Press conferences after losses are solemn occasions. The feeling inside the interview room rarely translates to audio or video recordings of the events.
The competitors at the podium are at their worst, having just fallen short in the game. After wins, questions from the gathered media center on what went right. When losses occur, the focus is on awkward questions about what went wrong.
On Friday night, less than thirty minutes after Boise State’s narrow victory over San Diego State, Jalen Mayden and Cedarious Barfield took the stage to explain the Aztecs’ defeat. Impressive doesn’t do justice to these young men’s performance in that setting.
“I think it was pretty cool,” Hoke replied when asked to comment on what he had just witnessed from Barfield and Mayden. “They’re both guys who you love to have on your team. Cedarious (Barfield) was voted captain, and Moose (Mayden) has everybody’s respect when you look at our football team, offensively (and) defensively. It’s two guys who have really come along and understand that the hard work is in front of us, and we got to keep working.”
Like so many Broncos ball carriers, the Aztecs let victory slip through their fingers. Hope that they can turn their season around resides in the leaders who graced the stage.
Late in the contest against BSU, the young movement was on full display. Underclassmen Brady Anderson, Eric Butler, Marcus Ratcliffe, Brady Nassar, Trey White, Baylin Brooks, Christian Jones, Cameron Harpole, and Josh Nicholson saw significant time in the fourth quarter.
With SDSU dropping three games in a row for the first time since 2018 while increasingly depending on younger players, there is a danger the season snowballs out of control. Judging from Barfield and Mayden’s composure and grasp of the situation their team is in, SDSU is going to figure things out.
“A big thing that we talked about during the offseason is that player-led teams are going to be more successful,” Barfield said. “We have to take it upon ourselves to bring the younger guys up. We have to put this behind us. You can’t think about this game and let it carry into the Air Force game. … we have to move on, starting Monday at practice, and come out (with) more than we did last week. I know we looked good (last week in practice), but now we have to look great. We need to finish Monday through Saturday.”
Coaches coach, players play
Figuring out where to find fault for a defeat is challenging. According to SDSU’s coaches, the blame for the BSU loss falls on them. Ask the players, and they accept responsibility. A further examination of Friday’s game shows a well-prepared team that failed to execute.
Offensively, the Aztecs started the game in a jumbo formation and used it to pick up huge chunks on the ground. When BSU matched that tactic by subbing in bigger players and adding numbers inside, SDSU used play-action to spring the passing game. Mayden started the game 12-12 on pass attempts. Altogether, the offense, aside from two crucial fumbles, played its most complete game since the 2021 Frisco Bowl.
Defensively, the Aztecs clearly knew how to handle all of the motioning the Broncos used to create chaos and space for their athletes. SDSU defenders frequently pointed out the pre-snap movement of the skill position players before BSU QB Taylen Green called for it.
On one informative example, CB Dallas Branch lined up on the slot receiver instead of the Bronco on the outside of the formation. When BSU motioned the outside player, Branch did not have to move to get in position. He clearly knew what was coming.
Special teams had their usual array of personnel groupings. LBs Trey White and Darrell Masaniai played on the first line on kick returns, adding bulk to the scheme. When BSU attempted a surprise onside kick, the Aztecs were prepared and knew to block the defender and allow the ball to go out of bounds.
Hoke said postgame, there were times when SDSU had three players around a ball carrier and could not bring him down. Mayden explained the ball-carrying technique he was taught but failed to implement on his two fumbles. Barfield spoke about the defense running to the ball but getting there without violent intentions.
All of these are teachable moments, but the players must put the lessons into practice.
“Our coaches are always putting us in the position to be successful, and as players, we have to make the play,” Barfield concluded.
Tackling woes continue
The story of Friday’s contest from SDSU’s perspective is the myriad of missed tackles. The same narrative told from BSU’s point of view reveals an offensive design that worked to perfection.
Like all spread attacks, the goal of BSU’s offense is to force opposing defenses to cover skill position players across the entire 53 ⅓ yard width of the field. In doing so, they force their opposition to make tackles in space. On Friday, they succeeded.
The 3-3-5 is one of the ways defenses have countered this evolution. It depends on hybrid players at every level who are more well-rounded than athletes in traditional molds. The defense also makes QB reads tougher because it is easier to vary the players signal callers key on to make decisions. It only works if defenders can bring the opposition to the ground.
“Tackling is a physical thing,” Hoke explained. “Part of tackling being a physical thing is also your angles to the football. Shoot, there were times we had three guys on a guy, and he kept going, so we’ve got to do a better job of finishing.”
SDSU had similar problems last season through five games. They corrected them with personnel changes. Friday suggests a similar tactic could be employed this year. In the fourth quarter, LB Brady Andreson and S Eric Butler received extensive playing time.
“Butler played a lot during the whole game, and part of that is that he’s getting better,” Hoke said. “With Brady (Anderson), it’s the same thing. Brady played a handful of the last series of the game, and so I know Kurt (Mattix) was going to reward him for practicing hard.”
Butler, in particular, played well. He was one of the few Aztecs who brought an attacking mentality to the game. His sack in the red zone late flashed the brilliance he is capable of bringing to any contest. He led the team with career highs in tackles (8), sacks (1), and tackles for loss (2.5).
Mattix has favored veteran players to date, but if they are not making the needed plays, a youth movement could be in order.
Whatever the remedy, it needs to come soon. With the exception of Air Force, every team remaining on SDSU’s schedule uses spread elements in its attack, which is not surprising since the offense is nearly universal in modern football.
“First of all, respect to Boise State and their running backs,” Barfield explained. “As coach (Hoke) said, our defensive philosophy is everyone to the ball. I did feel as though we were running to the ball but not getting in there. We were trying to make the play but were just running there just to run there. We did have a very good week of practice, so this one kind of hurts knowing that there was some stuff that we could’ve controlled.”
Bowl streak in jeopardy
Every goal for the Aztecs season remains in front of it. They control their own destiny in the race for a spot in the conference championship, but without upsets, it would likely mean SDSU needs to go undefeated the rest of the year.
On the heels of three consecutive losses, where unforced errors have played a significant factor in each defeat, banking on that eventuality might not be wise.
In fact, looking ahead at the remaining schedule, getting four more wins to secure bowl eligibility will be tough. In three remaining contests against Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah State, the Aztecs are clear favorites. Against Air Force and No. 25 Fresno State, SDSU will be underdogs. Toss-up matchups on the road against San Jose State and Colorado State could hold the key to continuing the streak of thirteen straight seasons of bowl eligibility.
After a decade-plus of reaching the .500 plateau, simply reaching eligibility will feel like a letdown. In the big picture, though, it is significant. G5 teams do not typically go from not making a bowl to the national stage in one year. It takes years of middling seasons, learning how to win, to give a program a chance at that success. SDSU’s best seasons during the thirteen-year run have followed this pattern.
“Luckily, we played on a Friday, so we have until Saturday to get healthy, go into the film room, and look at Air Force,” Barfield said. “It’s one of those things that we can think about all night, but we have to put it behind us. It’s still a long season with the top two teams. We can still make it to the championship if we want to, so we just have to focus on the next team.”
- A Friday night game meant fewer recruits were on the field prior to the game. Still, a rough estimate of 45 players took in the action against Boise State.
- Jalen Mayden is reversing the narrative of SDSU not being a school for QBs. He still makes far too many mistakes to be great, but he competes at a high level.
- Kurt Mattix’ Aztec death whistle was out prior to the game.
- Former OC Jeff Horton took in the action. He was dressed appropriately for the Redout. Hoke came over to greet his former colleague, and Horton stepped over the ropes meant to keep spectators off the field of play. After exchanging pleasantries with Hoke, he got a reminder from the security guard where he was supposed to be.
- Aztec for Life Caden McDonald also was on hand.
- BSU traveled well. At kickoff, the two visitor sections were the fullest in the stadium. The lower bowl filled in after kickoff. The announced attendance was 23,374.
- There was a decent lineup to buy tickets on game day. Is that a trick to avoid paying fees?
- Davaughn Celestine wielded the shield and led the team onto the field.
- The frustrating part about Mayden’s first fumble is he should have slid instead of trying to barrel through the defender.
- On clear passing downs, SDSU used a spy to prevent BSU’s QB from running. Butler got his first reps there. When he was playing warrior safety, Josh Hunter played the spy.
- Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson’s false starts prevented SDSU from using the snap count as a weapon against the defense.
- After numerous drops the past two weeks, Josh Nicholson made a nice grab on a poorly thrown ball.
- Zyrus Fiaseu continues to make plays at LB
- Cam Davis’ explosion as a returner is greater than when he is playing running back.
- Baylin Brooks and Brionne Penny combined for ten catches, 214 yards, and one touchdown.
- Jack Browning’s punt average has shrunk as SDSU’s offense has improved.
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.