Date: Saturday, November 11, 2023
Time: 4:00 pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: CSU -3.5, O/U 47.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Canvas Stadium (Fort Collins, CO)
Records: SDSU 3-6 (1-4), CSU 3-6 (1-4)
Series: SDSU 22-14
After losing two home games to Nevada and Utah State, the Aztecs travel to play Colorado State this Saturday. To reach bowl eligibility for a chance at an invite to a bowl game, the Aztecs must win their final three games of the season.
“We play for our seniors, and our seniors have worked their butts off,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke during his Tuesday press conference. “They’re not satisfied with where we’re at, nobody is. They came out Monday and had a hell of a practice.”
The Rams enter with the same overall and conference records as the Aztecs, a second disappointing season under head coach Jay Norvell, who departed Nevada after the 2021 season for Fort Collins. The Rams finished 3-9 in Norvell’s first year in 2022 and are headed to a similar outcome unless they can rebound in their final three games.
In today’s college football landscape, roster turnover amid coaching changes is rampant. Perhaps no other program has made as major of a turnover in the past two years as Colorado State. Only 19 of the current 112 players on the roster were at Colorado State in 2021.
Things appeared promising for the Rams after losing to Coach Prime’s Colorado team in Boulder in 2OT in front of a national prime-time audience. At the time, Colorado was undefeated, and the talk of college football and taking them to double-overtime was a sign that Colorado State had the talent to compete against anyone and certainly for a Mountain West championship.
Both Colorado and Colorado State have endured rough patches since then. The Rams lost four of their first five conference matchups, including the last three, but their schedule softens mightily as they play three of the bottom five teams in the conference in their next three games.
SDSU and CSU have not met since the 2020 pandemic season when the Aztecs defeated the Rams, 29-17, in Carson. The victory was aided by two special teams scores 90 seconds apart from Jordan Byrd (93-yd kickoff return) and BJ Busbee (90-yd punt return). The Aztecs also won the last matchup at Canvas Stadium, 24-10, in 2019.
The Rams will honor Veteran’s Day with a pre-game fly-over as well as unfurling one of the world’s largest American flags across the field.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – CSU
The Aztecs average 20.11 ppg (113th), 180.77 passing ypg (110th), 144.11 rushing ypg (83rd), and 324.89 total ypg (107th).
QB Jalen Mayden (148/239, 1,597 yds, 9 TDs, 7 INTs) threw for 265 passing yards against Utah State after only 41 against Nevada in the previous game. He also tied his career high with three touchdown passes in the game.
The performance was a breakout of sorts by RB Kenan Christon. Despite only gaining 35 yards on the ground, he caught a team-high eight passes for 76 yards and his first touchdown of the season. The eight receptions were the most by an SDSU RB since 2008.
Redshirt freshman RB Lucky Sutton broke free for a 62-yard run in the first half, the longest by an SDSU player since 2020. Although he was caught from behind by an Aggie defender, the Aztecs scored on the drive on a Mark Redman 11-yard reception.
While the running game overall has not consistently performed all season (only rushed for 2 ypc on 30 carries, not including Sutton’s 62-yd run), the offensive line has improved over the last three weeks, not allowing as many sacks or tackles for loss as they were through the first six games.
Mayden’s passing performance would have been even better if not for five drops. Two of the drops by true freshman WR Baylin Brooks prevented big third down conversions, one of which was a 3rd and 9 from the USU 13 that would have picked up a first down and could have possibly reached the end zone for a score.
Remarkably, through nine games, the only Aztec player with more than 305 rushing or receiving yards on the season is Mayden, who leads the team with 395 rushing yards.
CSU has allowed 32.11 ppg (111th), 258.67 passing ypg (115th), 174 rushing ypg (105th) and 432.67 total ypg (115th).
The Rams returned eight starters from last year’s defense, including two Preseason All-Conference honorees, DE Mohamed Kamara and S Jack Howell. Neither has disappointed.
Kamara, who SDSU TE Mark Redman called one of the best defensive linemen in the Mountain West on Tuesday, has 13 TFLs and 10.5 sacks to go with 41 tackles. With his next sack, he will pass Brady Smith (28.5 sacks) for second on the school’s all-time record. Clark Haggans holds the record with 33.
Howell leads the team with 88 tackles after leading all defensive backs in the country last year with 108.
The Rams’ ten fumble recoveries is second-best in the country, and they create a large number of negative plays, averaging 2.78 sacks (21st) and 7.22 TFLs (15th) per game.
DT Grady Kelly (6.5 TFLs), DE Marshon Oxley (4.5 TFLs), LB Chase Wilson (6.5 TFLs), and LB Justin Sanchez (3 TFLs) have all added to those negative plays from the front six.
Kelly was named Freshman All-American by College Football News last year, and Wilson (86 tackles) and Sanchez (71 tackles) are right behind Howell in tackles on the defense.
Oxley, a redshirt freshman, originally committed to SDSU in August 2021 but later de-committed and signed with CSU during the early signing period in December.
The final playmaker is CB Chigozie Anusiem (41 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 INT), named First Team All-Conference by PFF and Honorable Mention All-Conference in 2022. He spent four seasons at Cal before transferring and starting for the Rams for the last two seasons.
Key matchup: Offensive Line vs Defensive Line
For the first time this season, the key matchup is an entire positional unit matchup. While the Aztecs OL has prevented negative plays in the past several weeks, they have not played a great defensive line that the Rams possess. Kamara is the focal point, but the remainder of the linemen have 26 TFLs themselves (39, including Kamara). Keeping Mayden upright and giving the running backs openings when they take the handoffs will determine whether the offense can score enough points to keep up with the Rams’ offense.
When CSU has the ball: Advantage – CSU
The Rams average 26.33 ppg (74th), 319.11 passing ypg (9th), 71.78 rushing ypg (128th) and 390.89 total ypg (63rd).
After taking a season to get Norvell’s offense fully installed, this year’s Rams have dramatically improved in four major categories, including Total Offense, Passing Offense, Scoring Offense, and Sacks Allowed. In each of those four categories, the Rams year-over-year differential from 2022 to 2023 ranks in the Top 6 among all FBS teams.
QB Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi (234/372, 2,696 yards, 18 TDs, 13 INTs) set the school’s freshman single-season passing yardage record. Although the passing game has found lots of success, the interceptions (15 total by the team) are the second highest in FBS.
WR Tory Horton (77 rec, 848 yds, 6 TDs) followed Norvell from Nevada to Colorado State last year and earned Preseason All-Conference honors. He needs 152 receiving yards to make it nine straight seasons a Ram receiver reached 1,000. SDSU has not reached that plateau since 2013, when Ezell Ruffin had 1,136 yards.
TE Dallin Holker (51 rec, 653 yds, 6 TDs), a BYU transfer, will likely be selected First-Team All-Conference for his performance this season. Hoke said Tuesday that Holker is probably the best at the position in the conference. On Wednesday, he was named one of eight semifinalists for the John Macky Award given to the nation’s top TE. He is the only Group of Five player on the list. With one more touchdown reception, Holker would set the school’s season record for touchdown receptions by a tight end.
WR Justus Ross-Simmons (35 rec, 542 yds, 3 TD) leads the team with 15.5 yards per reception.
SDSU has allowed 28.56 ppg (92nd), 254 passing ypg (110th), 163.78 rushing ypg (92nd), and 417.78 total ypg (107th).
The defense has shown signs of life in the past two games. Against Nevada, they held the Wolfpack to only six points. Against Utah State, they collected five sacks and 12 TFLs after not generating many negative plays in the first eight.
Unfortunately, neither game produced a turnover from the defense.
LB Cody Moon was back in the starting lineup and recorded a season-high 13 tackles and is now second on the team with 50 tackles on the year.
S JD Coffey earned his first career start at aztec, replacing true freshman Marcus Ratcliffe. He will have to sit out the first half against Colorado State after being ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter last week.
LB Zyrus Fiaseu had three sacks (career high) as he continued his dominant play. He leads the team in tackles (54), tackles for loss (10.5), sacks (5.5), forced fumbles (4) and fumble recoveries (2).
“We have gotten better as a defense,” said Fiaseu on Tuesday. “These offenses that we’ve been facing lately, they’ve been top offenses in the nation.”
When asked about the game plan to stopping the Rams’ offense this week, Fiaseu pointed to pressuring the QB.
“We have to win our one-on-ones, make sure (the QB) feels us,” he explained. “If he doesn’t feel us and he sits back there all day, they have some good receivers and a really good tight end. If we don’t apply pressure to him, he’s just going to sit back there and have a field day. But with us, everyone knows we like to lay it to everyone. Everyone knows that we go hard and we’re going to bring something. For us, we just have to make sure that he feels our presence.”
Key matchup: Dallin Holker, TE vs Cody Moon, WILL LB / Josh Hunter, FW
During the 2021 season, the Mountain West had several NFL prospect tight ends, and the Aztecs struggled to defend them. Last year and so far this season has seen a downgrade at the position, given the departure of those talented players. Holker is one of the few that is producing at high levels this year. Depending on the personnel and formation, Holker could be matched up against a LB (Moon or his backup, New Zealand Williams) or a warrior safety such as Josh Hunter. At 6’5, a matchup against 5’9 Hunter may be a difficult one, especially in the red zone. Moon and Williams might give more of a physical presence to defend Holker but less coverage, speed, and ability. Williams, a converted safety, could provide the best of both worlds in this matchup.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
Jack Browning continued his struggles in the placekicking department, missing another field goal before connecting on a 23-yard one to send the game into overtime. On the season, he has made 11 of 18 attempts but missed both attempts in the 30-39 range.
His punting has stayed strong, averaging 45.2 ypp with 17 inside the 20-yd line and only four touchbacks. Unfortunately, two fake kicks utilizing Browning, one on a fake field goal shovel pass from holder Zechariah Ramirez to Browning and the other on a fake punt run by Browning, were stopped way short of a first down and could have cost the Aztecs a victory.
Eric Butler blocked his second punt of the season and is tied for the second-most blocked kicks in SDSU single-season history. His two blocked kicks are tied for the fifth most in school history and tied for the most in the country this year.
K Jordan Noyes (Utah transfer) has made nine of 12 field goal attempts, including a 55-yard one against UNLV. He’s also had two blocked. At 31 years old, Noyes is currently the third oldest player in college football. P Paddy Turner averages 43.3 ypp with a long of 65. Only seven of his 41 punts were 50+.
Horton, who, along with Preseason All-Conference at wide receiver, was also named to the team as a punt returner. He returned a punt 79 yards for a TD earlier this year, while Kobe Johnson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a TD.
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.