After two losses against Nevada and Colorado, San Diego State is 3-3 on the season, and 3-2 in Mountain West Conference play. Below is the third in a series of four reflections on the state of the Aztec team.
What we learned through three-quarters of the season
1. Tariq Thompson will leave SDSU without a conference championship.
When Tariq Thompson was attending St. Augustine, SDSU won back-to-back Mountain West titles. The next progression for the program was a birth in a New Year’s Six Bowl. Starting and excelling as a true freshman in 2017, it appeared Thompson would be the homegrown player to lead the team to the new heights. Thompson has been nothing short of phenomenal during his Aztec career that will undoubtedly end with enshrinement in the school’s Hall of Fame.
Thompson has started every game of his career – 45 to date. Statistically, his first year was his best. He had five interceptions, and nine passes defended. One of his interceptions was returned 83 yards for a touchdown to lead SDSU to a win over Northern Illinois. In yards per game, SDSU has an average ranking of 10th in the nation during his tenure. It is a shame Thompson could not help bring a championship to San Diego, but his impact and legacy on this defense will be felt for years to come. He is truly a hometown hero.
2. The 2020 Aztecs are a true team.
It does not take an advanced degree to know where the struggles for this team have lived this season. The offense simply has not been very good, but what could have been a cause for division amongst the players has revealed the team’s character instead. Following the Colorado loss, defensive lineman Cameron Thomas was given three perfect opportunities to air grievances with the underperforming side.
Instead, he had this to say when asked about SDSU using three quarterbacks, “We just keep trusting our offense. They work hard every day. It doesn’t matter really who’s back there. We just make sure we trust our offense and keep going.” Thomas is three years removed from high school, but aside from deep maturity, his comments reveal the character of the team Brady Hoke has built. Thomas continued when asked more explicitly about the team’s offensive struggles, “I just think they keep working hard. Obviously, they didn’t accomplish what they wanted to, but I know they’re going to keep their chins up next week, and we’re going to keep going.”
Finally, Thomas was asked directly about his feelings after the defense outscored the offense. He responded, “I don’t really think of it much. The offense and defense are both going out there. We’re giving it at all. Sometimes the outcome is a little different than other times, but we’re just going out there as a team, together and fighting.” Thomas would have been forgiven for stating the obvious. He may have even been praised by part of a frustrated fan base, but by refusing to separate himself from his teammates, he proved that the team motto, “Blood in, Blood Out,” is more than just a clever phrase.
3. JD Wicker is terrific at his job
It has been two years now since Wicker spearheaded the “Yes on G” coalition. Certainly, there were more important figures behind the scenes, but in the public eye, the San Diego State Athletic Director was front and center. Following the win at the polls, Wicker was tasked with being the spokesperson for the negotiations with the city. Wicker created an amicable environment even as negotiations dragged out for 18 months.
In a rare political feat, both sides came together to celebrate the sale of the land. Almost six months ago, the city of San Diego sold the Mission Valley site to SDSU, with Wicker and his very red pants were center stage at the groundbreaking ceremony.
With deferred maintenance on SDCCU Stadium due and the lack of revenue possibilities due to pandemic restrictions, Wicker had to make the decision to play games in Carson and had to take the brunt of the negative publicity. Still, a controversial decision – playing in the same stadium the Chargers played in after they left San Diego – the athletic department has done all it could by partnering with the San Diego Padres to create a good environment for the players.
Additionally, this past week, on short notice, Wicker was able to find a game and a sizable payout, $250,000, after Fresno State canceled its game with SDSU. Above all, Wicker’s coronavirus response plan has been effective. The players and coaches have been protected, and the football has yet to miss a game.
Under his leadership, SDSU was ranked the best athletic department in the Mountain West by AthleticDirectorU.com. The past few months, we have certainly seen why.
Questions from the third quarter of the season
In the second installment of this series, questions were posed to focus on during the third quarter of the season. Below the questions are revisited, and answers supplied.
1. Contenders or Pretenders?
Unfortunately, the Aztecs showed they were pretenders for the MW Title. While they are not mathematically eliminated, they are virtually eliminated. It is more than just the losses to Nevada and Colorado. It is the regression of the offense that is the most troubling. For most of the past five quarters, SDSU’s offense has been completely overmatched. It was hoped that since the Aztec’s defense was so skilled, State’s offense would only have to be average to make a run at the championship. There were signs early in the year this might be the case, but the third quarter of the season showed they were pretending all along.
2. Who is the starting Quarterback?
The short of it is: we still do not know. Lucas Johnson’s first half against Nevada showed glimpses of what could be, but his injury in the second half of that game and his subsequent absence from the Colorado game leaves the question unanswered. On the other hand, SDSU’s coaching staff may have eliminated Carson Baker, Jordan Brookshire, and Mark Salazar from the competition in future years. Baker and Brookshire looked overmatched at this level the last two games, and Salazar did not see the field despite the struggles of the players above him on the depth chart.
3. Will the team fix its Special Teams?
Another question, another obvious yet troubling response. The woes of the special team’s units continue. Jesse Matthews has not shored up the return game since taking over for Jordan Byrd. Matt Araiza has taken a step back this season when kicking field goals. The kickoff return unit has not been a factor all season. One positive: Tanner Kuljian continues to be one of the best punters on the West Coast. His 44.9 average is 24th in the country.
Questions for the last quarter of the season
1. Will the Aztecs extend their bowl streak?
Ronnie Hillman ran for a bowl record 228 yards, and the SDSU offense put up 555 overall yards in a dismantling of Navy in the 2010 San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. The bowl, a first for the program since 1998, shook off a dismal decade of football and catapulted the Aztecs to ten straight bowl games. Will this be the year the streak ends?
Keeping the bowl streak going is important for recruiting, prestige, and simply for giving the players and fans another game. There are numerous variables to watch going forward. Most importantly, SDSU needs to defeat Colorado State this week, which will be a challenge given their deficiencies on offense. If they are able to secure a win, Aztec fans will be scoreboard watching.
The Aztecs need to finish tied for fourth place with Fresno State because they will own the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs. Currently, a game above the Aztecs in the standings, FSU plays at Nevada this week. A loss, coupled with an SDSU win, would put the programs in a tie. The first applicable tiebreaker between the CSU rivals would be “Record against the next highest placed team in the conference standings.” The next highest team would be Hawaii. FSU lost to the Rainbow Warriors the first game of the season. SDSU, of course, defeated UH.
Three other aspects worth mentioning in the age of coronavirus.
- Should FSU fail to play both of their final games, they might be eliminated from consideration because they would not have played enough games to qualify for considerations.
- Completely hypothetical at this point, but should FSU be eliminated from Mountain West Championship contention this week, could the schools reschedule the game they missed? Two weeks ago, when asked about the possibility of playing the week of the MW Championship Game, Hoke was open to the idea, “I would think so. Bowl games are going to be starting. I can tell you that. Again, this is probably a better question for JD (Wicker) than me. But I think there’s no doubt with the opportunities that are out there, yeah, we want to keep playing.”
- Of course, it may all be moot. It is possible one of the four possible MW bowl destinations cancels their game, and the Aztecs are left without a game.
2. Does SDSU need a transfer quarterback?
McKenzie Milton, from Kapolei, Hi, put his name in the transfer portal this week. Leaving the University of Central Florida, where he missed the last two seasons due to injury. In 2017, he led the Knights to a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Would he be a possible fit as a graduate transfer to San Diego State? For that matter, would any quarterback?
On paper, SDSU would seem to be an attractive landing spot for a top quarterback hoping for a successful final year. Jeff Hecklinski’s offense has certainly been more balanced than it was under Jeff Horton. The Aztecs will return to almost every skill position player. Their defense is one of the best in the nation and looks to continue performing that way under Kurt Mattix. Brady Hoke is a player’s coach who values his players’ success more than his own. Finally, SDSU has been one of the most successful programs dealing with coronavirus. Parents and players want to send their kids to a place proven to be safe.
All of these positives could be outweighed by one person: Lucas Johnson. Johnson has two games to prove the first half against Nevada was not a fluke and to prove he can be healthy. If the Aztec quarterback has a strong showing, the caliber of a quarterback coming in to compete with the group already here would be diminished. Likewise, if he performs poorly or is unable to perform, San Diego should be one of the premier destinations on the West Coast.
3. Will you enjoy them before they are gone?
“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it morrow.”
These famous words from Romeo and Juliet uttered by countless actors for hundreds of years sum up a bittersweet time of each season. Last year, fans of the team said goodbye to players like Luq Barcoo and Kyahva Tezino. These final two games will be the last chance to cheer on the seniors from this year’s team.
Unlike years past when exhausting eligibility gave a clearer picture of the roster the following season, this year, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to every player. Which players will come back to SDSU for a second senior season? At this week’s press conference, Coach Hoke said, “Those are things we’ve got to talk about who comes back from this senior class. I’ve told the guys on the team we’ll have those discussions on the Monday after BYU.” Players who might return aside, here is a list of players who will likely be playing their final two regular-season games from the Scarlett and Black. The Aztec nation has two games to appreciate them.
Seniors on the roster (players in bold are most likely to leave)
- Dominic Benson
- Tayler Hawkins
- Tanner Kuljian
- Tariq Thompson
- Eric Wilson
- Trenton Thompson
- Segun Olubi
- Greg Bell
- Dwayne Johnson Jr.
- Andrew Aleki
- Kaelin Himphill
- Turner Bernard
- Jalil Lecky
- Dominic Gudino
- Kyle Spalding
- Zachary Thomas
- Jacob Capra
- Jalen Booth
- Sefa Mailangi
- Nolan Givan
- Kahi Neves