday after practice whether splitting carries among so many different running backs adds to the lack of continuity on the offense, Hecklinski admitted that could be the case. He added, “that is part of what we are working through right now with (Horton) and (Hoke),” alluding to potentially deciding on one of two backs to get the majority of the carries.
The offense did not help itself by committing eight penalties against Utah, including five false starts caused by the noise and road environment.
“There is a lot of youth in those false starts,” said Hoke. “We have to do a better job on the road, and I know we will do that.”
Key Player – Jesse Mathews, Wide Receiver, 6-0, 190lbs
The senior is tied for first on the team with six catches (with Shavers) and leads the team with 57 receiving yards. Both numbers are shockingly low for a three-game span considering Matthews’ production over the final five games of 2021. While the Aztecs would be wise to return to establishing their run game at the outset of games, finding ways to involve Matthews in the offense is imperative if the coaching staff’s wishes to be balanced are to come true.
Examining Toledo’s defensive statistics shows a wide disparity due to the competition level from their first two games against LIU and Massachusetts (five points and 183 yards allowed per game) and their last game against Ohio State (77 points and 763 yards allowed).
In the first two games, they only allowed 68 and 48 passing yards, respectively, and tallied 16 tackles for loss, including 4.5 from defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson. The senior, named to the Outland Trophy Watch List handed to the top interior lineman in the country, also contributed 13 tackles in the two games.
Through three games, the Rockets only forced two turnovers (one fumble and one interception), which makes their performance in the first two games even more impressive.
Key player – Jamal Hines, Outside Linebacker, 6-3, 250lbs
The super senior was named to multiple preseason watch lists, including the Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year) and Nagurski Award (top defensive player), after an impressive 2021 season. He amassed 88 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, ten sacks, and eight pass breakups. Hines initially committed to Cincinnati before deciding to sign with Toledo in 2017. This season through three games, Hines has 14 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one pass breakup. He has the ability to play with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end or drop back into coverage as an outside linebacker.
When Toledo has the ball: Advantage – Even
Sophomore quarterback Dequan Finn is a dual-threat weapon that has accounted for 65% of Toledo’s total yardage through three games (749 of 1,155).
Finn has passed for 541 yards and five touchdowns with only two interceptions. Four of the five touchdown passes have been 40 yards or greater, including two to wide receiver Jerjuan Newton. Newton also has a 39-yard reception on the season that did not result in a score.
Jamal Turner (69) and Thomas Zsiros (50) hauled in the other two long touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Demeer Blankumsee leads the team with 16 receptions but for only 123 yards (7.7 yards per catch).
Finn’s 208 rushing yards and four touchdowns lead the team. He has rushed for at least 64 yards in each of the three games, including 70 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State.
“He’s kinda got a get out of jail free card a little bit with his ability to run,” said Candle on Monday when asked about Finn’s ability to make plays with his legs when the initial play is not open. “Sometimes when the protection breaks down or even when the protection doesn’t break down and the second level of the defense is dropping back maybe to where the sticks are, and there’s that wide separation between the linebacker depth and the line of scrimmage, he’s able to get six of seven yards quick … if he is able to make one guy miss, that turns into 18 or 20. If a couple guys miss, it turns into a 40 or 50-yard touchdown.”
Sophomore Peny Boone is second on the team with 114 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Due to Finn’s dual-threat capabilities, the Rockets’ offense has been very balanced this season, rushing for 584 yards and passing for 571. Their third down conversion rate of 33% (13/39) is not where they would prefer it to be, but they have converted 5 of 7 fourth down attempts.
Key player – Jerjuan Newton, Wide Receiver, 5-11, 190lbs
While Finn is the focal point of any defense playing the Rockets, Newton’s big play ability will force the Aztecs’ defense to keep extra eyes on him. While the junior has tallied ten catches for 202 yards through three games, three of those were for 119 yards (40, 40, 39). His 20.2 yards per reception is 25th in the nation. The Aztecs’ defense has allowed big plays in the passing game through their first three games increasing the likelihood that Newton will catch a pass for at least 39 yards for the fourth consecutive game. In last year’s matchup against Mountain West opponent Colorado Stae, Newton also brought down a 39-yard reception.
The Aztecs’ defense has allowed an uncharacteristic 26.7 points per game (76th in FBS) and 399 total yards per game (92nd in FBS) this season. After playing its best quarter and a half of the season on the first four drives against Utah, the wheels came off. Starting on Utah’s fifth drive of the game, SDSU gave up five consecutive touchdowns.
“We need to play better as a whole,” said senior linebacker Caden McDonald. “Our front hasn’t gotten as many sacks. It takes everybody all around.”
“We’ve got to beat more one-on-one’s and get more pressure on the quarterback,” added Hoke.
Not only has the defense not accumulated many sacks (five in three games), they have only forced two turnovers. Both came in the second quarter in the opening game against Arizona, meaning the defense has not forced a turnover in their last ten quarters of play heading into this matchup.
An area of emphasis for defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix in the preseason was red zone defense. So far, the emphasis has not translated to results, the defense allowing touchdowns on eight of 11 red zone opportunities.
One constant across the Aztecs’ defense has been senior defensive lineman Jonah Tavai who has a team-best 90.2 defensive grade per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Hoke said earlier this week that Tavai played his best game against Utah despite the lopsided loss.
Senior linebacker Michael Shawcroft has also starred, leading the team with 20 tackles, two sacks, and four quarterback hurries. He is tied with McDonald with a team-leading three tackles for loss.
Key player – Patrick McMorris, Safety, 6-0, 210lbs
The Preseason Mountain West Co-Defensive Player of the Year came into this season with high expectations to build upon his splendid 2021 season. It has not gone exactly to plan yet, as McMorris has scored a 68.1 defensive grade per PFF and missed four tackles. In order for the secondary to regain its form from last season, it will need McMorris to elevate his play. Against a dual-threat quarterback like Finn, McMorris will need to stay disciplined yet aggressive to make sure Finn is not picking them apart outside the pocket, either with his legs or arm.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
SDSU punter Jack Browning was added to the Ray Guy Award Watch List this week for his performance through the first three games of the season. Over 18 punts, Browning has averaged 45.6 yards per punt (14th in FBS).
Browning made all three of his field goal attempts (long of 44) and all eight extra points through three games.
Return specialist Jordan Byrd’s 20.8 punt return average is fifth best in the nation currently (tied for first with one punt return touchdown). The return team lost a fumble (Aaron Greene) against Utah on a short kickoff that will need to be cleaned up.
Toledo’s placekicker Thomas Cluckey has been perfect on the season, connecting on all five field goals (long of 43) and 14 extra points. Punter Jonathon Batzke has 14 punts for an average of 41.8 yards per punt (five downed inside the 20).
Date: Saturday, September 24, 2022
Time: 12:30pm PT
Betting Line: Toledo -3 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 1-2, Toledo 2-1