It is Spring ball, and the year is 2017.
In a morning scrimmage, redshirt freshman Tayler Hawkins’ knee buckled while defending a pass. He tore both his ACL and MCL ligaments. Hawkins was advised to rehab for a year, receive a medical redshirt, and be fully healthy for 2018. Instead, the defender fought back and did everything he could to help the team win.
Hawkins missed the first three games of that season due to injury but played the final 10 mostly on special teams.
Saturday night, Hawkins, now a senior, started every game this season and has played in 42nd consecutive games. On Senior Night, he did something he had never done in an Aztec uniform; he intercepted a pass. When asked about the play, Coach Hoke said, “It was awesome. He’s worked really hard. You know, he’s bounced around a little bit from Warrior and corner a little bit, so that was great, and it was a great interception.” Hawkins’ teammates also appreciated the feat. Television cameras showed a mob of Aztecs surrounding him, celebrating the turnover.
Hawkins night, though, was not without controversy.
Early in the second quarter, Hawkins was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty along with CSU offensive lineman Barry Wesley. Wesley knocked Hawkins over after the whistle, apparently reacting to Hawkins twisting of the ball carrier’s leg after the play. CBS commentator, Aaron Taylor, described the play this way. “That is a dirty play, and Wesley was absolutely right for taking a shot at Hawkins, who was trying to give his running back some business.”
When asked about the play and Taylor’s comments after the game, coach Hoke, in his customary humor and grace, said, “I tried to recruit Aaron to go to Michigan, and he went to Notre Dame. Maybe if he would have gone to Michigan, he would have understood it a little better.” Social media being what it is, had a few fans referring to the play as “vile” and “gross.” Others labeled Hawkins a “thug” and called for his suspension. One wonders if Aaron Taylor had not been so quick to judge, the reaction would have been different. Irresponsible comments like these are unfortunate on any night, but they were especially in poor taste on Senior Night of a player who has given his all for this team.
“If they can’t score, they can’t win.”
Early in the second quarter, the Aztecs took a 20-3 lead following two special teams touchdowns – a kickoff return by Jordan Byrd and a punt return by BJ Busbee. CSU responded with 14 unanswered points. They were keyed by a running game that had 108 yards rushing at the half. SDSU’s defense came into the contest 10th in the nation in rushing defense, giving up 97.33 yards a game. SDSU had a 23 -17 lead at the half, but Colorado State had the momentum. At the half, Coach Hoke had a simple message for his defense. “If they can’t score, they can’t win.”
Asked if the team was aware of the 108 yards given up in two quarters, senior safety Dwayne Johnson said, “We got notified of that (how many yards the team had given up) immediately. The message at halftime was that we need to get back to playing Aztec football, which is physical football. (We needed to) be tough and stop the run. Coming out of the half, we knew we had one job, and that was to keep them (Colorado State) out of the zone.”
The team got the message. The Rams were held scoreless in the second half, they only crossed midfield twice, and they ran for only 13 more yards.
Time of Possession
The Aztecs had the ball for nine minutes longer than the Rams. Normally, when a team possesses the ball for that much more time, they run a lot more plays than their opponent. Last week, for example, Colorado had nearly a 15-minute edge in time of possession because they ran 23 more plays. On Saturday, SDSU had only six more snaps.
The game was an interesting case study in different philosophies when it comes to play-calling. Neither team huddles, but CSU tries to snap the ball as quickly as possible. SDSU, on the other hand, comes to the line of scrimmage and then calls the play. This uses most of the play clock before snapping the ball.
The result was the Rams had 11 drives under two minutes of game time – including two of their scoring drives. The Aztecs had two drives that used less than two minutes.
Putting the Special back in Special Teams
Coming into the game, SDSU’s return game averaged 8.12 yards per punt return and 21 yards per kickoff return. Matt Araiza was coming off a week where he missed two fields for only the second time in his career. All season, Doug Deakin’s unit was nothing to write home about until Saturday.
SDSU averaged 18.8 yards a punt return on five attempts, including BJ Busbee’s 90-yard touchdown return. On four kickoff returns, they averaged a staggering 43.25 yards. Jordan Byrd averaged 74 yards a return! Matt Araiza matched a career-high with three made field goals.
Keeping the Offense on Schedule
Keeping the offense on schedule is designing plays to set up third and short opportunities. For years, this was the stated philosophy of the offense. Through seven games, this does not appear to be an emphasis in Jeff Hecklinski’s offense. Teams that aim for third and short calls lots of runs or short passes on first down. Last night, with a quarterback suited for quick passes and runs, SDSU called, basically, an equal number of passes and runs on first down (not including the final drives when the Aztecs were running out the clock).
They called nine rushes and eight passes when they had a fresh set of downs. The rushing attempts netted 26 yards for an average down and distance of second and seven. They were “on schedule” when they ran the ball. The passing attempts netted negative eight yards setting up an average down and distance of second and 11.
Kurt Mattix, Chess Master
Defensive Coordinator, Kurt Mattix, continues his impressive debut season. Particularly impressive was how he changed his approach to the passing situation between the first and second halves. Game planning is a chess match of finding tendencies in your opponent. More often than not this season, Mattix has rushed four and at times three on obvious passing downs. He opened the game following this pattern, depending on his potent line of Caden McDonald, Cameron Thomas, Jonah Tavai, and Keshawn Banks to apply pressure. In the second half, he called completely different plays and brought so much pressure. It would have made Rocky Long blush.
It was effective! Colorado State Quarterback, Patrick O’Brien, completed 61% of his passes last season and was completing 60% this season. Against the Aztecs, he completed only 45.8% of his passes. His 114 yards were the lowest of his career when he had more than 10 passing attempts. Officially, he was only sacked and hurried four times, but all night, O’Brien was forced to get the ball out quickly because of the pressure, which led to errant throws and dropped passes.
Fourth place! Fourth Place!
SDSU woke up in fourth place in the Mountain West standings and should end the season there. Fresno State lost last night to Nevada in a turnover-filled game, 37 -26. The loss assures the Aztecs will, at minimum, finish tied with the Bulldogs (FSU plays New Mexico the final week of the season). Due to their victory over Hawaii, SDSU will own the tiebreaker over FSU. There still has been no official word from the conference on how they will distribute their bowls. When asked about the situation this week, coach Hoke said he believed it was based on conference standings.