Date: Saturday, November 18, 2023
Time: 7:30 pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: SJSU -14.5, O/U 49.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: CEFCU Stadium (San Jose, CA)
Records: SDSU 3-7 (1-5), SJSU 5-5 (4-2)
Series: SDSU 24-20-2
Eliminated from conference championship and bowl eligibility contention, it did not appear the San Diego State Aztecs had much to play for in the final two games of the 2023 season. Until Monday morning when the school announced that head coach Brady Hoke was retiring at the end of the season, and a search for a new head coach would begin immediately.
“It’s something that was coming, that it was time, and I was glad to be able to have it be me making a choice and be able to do it,” said Hoke at Tuesday’s press conference.
Spanning six years over two head coaching tenures at SDSU, Hoke helped elevate the program from its low points in the early parts of the 21st Century.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done at each and every stop, and here at San Diego State in 2009 and coming back and having the only team that’s had a 12-win season is something that we’re really proud of in the circumstances that team played with,” Hoke added.
Hoke’s final year marks the first losing season at SDSU since his first year as the team’s head coach in 2009.
The Spartans, led by head coach Brent Brennan, ride in on a four-game winning streak after starting the season 1-5, still alive in the race to reach the conference championship game. Particularly impressive was their dominating victory over 25th-ranked Fresno State, 42-18, last week. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 171-63 during their win streak.
The Aztecs have won the last two matchups against the Spartans, including a 19-13 victory in San Jose two years ago in double-overtime on a Lucas Johnson to Jesse Matthews walk-off touchdown.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SJSU
The Aztecs average 20 ppg (113th), 175.5 passing ypg (113th), 144.2 rushing ypg (95th) and 319.7 total ypg (109th).
QB Jalen Mayden (167/264, 1,725 yds, 9 TDs, 7 INTs) and the offense continued the season trend of struggling early in games. Against Colorado State, the offense was shut out in the first half. They rallied and scored on all four drives in the second half, including touchdowns on the final two. They will look to put complete performances together in the final two games of the season.
In last year’s game, Mayden was surgical in the passing game, completing 17 of 22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the team with 61 rushing yards in one of his most complete games as an Aztec.
With the team out of contention for a postseason game and Mayden a super senior with no eligibility remaining, these final two games seem ripe to provide an opportunity to the Aztecs’ three redshirt freshmen who have backed up Mayden all season.
Walk-on Tobin O’Dell has been listed as the backup for most of the season but has only taken four snaps on the season, one of which was a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half, which was picked off. Scholarship QBs Kyle Crum and Liu Aumavae played sparingly as true freshmen early in the season last year before Mayden took over as the starter in the sixth game. Neither have taken a snap this season. True freshman Javance Johnson currently sits fifth on the depth chart.
When asked in the past two weeks whether the team would look to the future and play younger guys in the final games, Hoke expressed that their focus is to win games, and they will play the players who will give them the best chance to do that. Adding on that, Hoke and likely the rest of the staff will not be around in 2023, one should expect Mayden to start and finish out the season as QB.
Unlike QB, the staff has played younger players in the running back room since their first bye in early October. Lucky Sutton and Cam Davis have become bigger parts of the offense since the Hawai’i game. Sutton rushed for a career-high 86 yards against Utah State two weeks ago before an injury kept him off the field in Fort Collins. Davis rushed for a career-high 67 yards on nine carries.
Starting LG Cade Bennett and C Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli both missed the game against Colorado State due to injuries. Bennett has been cleared from his concussion symptoms and should be back this week. Ulugalu-Maseuli’s status is unknown.
The Spartans allow 26.5 ppg (67th), 183.4 passing ypg (18th), 171 rushing ypg (100th) and 354.4 total ypg (46th).
SJSU utilizes a 3-4 defense that forces the opposing offense into critical mistakes. Their 18 forced turnovers are the 18th highest in the country, and they have forced two or more in six of their ten games, including their last three.
Despite losing all-conference defensive linemen Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko, this year’s unit has continued to be productive.
Sophomore DE Tre Smith leads the team with 8.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, in addition to 44 tackles. DE Noah Lavulo (7 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), DT Jay Kakiva (5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), and DT Soane Toia (5 TFLs, 3 sacks) round out the production.
LB Bryun Parham’s 77 tackles lead the team and is tenth among conference players. He has also recovered two fumbles.
Safeties Chase Williams (USC transfer) and Tre Jenkins both earned All-Conference Honorable Mentions last year. This season, Williams has 35 tackles and one interception, and Jenkins has 53 tackles and one interception.
CB Jay’Vion Cole (Cal Poly transfer) has eight pass deflections and three interceptions in his first season with the Spartans.
Key matchup: Kenan Christon / Cam Davis, RB vs Bryun Parham / Jordan Pollard, LB
The Spartans’ rush defense has taken a step back this year, but given the Aztecs’ struggles running the ball, they may be unable to take advantage inside. Their best avenue for big plays may come from utilizing Christon and Davis, their fastest players out of the backfield, on screens, flats, and wheel routes against inside linebackers. Pollard is second on the team with 11 missed tackles this season, according to PFF.
When SJSU has the ball: Advantage – SJSU
The Spartans average 33.9 ppg (24th), 221.5 passing ypg (74th), 182 rushing ypg (34th) and 403.5 total ypg (51st).
QB Chevan Cordeiro (173/286, 2,135 yds, 16 TDs, 3 INTs), selected the Mountain West Offensive Preseason Player of the Year, has continued where he left off in 2022 when he was a Second-Team All-Conference player. Cordeiro will play against the Aztecs for the fifth consecutive year, the first three while at Hawai’i and the last two at SJSU.
Cordeiro’s 84 career touchdown passes are fifth on the all-time Mountain West list, ten behind the leader, BYU’s Max Hall. His 109 total touchdowns lead all Mountain West players in the conference’s history.
His three interceptions are fourth-best in the country. He has not thrown a pick in his last 102 passing attempts. As an offense, the Spartans’ seven total turnovers are sixth-best in the country.
The strength of the offense over their winning streak has been on the ground, rushing for over 200 yards in each of the four games. Overall, they have failed to surpass 100 rushing yards in a game only twice this season.
The attack is led by senior Kairee Robinson (919 yds, 15 TDs), who is the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week for his career-high 200 rushing yards against Fresno State.
Although he stands only 5’7, Robinson is a tough back with the explosiveness to break any carry. His 7.1 ypc is sixth best in the country, and his nine straight games with a rushing touchdown is the second-longest streak in the country.
Backup RB Quali Conley is just as explosive, rushing for 592 yards (6.2 ypc) and seven touchdowns. The Utah Tech transfer added 98 yards against Fresno State.
WR Nick Nash has emerged as the top receiver for the Spartans after starting his collegiate career as a QB. He has caught 41 passes for 568 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.
The Aztecs allow 27.9 ppg (80th), 253 passing ypg (112th), 165.7 rushing ypg (95th) and 418.7 total ypg (110th).
The second quarter has been a major issue for the defense in 2023, allowing 111 points in the quarter but only 168 in the remaining quarters and overtime. Additionally, only 24 of those 168 came in the first quarter.
What could that mean?
One explanation is that the defensive game plan the coaching staff devised during the week was solid, and the players executed it successfully. But once the opposing offense identified it and made their adjustments, the Aztec defensive staff and players were unable to react to it as well, leading to big points surrendered in the second quarter.
Big plays and missed tackles continue to plague the defense. Perhaps the most visible game where the missed tackles were most evident was against Boise State when RB Ashton Jeanty made defenders look helpless trying to bring him down. Pro Football Focus (PFF) recorded 19 missed tackles in that contest.
Against Colorado State this past weekend, PFF recorded 24 missed tackles, the highest total this season. Facing two powerhouse offenses to close out the season, the issue will need to be fixed if the Aztecs want to slow either down.
After five sacks and 12 TFLs against Utah State, the Aztecs were unable to record a single tackle for loss against Colorado State. In last year’s matchup, the Aztecs defensive line dominated the Spartans. Jonah Tavai recorded three sacks, including the final one for a safety.
LB Zyrus Fiaseu recovered this third fumble of the season against the Rams, tied for sixth-most by an Aztec player in a season. He continues to lead the team with four forced fumbles (no other player has more than one) and 10.5 TFLs. His 62 tackles are still tops on the team as well, but fellow LB Cody Moon has closed the gap immensely in the past two weeks, now just two behind Fiaseu (60).
S Cedarious Barfield’s fourth interception of the season came on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half by the Rams.
The major bright spot from a struggling defense lately has been redshirt freshman Josh Hunter, who has started at warrior safety the past two games. Against the Rams, he recorded 15 tackles, the most by an Aztec since Kyahva Tezino’s 15 in 2018. Hunter entered the game with 18 career tackles. Despite his short stature, Hunter has been lauded by the coaching staff as one of the better tacklers on the team.
Key matchup: Kairee Robinson, RB vs Zyrus Fiaseu, LB
The Aztecs’ 95th rushing defense has not been consistent all season, but allowing the 128th rush offense to gain 183 yards on the ground when they only averaged 71 per game is not a good sign before playing one of the hottest rush offenses in the country. While the three defensive linemen for the Aztecs will look to take up blocks and occupy the offensive linemen, the linebackers led by Fiaseu will need to find gaps to penetrate the line of scrimmage and keep Robinson from breaking free. Otherwise, it will likely be the fifth straight game for the Spartans rushing over 200 yards. Stopping the run and making Cordeiro one-dimensional is what worked for the Aztecs’ defense last year, holding the Spartans to only 28 rushing yards and, specifically, Robinson to 32 yards on nine carries.
Special Teams: Advantage – SJSU
For the first time this season, the Aztecs play a team that has a higher ESPN Special Teams Efficiency Rating than them. The Spartans are third (72.8), while the Aztecs are tenth (65.8).
Both teams have two blocked punts on the season, but one of the Spartans’ blocks was returned for a touchdown. They also returned a non-blocked punt for a touchdown (Matthew Coleman for 75 yards) and recovered three onside kicks and two fumble recoveries on regular kickoffs.
The Spartans’ 19.71 yards per punt return is fifth best in the country, and 11.7 yards allowed per kickoff return is third.
The Aztecs are ninth in net punting (42.06) versus 85th (37.89) for the Spartans. SDSU’s Jack Browning was recently named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, which Matt Araiza won in 2021. Browning began the game against Colorado State but was unable to kick in the second half due to a knee issue, per Hoke. Gabriel Plascencia made both of his field goal attempts in the second half and took over on kickoffs. Zechariah Ramirez would have punted for the Aztecs if they would have required it. Hoke hopes to have Browning back this week.
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.