The San Diego State Aztecs return from a bye and begin the second half of their regular season schedule by traveling to Reno to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack.
The Aztecs are winless on the road this season, with blowout losses at Utah and Boise State after an undefeated 5-0 record on the road in 2021. The matchup between West Division rivals coincides with Nevada’s annual Homecoming weekend, which should draw an even larger and more raucous crowd.
“We’ve got to understand that environment, and we’ve got to be disciplined in it,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke about playing in hostile stadiums. “We have to have great communication.”
After competing for the conference championship in 2021, the Wolf Pack saw an exodus in the offseason, starting with head coach Jay Norvell taking an open head coaching spot at Colorado State, several star players to the NFL, and others to the transfer portal.
The hiring of head coach Ken Wilson signaled a rebuilding effort for Nevada, with 50 newcomers on its roster, including 29 transfers. Wilson has spent 33 years coaching at the FBS level, including 19 at Nevada, primarily on the defensive side of the ball. Wilson spent 1993 as the inside linebackers coach at Nevada when current SDSU offensive coordinator, Jeff Horton, was the Wolf Pack’s head coach.
Nevada was picked to finish fourth in the West Division in the preseason media poll. Nevada won its first two games of the season before losing the last five contests including three games in the conference. Last week, the Wolf Pack lost to the Rainbow Warriors, 31-16, in Honolulu. The Aztecs beat the Rainbow Warriors 16-14 two weeks ago.
SDSU beat the Wolf Pack, 23-21, last year in a thrilling contest. After a 54-yard touchdown pass from Carson Strong to Romeo Doubs gave the Wolf Pack a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, Matt Araiza’s 35-yd field goal with 1:21 remaining put the Aztecs in the lead, and the defense sealed the win, forcing a turnover on downs on Nevada’s ensuing possession.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – Nevada
Before the bye week, the Aztecs utilized a new offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and quarterback to jumpstart an anemic passing offense. Jalen Mayden, who converted back from safety five days before the game, passed for 322 yards and one touchdown while leading the game-winning drive with a perfect six for six completions for 50 yards.
“It was impressive watching (Mayden) prepare during the week,” said Hoke. “He is a very calm individual. We check in on them every Friday Night … (Mayden) always has some kind of really good jazz on. He has shown things now and then, but not the consistency that we saw (against Hawai’i).”
Wide receiver Tyrell Shavers set career highs with eight catches and 149 receiving yards against Hawai’i and leads the team with 214 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns on the year.
Despite the great passing performance against Hawai’i, SDSU still ranks among the worst in FBS in most offensive categories. Out of 131 teams, they are 119th in scoring offense (18.5), 127th in passing offense (108.3), 125th in total offense (284.7), and 129th in third down conversion percentage (23.2%). The Aztecs will look to build off the last game in the second half of the season.
With Braxton Burmeister expected to return from a concussion suffered against Boise State after the bye week, the question remained about who would be the starting quarterback against Nevada. It was quickly answered early this week when Burmeister was spotted running routes with the wide receivers. On Tuesday, Hoke confirmed Mayden will be the starter with Burmeister as the backup while noting that there are packages the Aztecs will look to run with Burmeister lined up at wide receiver to utilize his athletic abilities.
Jordan Byrd’s 307 rushing yards and three touchdowns lead the team, but the return of Chance Bell into the mix against Hawai’i (53 yards on seven carries) was a great sign for a struggling rushing offense.
Starting right guard Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli has missed the last three games with a right knee injury. Hoke did not provide an update on Maseuli’s status, but his return to the starting lineup could be a welcome sight to start the second half of the season.
Key Player – Jesse Matthews, Wide Receiver, 6-0, 190lbs
While Shavers recorded the big game, statistically, against Hawai’i, Matthews added six catches for 68 yards. He leads the team with 16 receptions on the season (for 162 yards) but is still looking for his first touchdown. With two weeks to develop better continuity with Mayden and increased defensive awareness placed on Shavers by the Nevada defense, look for Matthews to have his best game of the season and score his first touchdown.
While the Wolf Pack defense has struggled in major statistical areas, such as 82nd in total defense (391.7 yards per game), 87th in scoring defense (29.1 per game), and 110th in third down conversions (43.8%), they have excelled in one key area: turnovers.
Nevada’s 15 forced turnovers are seventh in FBS, and the 1.29 turnover margin per game is ninth-best. Ten of the 15 turnovers are interceptions (8th in FBS), led by safety Bentlee Sanders’ five, which is tied with two other players in FBS for the top spot.
Sanders parlayed his exemplary first half of the season into a spot on the Associated Press Midseason All-American team, the lone representative from the Mountain West. His 42 tackles are one behind the team lead, and he has also forced two fumbles. He returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown, a 34-yarder against Texas State.
Fellow safety Tyson Williams leads the Wolf Pack with 43 tackles while adding five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and one interception. Linebacker Drue Watts has six tackles for loss.
Key player – Dom Peterson, Defensive Tackle, 6-0, 299lbs
The super senior from Harbor City, CA, is making the best out of his COVID exemption and earning a 90.2 overall defensive grade per Pro Football Focus (PFF) through seven weeks. The grade is 13th best among all FBS players, with at least 50 snaps played, and sixth among defensive linemen. The Preseason Bednarik Award Watch List nominee has collected a team-high seven tackles for loss and four sacks this season as he looks to continue climbing Nevada’s career lists for both categories. He is currently third in both categories (49.5 tackles for loss and 26 sacks) and only five sacks away from tying Jorge Cordova at the top of the list. The young SDSU offensive line will have their hands full contending with Peterson’s talent.
When Nevada has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
Similar to the Wolf Pack’s defense, their offense has not shined in many statistical categories, currently 109th in FBS with 21.7 points per game and 123rd with 289.9 yards per game in total offense. Their ability to protect the football (only six turnovers) has helped them stay in games longer than their statistics would show.
“They really want to run the ball,” said Hoke on Tuesday about the Wolf Pack offensive philosophy. “They got two running backs, I think, are really good and really physical guys. At the same time, their quarterback Nate Cox, he can get pretty good. He’s pretty athletic for a 6’9 guy.”
The two running backs are super seniors Toa Taua and Devonte Lee. Taua is the lead back, rushing for 453 yards on 120 carries and seven touchdowns. He entered 2022 ranked in the top ten in career rushing yards at Nevada and is currently seventh with 3,539. His 29 rushing touchdowns rank tenth in Nevada history.
Lee has rushed for 212 yards on 60 carries and added five touchdowns.
Cox, also a super senior, has completed 88 of 160 passes for 934 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Despite his 6’9 frame, he has rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns.
Wide receiver Jamaal Bell leads the team with 25 receptions and 254 receiving yards but has yet to catch a touchdown pass. Taua, an all-purpose back, is second on the team with 22 receptions (for 213 yards) and has caught one of the two receiving touchdowns for the team.
Key player – BJ Casteel, Wide Receiver, 6-0, 189lbs
The transfer from Arizona is second on the team with 22 receptions and 221 yards and tied for the team lead with one receiving touchdown. However, 13 of his receptions have come in the last two games after only nine in the first five, showing how he has become more comfortable in his new environment and with his teammates. Casteel was second on Arizona’s team in 2021 with 33 catches for 326 yards (one touchdown) which included five receptions for 26 yards against SDSU in the Aztecs’ 38-7 victory over the Wildcats. While the Wolf Pack will be focused on running the ball with their two backs, the emergence of Casteel has given defenses an additional threat to prepare and gameplan for.
The Aztecs’ defense has shut out its last three opponents in the first half, the longest active streak in the country, and tied with Michigan for the longest in FBS since Clemson held four consecutive opponents scoreless in the first half in 2017.
Overall, the defense is ranked 86th in FBS, allowing 394.2 yards per game, 90th allowing 41.7% third down conversation rate, and 49th allowing 23.8 points per game. The most surprising statistic, though, is SDSU allowing 166.7 rushing yards per game (92nd in FBS) after being in the top 20 in that statistic throughout 2021.
Despite only allowing 14 points to Hawai’i, the defense was not pleased with its performance, specifically against the run. “We missed some team tackles, which is way, way too much,” said Hoke. “We didn’t get any turnovers until the last one (last play of the game).”
The main area of emphasis placed during the bye week, in addition to cleaning up missed tackles, was increasing the number of negative plays. SDSU ranks 116th in sacks and 101st tackles for loss per game and only forced nine turnovers (73rd). Without negative plays, opposing offenses are able to stay in manageable third-down situations, and the Aztecs’ defense is caught guessing between pass and run plays.
“It’s more about just our players wanting to get a little bit more aggressive,” said Jonah Tavai when asked about where the defense is coming out of the bye. “We’ve been working on that a lot, along with obviously tackles that we’ve missed. Definitely gotten better, but they’re still there and are still killing our defenses and some of the teams that we had to stop it a little bit more. We have a pretty high standard for rush defense. So, this year, the numbers that we’ve had is definitely something to work on.”
Linebacker Michael Shawcroft still leads the team with 35 tackles despite missing the last game due to a lower leg injury. While Hoke did not address Shawcroft’s availability during this week’s media availability, it is expected that Shawcroft will continue to miss time. Redshirt freshman Zyrus Fiaseu filled in for Shawcroft against Hawai’i.
Both of SDSU’s current starters at cornerback started the season as backups. Noah Tumblin and Dez Malone have quickly become two of the most consistent starters on the Aztecs’ defense. Tumblin has only allowed four receptions on 12 targets and is 12th in FBS with a 56.67 defensive pass efficiency rating.
Malone is one of the best tacklers on the team, with the third-highest unassisted tackles (20). “He’s not a corner who’s just a corner,” said Hoke about Malone last week. “He’s going to get involved, and he’s going to throw it up in there, and I think he’s really done a good job with that.”
Key player – Jonah Tavai, Defensive Line, 6-0, 290lbs
Tavai has been SDSU’s best defensive player through the first half of the season. In addition to his 23 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, Tavai has recorded a team-best ten quarterback hurries, which is double the next-highest player on the team (five) and two more than the entire Wolf Pack defense (eight). His 87.6 overall defensive grade per PFF is 29th best among all FBS players and 9th best among defensive linemen with at least 50 snaps played. For the SDSU defense to return to its 2021 form, Tavai will need to continue to play as dominant as he has through six games.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
SDSU’s Jack Browning missed his first field goal of the season in the fourth quarter against Hawai’i but returned later to kick the game-winning field goal. He has made nine of ten on the season and all 12 extra points. He is 16th in FBS with a 45.07 yards per punt average and first with 21 punts inside the 20. ESPN ranks SDSU first in the FBS in special teams efficiency rating (87.2), while Nevada is ranked 60th (52.2).
Nevada’s all-conference placekicker, Brandon Talton, sustained an injury in practice about a month ago and has been out indefinitely. He was replaced by Matthew Killam from Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego, who has made three of five field goal attempts (long of 48). Killam is also the kickoff specialist for Nevada.
Punter Matt Freem leads Nevada with a 42.59 yard per punt average with a long of 70, but only seven of his 34 punts have landed inside the 20. Harry Webster took over for Freem midway through the Colorado State game and is averaging only 36.4 yards per punt with a long of 49.
Date: Saturday, October 22, 2022
Time: 7:30pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: SDSU -6.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Mackay Stadium (Reno, NV)
Records: SDSU 3-3 (1-1), Nevada 2-5 (0-3)
Series: SDSU 8-6