Date: Saturday, November 4, 2023
Time: 4:00 pm PT
Channel: Fox Sports 1
Betting Line: USU -2.5, O/U 56.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 3-5 (1-3), USU 3-5 (1-3)
Series: SDSU 13-3
It’s the annual Homecoming game for SDSU, which typically evokes and instills tremendous pride from Aztec faithful, past and current. However, based on the football team’s performance (lost five of the last six games), some within the fanbase would rather skip the remaining games this season than attend and cheer on the players.
“We have to continue to be resilient in everything we do and stay together as a group and as a team,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke during his Tuesday press conference. “Homecoming this weekend, that’s awesome. We want to represent Aztec Nation to its fullest and play for our seniors.”
After their first bye of the season, the Aztecs played two games about as opposite as possible. The first one, a win over Hawai’i, had the fourth-most combined points (75) in an SDSU Mountain West game. The following game, a loss to Nevada, had the fewest combined points (six) in any SDSU game ever featuring two FBS teams.
“We were in as a staff a little bit more; we went out recruiting a little earlier than the last time, but we stayed in and had a little bit of different practices, a little more physical,” said Hoke if the team approached this bye a little differently.
The Aztecs and Aggies sport identical overall and conference records and are both coming off a bye. For the second time in the past month, the Aztecs play a game in which both teams are coming off a bye.
The Aggies, led by third-year head coach Brady Anderson, have taken a similar path as the Aztecs since their extremely successful 2021 season, finishing 6-7 last season (the Aztecs finished 7-6) before deeper struggles this season.
After starting 1-3, the Aggies won at Uconn (34-33) and versus Colorado State (44-24) to even their record. But two losses since then, to Fresno State (32-37) and San Jose State (21-42), have them going backward.
The biggest culprit in the Aggies’ record is their play in the first quarter, outscored by 88 (105-17). For the remaining three quarters, they have put up 98 (265-167) more points than their opponents, leading to a +10 overall scoring margin.
SDSU has won 11 of the last 13 matchups in the series, but USU won the last and most important one in the 2021 Mountain West Championship Game. The Aztec squad was riddled with COVID-19 leading up to the game and had up to 20 players miss the contest. The Aggies won 46-13.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – USU
The Aztecs average 19.63 ppg (116th), 170.5 passing ypg (113th), 147 rushing ypg (77th) and 317.5 total ypg (112th).
It is hard to imagine a lower point for any offense that getting shutout at home to the worst statistical defense in the FBS. That is where the Aztecs were heading into their second bye week. Despite the defense providing exemplary field position throughout the game, the offense failed to convert a third down on ten attempts and turned it over on their final possession when a touchdown would have still won the game.
“As an offense, we know we should have had a better performance in the Nevada game,” said starting LT Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson on Tuesday. “It was an embarrassing scene for the offense, but coming out last week (during the bye week), we came out competing a lot with the defense.”
QB Jalen Mayden (123/200, 1,332 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) has been unable to string consecutive strong performances together this season, plagued by turnovers, dropped passes, and missed blocking assignments.
While there were some thoughts by Hoke and OC Ryan Lindley to pull Mayden against Nevada, he completed the game and is expected to start on Saturday, considering the lack of experience behind him in the room.
Hoke wants to see more consistency from the entire offense.
“We block a play up pretty good and then run the same play and not block up as well,” he explained. “We run a route pretty good, and then just not having the consistency that you need to have.”
Mayden’s 400 rushing yards still lead the team. Kenan Christon and Jaylon Armstead are tied for second with 257 yards, but both have received fewer and fewer carries over the last few games in favor of Cam Davis and redshirt freshman Lucky Sutton.
Sutton started the season on the scout team and used those reps to move up the depth chart. With Sutton in the rotation, the scout team reps have fallen to Armstead. Armstead did not receive a carry against Nevada after receiving 8.6 carries per game up to that point. According to Lindley, the staff has challenged Armstead to use those carries in practice to sharpen his game.
After averaging ten carries per game in the first six contests, Christon has only nine total carries in the last two. He is still looking for his first touchdown of the season.
TE Mark Redman leads the team in receiving with 23 receptions for 256 yards, but his production has also plateaued after early-season signs of a bigger role in the passing game this season. The staff singled him out this week as someone who needs to perform at a higher level for this offense to be successful. He has not hauled in more than 29 receiving yards in any of the last four games and does not have any touchdowns since two in the opening game.
The Aztecs’ are 20th in the country with a time of possession of 32:01. But that statistic has not translated to wins because the drives have not ended in points, and the number is inflated due to the high number of quick scores the defense has surrendered this year. When asked if the team’s emphasis on winning time of possession has led to being too conservative on offense, Hoke shot that down on Tuesday, citing that the gameplan is set up to do what their team does best.
The Aggies allow 34 ppg (119th), 234.5 passing ypg (76th), 174.5 rushing ypg (106th), and 409 total ypg (104th).
The strength of this traditional 4-3 defense is forcing turnovers. They are 13th in the nation with 16. Those are split evenly between eight interceptions and fumble recoveries. The Aggies are sixth in the nation in fumble recoveries.
Safety Ike Larsen leads the team with three interceptions (one returned for a score) and is tied for second with 62 tackles. The sophomore’s stellar season led to being honored as the 2023 College Football Network (CFN) Midseason National Safety of the Year and with a spot on the Midseason All-America First-Team Defense.
Safety Devin Dye, son of former MLB player Jermaine Dye, is second on the team with two interceptions (also has 46 tackles and five pass breakups).
DE Blaine Spires (Bowling Green transfer) leads with three fumbles recovered.
Graduate senior and Washington transfer LB MJ Tafisi leads the Mountain West with 10.4 tackles per game (83 total). Tafisi is the first Aggie to post four-straight games with double-digit tackles since Suli Tamaivena posted five-straight in 2017.
Tafisi is also tied with two teammates with 5.5 tackles for loss per game. DE Paul Fitzgerald leads USU with four sacks.
The Aggies’ 1.88 sacks and 5.88 tackles for loss per game rank 88th and 58th, respectively.
Key matchup: Mark Redman, TE vs Devin Dye, S
During spring and fall camp, a lot of emphasis was put on the TEs as one of the most talented groups on the team and a bigger focal point in Lindley’s offense. Since the first game of the season, Redman does not have a touchdown. Against Nevada, he was only targeted once for no catches. Cameron Harpole, the second TE, only has three catches (on five targets) for 18 yards all season. The Aggies’ starting safeties are a menacing duo who play the pass well and force turnovers. The Aztecs QB needs to be selective but decisive when electing to throw to Redman more into the passing game on Saturday.
When USU has the ball: Advantage – USU
The Aggies average 35.25 ppg (21st), 287.38 passing ypg (22nd), 163.75 rushing ypg (58th) and 451.13 total ypg (23rd).
Such a rarity in college football, Anderson also serves as the Aggies’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach this season. The change has produced immediate results as USU has already scored 37 touchdowns this season compared to just 36 touchdowns in the entire 2022 season. Their 25 passing touchdowns are tied with Washington for the third-most in the nation.
The Aggies run a plan every 21.2 seconds, the fifth-fastest in the nation, and have ten scoring drives that took less than 60 seconds (nine touchdowns and one field goal).
Cooper Legas and McCae Hillstead have alternated at QB this season. In six games, Legas has completed 101 of 153 passes for 1,338 yards, 13 TDs, and 6 INTs. In five games, Hillstead has completed 69 of 119 passes for 890 yards, 10 TDs, and 7 INTs. Both have had issues protecting the ball when they aren’t finding open receivers down the field.
Anderson has not named a starter for this Saturday, but S Cedarious Barfield noted on Tuesday that the Aggies run the same offense regardless of which player is in the game, so it does not affect the preparation not knowing who will be starting.
USU is one of only two FBS teams (LSU) to have two players with at least eight touchdown catches and the only FBS team to have three players with at least five.
Jalen Royals (43 rec, 77 yds) is tied for third with ten touchdowns. Terrell Vaughn (56 rec, 639 yds) is tied for tenth with eight touchdowns. Micah Davis (25 rec, 478 yds) is tied for 44th with five touchdowns.
“It’s kind of a different type of offense; they spread you out from the receiver line all the way towards the sideline,” added Barfield. “It’s always a fun match when we play them. … At every position, they have a lot of ballplayers. So it’s going to be fun, a lot of pressure on the DBs as well, but that’s the kind of game that we like to play.”
Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison lead the team in rushing with 489 and 370 yards, respectively. They have combined for seven of the team’s ten rushing touchdowns on the season.
The Aztecs allow 28.13 ppg (85th), 257.13 passing ypg (113th), 162.88 rushing ypg (92nd), and 420 total ypg (110th).
While these rankings look bad, they were even worse before a superb performance against Nevada, only allowing six points and less than 250 total yards. The defense will look to build off that performance through the final four games of the season.
LB Zyrus Fiaseu continues to lead the team with 48 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. No other defender has more than 3.5 tackles for loss.
CB Noah Tumblin leads with nine pass breakups and is second in interceptions (two) behind Cedarious Barfield (three).
True freshman S Marcus Ratcliffe is third on the team with 36 tackles on the season.
The defense has been ravaged by the amount of big plays the opponents have gained on them. While the secondary takes most of the blame for that, the lack of a pass rush has indirectly played a crucial role. The team’s 1.5 sacks per game are 112th in the country. Even worse, at 125th, is only four tackles for loss per game. Not being able to bring down the quarterbacks or running backs behind the line of scrimmage allows offenses to get in manageable third-down situations and convert 41% of the time.
“It just felt like a lack of attention to detail,” Barfield said on Tuesday when asked about the causes for the poor play on defense. “When you look at the big plays that we did give up, it was more missed assignments on our part: people not being in the right position, or not getting the right calls and everything like that.”
“So, I wouldn’t say it’s more of a physical thing because we have the guys that can play football, and I feel as though it’s more lack of knowing what to do and how to do it. When you look at the older guys in the past years, it’s those guys (who) knew what they were doing every assignment. It comes with experience, but that’s kind of the older guy’s job to make sure everyone knows and is on the right page.”
Hoke added that with the struggles to get to the QB, rushing only four, they have blitzed more, leading to more man coverage on the back end that the skill players they have gone up against have taken advantage of this season.
One tactic to watch on Saturday is how much LB New Zealand Williams plays. A converted safety, Williams continues to see time when opposing offenses are in their two-minute offense. USU plays that style nearly the entire game, which SDSU might counter by giving Williams more snaps at WILL LB.
Key matchup: Terrell Vaughn, Slot WR vs Deshawn McCuin/Cedarious Barfield, S The Aztecs’ defense has been susceptible to the deep pass all season long. Over the past two years, they have also been exploited, covering the slot in man coverage. As Hoke stated on Tuesday, having to blitz LBs more to generate pressure has led to more man coverage in the secondary and more big plays allowed. Vaughn is only 5’7, but is explosive and produced eight touchdowns this season already. Against Fresno State, he caught seven passes for 119 yards. Against Colorado State, he added eight catches for 143 yards. Add in an uptempo offensive style, and the Aztec warrior safeties could be in for a long evening if they don’t communicate and stay focused and disciplined on their assignment. McCuin, who started against Hawai’i and returned an interception for a score before sustaining a concussion at the end of the contest, missed the Nevada game but should be back after having another week off during the bye to recover. He has the speed to match up with Vaughn.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
The Aztecs (71.2) are 4th in ESPN Special Teams Efficiency Rating, while the Aggies (33.3) are 122nd.
Jack Browning’s 42.41 net punting average is 11th in the nation, although he has missed six of 16 field goals this season, two of which came in the 30-39 yard range. Browning was named a Burlsworth Trophy Nominee this week. The trophy is annually given to the best player in college football who started his career as a walk-on.
The Aggies punters have only a 38.2 net punting average (79th), but redshirt freshman Ryan Marks booted a career-long 75-yarder in his last game, tied for the fourth-longest in school history.
Junior Elliott Nimrod has made seven of nine field goal attempts and also scored an 18-yard touchdown on a fake field goal run against James Madison.
The Aztecs have one blocked kick this year (EriButler’s’s blocked punt against Hawai’i’i), while the Aggies’s’ Ike Larsen has both oUSU’s’s, including an extra point in the last minute against UConn that would have tied the game. USU has now blocked nine kicks in the three years under Anderson. Larsen has five of them, a school record.
Lastly, the Aggies are 118th in the nation in punt return defense, allowing 14.7 ypr. Mekhi Shaw should have some opportunities to break a big return.
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.