On a cold night in Fort Collins, Colorado, the San Diego State Aztecs took on the Colorado State Rams in front of 22,033 spectators. Each team entered the contest with identical 3-6 records, needing to win its final three games to reach bowl eligibility.
Head coach Brady Hoke sported a Navy Seal hat on the sideline to honor Veterans Day. In 2010, Hoke gave each player and coach the same hat. Hoke brought it back out for tonight.
A new-look interior offensive line took the field to start the game for the Aztecs. Starting LG, Cade Bennett did not make the trip to Fort Collins with concussion symptoms. Dean Abdullah started in his place. Myles Murao returned from injury to start at right guard.
Most surprisingly, Thomas Mirabella started at center for Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli. Ulugalu-Maseuli dressed and participated in pre-game warm-ups. Hoke said postgame he was a game-time decision but could not go.
Early returns on the new players were negligible. SDSU failed to gain a first down on its opening two drives.
The special teams starred in the first quarter. Earlier in the day, the Ray Guy Award named SDSU’s Jack Browning a semifinalist. Browning’s first two punts averaged 62.5 yards, with the second downed on the one-yard line when CB Chris Johnson dove into the endzone and hit the ball back into the field of play. CSU’s Paddy Turner matched it with a knuckling kick at the four-yard line.
Unlike the Rams’ offense that moved the ball from deep in its own territory, SDSU could not get anything going on drive No. 3. On third and seven, QB Jalen Mayden could not find anyone and took a sack into the endzone. CSU led 2-0 with 5:58 remaining in the first quarter.
The Rams went three and out on its ensuing possession and punted. Turner drilled a 58-yard punt that flew over the head of returner Mekhi Shaw. As the ball bounced, it returned to Shaw, who tried to field it, but it elevated above his head. The ball glanced Shaw’s hands, giving CSU the ball deep in the red zone at the 15-yard line.
SDSU’s defense held the Rams to a Jordan Noyes 34-yard field goal. The 5-0 baseball score suggested SDSU baseball head coach Shaun Cole change pitchers, but the only baseball played at Colorado State is at the club level.
The first quarter ended unceremoniously with a fumbled snap by CSU QB Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi. The Aztecs had only 17 yards on 13 plays in four possessions, which put the Rams’ 69 yards on 20 plays in a positive light.
Set up by 68 yards on the ground, CSU scored another field goal to push the lead to 8-0. Their drive ended on a terrific tackle by SDSU safety Josh Hunter. A well-designed play by the Rams forced Hunter (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) to tackle CSU’s 6-0 235 pound star tight end Dan Holken in space. Hunter dropped Holken, the Mackey Award semifinalist (top TE in the nation), well short of the line to gain.
“He’s from Mater Dei (Santa Ana),” Barfield explained. “He played since his freshman year there. That’s a team that always winning national championships. He’s a guy that already came in a smart player. He knows what to do and how to do it, always in the right spot. Finally, today, it just showed. He’s always where he needs to be. A great guy, a great person outside of the field, so just great things happening to him.”
Following another punt inside the twenty by Browning, CSU marched 90 yards for the game’s first touchdown. The only thing that briefly stopped the Rams was unruly fans throwing objects onto the field. The highlight of the drive was a reverse pass by WR Try Holton for 42 yards to WR Dylan Goffney. Dallin finished the drive with a wildcat two-yard score, bringing CSU’s lead to 15-0.
Cedarious Barfield intercepted a Hail Mary a few minutes later to bring the half to a close. It was the fourth of the season and fifth of his career. Barfield paced the defense with eight tackles. Hunter had seven. No other defender had more than four.
The Aztecs finished the half with 55 yards on six drives, split 42 on the ground and 13 yards through the air. 17 came in the first quarter and 38 in the second. In its previous two games, SDSU had 147 and 131, respectively, against Utah State and Nevada. The Aztecs finished 0-6 on third down. They needed an average of 6.66 yards to gain on third down.
Offensively, RB Cam Davis emerged as the lone bright spot for the Red and Black. His 38 rushing yards accounted for 69% of the team’s yards through the first two quarters.
The score masked Browning’s monster half. SDSU’s punter averaged 49.4 yards on five punts, four of them downed inside the 20.
“The talk on the sidelines was to get the first down just to get it started, some type of positive momentum,” Mayden said postgame. “We weren’t capitalizing whether it be a missed block here, a misread by me. We just couldn’t ge things going. … we finally got the ball going, but you just can’t start that slow.”
After the game, Hoke explained a tradition at San Diego State. Each player is given “Will Cards.” As they get on the bus, they give their Will Card to volunteer coach Ed Ulufanua. Ulufanua could be described as Hoke’s right-hand man and can be seen next to Hoke on television every game. At the half, “coach Ed” addressed the team and reminded them about the Will Cards. The team responded.
K Gabriel Plascencia kicked a touchback to open the second half. Needing a stop to try and climb into the contest. The defense responded, getting the ball back for the offense after six CSU plays.
On SDSU’s first two plays, the offense out-gained their first-half total. Christon burst through the left side for a 39-yard run. Myden found TE Mark Redman on a well-designed RPO for 25 yards. Four plays later, Plascencia connected on his first career field goal, a 22-yarder to bring SDSU to 15-3.
Plascencia replaced Browning, who was 11-18 on the year, as the team’s field goal kicker against the Rams, not due to performance, Hoke said, but because Browning had a knee ailment.
CSU opened up the game on their next drive. Punctuated by a five-yard touchdown run by RB Justin Marshall, the Rams marched 75 yards on seven plays. Forty-one of those came on a bomb by Fowler-Nicolosi to WR Justin Ross-Simons on 3rd and 2.
Mayden and the Aztecs’ offense responded. He found Shaw, Davis, and Phillippe Wesley for completions of 14, nine, and five yards. A pair of runs gave SDSU 1st and 10 from the CSU 24. SDSU went backward on two plays before a well-designed screen to Shaw only advanced the ball for four because Mirabella and Abdullah whiffed on the only defender in the area, who brought down Shaw. Plascencia drilled his second career attempt, a 38-yarder. SDSU trailed 22-6 with 3:06 left in the third.
The Aztecs, down 16, needed a three-and-out from their defense. They got it. On 3rd and 2, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix called a corner blitz. Dez Malone came off the edge and downed the ball carrier.
A short punt set SDSU with great field position on the Rams’ 46. On a drive that spanned the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth, the Aztecs finally scored a touchdown.
Among the standout plays, Mayden found Redman for an 18-yard completion on 3rd and 11 to keep the drive alive. Mayden stood tall in the pocket and allowed Redman to run a deep in-route. Aided by a face mask penalty that gave SDSU a first at the CSU nine, Mayden made a spectacular eight-yard run for the score. He dropped back to pass, stepped up into the middle, and raced into the end zone. The two-point attempt failed, leaving SDSU behind 22-12 with 11:37 left in the game.
The Rams, marching for a game-sealing drive, moved the ball deep inside SDSU’s territory. On 1st and 10, RB Vann Schield took the carry to his left, cut inside, and was up-ended by safety Eric Butler. Malone stripped the ball as Schield flipped. Zyrus Fiaseu recovered, giving the Aztecs new life. They took over at their own 20.
Needing two scores in 8:34 to tie the game and keep its 13-season bowl eligibility streak alive, the offense played at a relatively slow pace. Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley called five runs and two passes. As the clock passed the five-minute mark, SDSU had a 3rd and five on CSU’s 25. Mayden found Wesley for 10 yards and first down. A six-yard run by Mayden moved the ball to the nine. Davis pounded the ball to the three. SDSU had first and goal.
As precious time ran down, Jaylon Armstead failed to punch a pair of carries into the endzone. It forced Hoke to burn a timeout. On 3rd and goal from the one, FB Nick Gardinera could not get in on his first career carry. Hoke elected to keep his offense on the field. Armstead rewarded him by carrying defenders into the end zone for his sixth TD of the season. CSU led 22-19 with 2:04 left in the game.
Hoke elected to kick deep instead of attempting an onside kick. CSU took the ball, needing first down to end the game.
“Kicking it deep, we had two timeouts,” Hoke explained of his decision. “If we make a stand, they have to come in and punt, and (we) get the ball at the 50-yard line, the 45-yard line. We were moving the ball pretty well during that second half, a lot better than the first half, obviously. We thought we’d get the stop and thought we could kick the field goal to tie it.”
On first down, RB Avery Morrow rushed for four. Morrow to the right for two, setting up a pivotal 3rd and 4 with 1:16 left. After a timeout, Morrow made a great decision to bounce a run to the outside and cut it up for a gain of six. CSU lined up in a victory formation and ran out the clock on two kneel-downs. CSU moved to 4-6 to keep its bowl hopes alive. SDSU dropped to 3-7 to close the door on the 2023 postseason.
“It hurts,” Barfield said about missing a bowl. “Just two games left, looking to finish. We’re not going to roll over because of the situation we are facing.”
Hoke said postgame reaching a bowl is not a goal; “it’s an expectation.” The silver lining in failing to meet the program’s standard is the way the team responded in the second half.
“Yes,” Barfield said when asked if the second-half resurgence was a sign the seniors have passed down the culture that led the Aztecs to 13 straight bowl-eligible seasons. “We didn’t change anything X’s and O’s wise; I just felt like we were more invested, 11 players invested.”
Mayden finished the game 19-25 for 128 passing yards. Davis led the team in rushing with 67, and Christon chipped in with 44. Redman paced the receivers with four catches for 53 yards. Defensively, Hunter led the team with 15 tackles; seven were solo stops. Barfield and Moon had nine. The defense was held without a tackle for loss.
SDSU is back on the road next week. They take on San Jose State.
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.