The San Diego State Aztecs look to regroup and restart their drive to winning their 22nd conference championship when they return home against the Hawai’i Rainbows on Saturday night.
Despite losing their first conference game on Friday night against Boise State, the Aztecs still control their own destiny to reach the conference championship game as they have yet to play any division foes.
The last time the Aztecs started a season under .500 after five games was 2015, when they also started 2-3, then reeled off ten consecutive wins to end the season, including a Mountain West title. SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said Tuesday that he reminded his team of what the 2015 Aztecs accomplished after a difficult start to the season.
Former Hawai’i quarterback Timmy Chang is in his first year as head coach. He took over a program that saw 20 players depart into the transfer portal following the 2021 season.
The Rainbow Warriors will be playing in their first conference game of 2022, coming off a bye week. After starting the season with lopsided home losses to Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky by a combined 85 points, they finally won at home by beating Duquesne, 24-14, for their lone win on the season and the first of Chang’s coaching career.
Their other two losses, on the road against Michigan (56-10) and New Mexico State (45-26), were by a combined 65 points.
The Aztecs have beaten the Rainbow Warriors in the last two matchups, including last year’s victory, 17-10, in Honolulu. Three of the previous four meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
The matchup pits two brothers and defensive line coaches against each other. SDSU’s Justin Ena is the younger brother of Hawai’i’s Eti Ena.
Hawai’i was picked to finish last in the West Division in the preseason media poll.
When San Diego State has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The biggest news since the Boise State loss was the change in offensive coordinator from Jeff Hecklinski to Jeff Horton and the hiring of former SDSU QB Ryan Lindley as quarterbacks coach. Horton, Lindley, and the rest of the offensive coaching staff are tasked with improving the worst passing offense in the nation (131st out of 131 FBS teams with 65.6 passing yards per game).
Even the 33rd-best rushing offense in the nation does not keep the Aztecs from near the bottom for total offense (127th with 258.2 total yards per game). After converting only 1 of 14 third downs against Boise State, SDSU fell two spots and is now dead last with an 18.2% conversion rate.
There is only one possible way for the offense to go from here.
Further complicating matters are the concussion by starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister and the broken collarbone by backup Kyle Crum. After undergoing surgery on Wednesday, Hoke said on Tuesday that he expects Crum to be out at least four to six weeks. Given the timeline, it is possible that he would sit out the rest of the season to preserve his redshirt status.
Burmeister is currently in the concussion protocols but practicing with no contact. Hoke believes he will be cleared in time to start against Hawai’i. Given the recent events in the NFL related to how teams and independent neurologists handled concussions, specifically with Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa, one has to wonder whether it would be best for Burmeister’s overall health to sit this week and return after the bye week on October 15th.
To replenish the depth in the quarterback room, Jalen Mayden opted to return to the position after spending the past ten months as a safety. The lefty signal-caller was a four-star recruit out of high school and played at Mississippi State before transferring to SDSU after the 2020 season.
After finishing third in the quarterback competition to start the 2021 season and dropping to fourth by the end of the season behind true freshman Will Haskell, Mayden made the noble decision to transfer to a side of the ball he had never played in order to showcase his athletic abilities. Now, when his team is in dire need of depth at quarterback, Mayden volunteered to move back in the best interests of the program.
Burmeister has completed 36 of 72 passes (50%) for 263 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions on the season. The team finally completed a pass longer than 18 yards when Burmeister connected with Jesse Mathews for 26 yards in the first half against Boise State. It was one of only two completed passes for the Aztecs in the entire game.
Jordan Byrd’s 285 rushing yards and three touchdowns lead the team. Jaylon Armstead’s 10.6 yards per carry is still 2nd in FBS (second on the team with 190 rushing yards), but he missed the last game with an ankle injury. Burmeister is third on the team with 188 rushing yards.
With Horton’s prior success as offensive coordinator based heavily on a run first and very often mentality and this week’s opponent’s penchant for being unable to stop the run, expect a heavy emphasis on the Aztecs’ stable of running backs in this matchup.
Key Player – Chance Bell, Running Back, 5-10, 200lbs
While Byrd and Armstead have carried much of the load of the running game so far this season out of the backs, Bell, who came into the season as the projected lead running back, has yet to take off. He has rushed for only 52 yards on 15 carries (3.5 ypc) with zero touchdowns, partly due to missing almost three full games with an elbow injury. If fully healthy this week, expect Bell to regain his standing on the SDSU depth chart next to Byrd and have a breakout game on Saturday.
The Rainbow Warriors’ defense is one of the worst in the nation, allowing 45.4 points and 260.8 rushing yards per game, both 130th out of 131 FBS teams. Opponents have scored 28 touchdowns against the defense, including 18 on the ground.
The defense has collected only three sacks through five games (128th in FBS) and allowed 21 touchdowns on 27 red zone drives.
Super senior Penei Pavihi returned an interception for a 50-yd touchdown in Hawai’i’s win against Duquesne and is the team’s leading tackler (27) and tied for a team-high one sack.
Arizona transfer defensive back Malik Hausman leads the team with three interceptions and is tied for 10th in FBS with six passes defended.
Key player – Jonah Kahahawai-Welch, Edge/Outside Linebacker, 6-2, 230lbs
The senior, named to the Preseason Wuerffel Trophy Watch List, has ten tackles and tied for a team-high two quarterback hurries but has not quite left his mark on the defense after missing most of the past few years due to injury. He has emerged as a leader for the Rainbow Warriors defense, earning a starting spot on the defense and reviving the pregame Ha’a ritual for Hawai’i.
When Hawai’i has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The Rainbow Warriors have started two quarterbacks this season, sophomore Brayden Schager and Pittsburgh transfer Joey Yellen. Schager has passed for 659 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions this season, while Yellen has passed for 324 yards and two interceptions.
Schager’s lone passing touchdown came in their last game against New Mexico State, where he threw for a career-high 261 yards. Hawai’i entered week five as one of only two teams in the nation to have not thrown a touchdown pass yet (South Florida).
Running back Dedrick Parson leads the team in rushing with 266 yards on 67 carries and six touchdowns (tied for 12th in FBS). He also adds 11 receptions for 52 yards.
Wide receiver James Phillips leads the team with 17 receptions, and Jonah Panoke leads with 172 receiving yards.
Overall, the Rainbow Warriors’ offense has produced 313.2 total yards (114th in FBS) and 17.4 points (121st) per game. They have converted 31% of their third down attempts (24 of 77).
Key player – Caleb Phillips, Tight End, 6-5, 230lbs
The senior from Encinitas returns home to show off his skills in front of friends and family. On the season, Phillips has 11 receptions for 168 yards but is coming off his best game as a collegiate, catching eight passes for 138 yards against New Mexico State. The yardage is the most by an FBS tight end in a game this year and most by a Rainbow Warrior tight end in more than 50 years.
After spending all of the 2021 season as one of the best defenses in the country, the 2022 defense has really struggled with consistency over the course of the first five games. Despite showing glimpses of its past dominance (holding Utah scoreless through the first four drives and holding Boise State scoreless in the first half), the defense is ranked 94th in FBS, allowing 404.6 yards per game, and 71st, allowing 25.8 points per game.
Additionally, the defense is 103th in FBS, allowing 43.2% of third downs to be converted, and 94th and 81st in sacks and tackles for loss per game, respectively. These are all areas the defense must improve if it wants to reach the team’s goal of winning a conference championship in 2022.
Linebacker Michael Shawcroft leads the team with 35 tackles and three pass breakups and is tied with Garret Fountain for a team-high two sacks. Shawcroft sustained an injury in the second half of the game against Boise State, and his injury status was not provided by Hoke. If he is unable to play, expect junior Vai Kaho to get his first extended playing time this season in his absence. Kaho came into 2022 with high expectations to contribute in the linebacker room after the departures of Andrew Aleki and Segun Olubi, but he has only played 23 defensive snaps through five games.
Fountain still leads the team with 4.5 tackles for loss but struggled to keep contain on read-option runs by Boise State quarterback Taylen Green in last week’s second half. It is an experience that the new defensive end will learn and grow from as he looks to become a stalwart on the SDSU defense for the remainder of this season and beyond.
Safety Patrick McMorris returned last week after missing a game due to injury.
Key player – Justus Tavai, Defensive Line, 6-3, 290lbs
The younger Tavai spent the last four years on the Rainbow Warriors and started 19 games. While the Aztecs’ offense will likely lean on Tavai to provide a good scouting report on his former defensive teammates, the defense can also benefit from Tavai’s experience going up against the offensive lineman in practice. Through five games, Tavai’s impact has not been felt immensely, collecting 12 tackles but only one tackle for loss and quarterback hurry. If he is able to rebound from his injury in the Boise State game, the opportunity to play against his former team could propel Tavai to his best game of the season.
[wpedon id=”49075″ align=”right”]
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
SDSU’s multi-talented specialist, Jack Browning, continued his perfect place-kicking season by making both field goal attempts and one extra point against Boise State. He is also 18th in FBS with a 45.39 yards per punt average and first with 18 punts inside the 20.
SDSU’s punt return team produced its second touchdown of the season when Max Garrison’s pressure forced a short, errant punt into the hands of Tyrell Shavers, who returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.
Hawai’i specialist Matthew Shipley has converted six of seven field goal attempts this season (long of 40) and 16 of his last 17 from 40 yards and in, dating back to last season. He entered the season on the Lou Groza Award Watch List. He is also the punter, averaging 39.6 yards per punt this season.
Date: Saturday, October 8, 2022
Time: 7:30pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: SDSU -22.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 2-3 (0-1), Hawai’i 1-4 (0-0)
Series: SDSU 23-11-2
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.