Date: Saturday, September 9, 2023
Time: 4:30 pm PT
Betting Line: UCLA -14.5, O/U 48.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 2-0 (0-0), UCLA 1-0 (0-0)
Series: UCLA 21-1-1
The San Diego State Aztecs look to start their season with three straight home victories when they face the UCLA Bruins on Saturday evening.
“It’s great to be 2-0. It sure as hell is better than 1-1,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke at his press conference on Tuesday.
Despite the record, Hoke noted that the team has a lot of areas to improve. First and foremost is eliminating penalties by enforcing proper technique and fundaments after the team committed 14 for 125 yards against Idaho State.
UCLA defeated Coastal Carolina, 27-13, at home in their opening game last weekend behind a dominant defensive performance.
The Aztecs are 7-4 against Pac-12 teams since 2016, including a victory over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl in 2019. The 23-14 win, which snapped a 19-game losing streak against the Bruins, was fueled by QB Ryan Agnew’s 293 passing yards and a 16-minute time of possession advantage.
Eight current Aztecs were on the roster, but only Cedarious Barfield and Garret Fountain played in the last matchup. Barfield, who only competed on special teams in that contest, is looking forward to playing on defense this time around.
“We’re just very excited to play UCLA, a very great team on all sides of the ball, defense, offense, special teams, so it’s going to be a great test for us,” Barfield noted.
Matt Stevens, former UCLA QB (1983-1987) and current radio analyst for the team, expects a big crowd at Snapdragon Stadium.
“There’s a lot of UCLA people here in San Diego, but it’s a pretty easy drive,” said Stevens in an interview with EVT. “I know there are tickets still available (as of Tuesday), but I think they’re going to go pretty fast because there’s going to be a lot of UCLA people that want to come down here and check out the new stadium and it’s going to be a really good game.”
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – UCLA
Through two games, the Aztecs’ offensive statistics look very familiar to any of its most recent seasons. They possess the 28th-best rush offense (219.50 ypg) and the 112th pass offense (125.50 ypg).
The rushing statistics are heavily influenced by 303 yards against FCS Idaho State. QB Jalen Mayden provided 132 of those (a school record by a QB), including 24-and 56-yd TD runs. He leads the team with 148 rushing yards on the season.
Mayden became the third QB in the school’s Division I history with a 100-yard rushing game and the first since Kevin O’Connell had 101 in 2004.
RB Jaylon Armstead’s 7.7 ypc (18 rush for 138 yards) is the highest among the four backs to receive carries on the season, but he lost a fumble in each game. Kenan Christon (18 carries for 85 yards) and Martin Blake (13 carries for 56 yards) have found some success as well.
Blake, a walk-on, ascended the depth chart over spring and fall camp and has become one of the offense’s key players.
“(Blake’s) a really good football player because he can do so many different things,” said Hoke on Tuesday. “He’s kind of like a Swiss army knife to some degree, and what he does for us. Probably the best part of it is his attitude. He’s got a great attitude towards the game.”
Hoke reiterated that the back with the “hot hand” is going to get the most carries in the game, regardless of who starts.
On the passing front, Mayden has completed 66% (31/47) of his passes but for only 270 yards through two games. Both passing touchdowns went to TE Mark Redman in the opening game. In the second contest, Mayden struggled to connect with receivers down the field whether they were open or not. Outside of a fumble on a sack, Mayden has protected the ball well, not throwing an interception.
Mekhi Shaw (5 rec, 72 yards) is the only WR on the team with more than three catches and 26 receiving yards. In order for the offense to reach its potential, the group’s production must improve.
Senior Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson returns from a two-game suspension and will start at RT. Washington transfer Myles Murao will slide in and start at RG. Having the two-year starting senior back should help solidify an offensive line that has struggled mightily with penalties this season and will be competing against one of the most disruptive defensive fronts in the nation.
“I think if we can win the time of possession battle, there will be a huge uptick for us, and it will just allow us to control the game a little bit more and have our defense be a little more fresh when they get on the field,” said Redman when asked Tuesday about the key to the game.
Winning the time of possession will be predicated on converting third downs to keep drives alive. The Aztecs only converted 35% of 3rd downs this season, but the distance to gain has played a key role. When needing five or fewer yards, the Aztecs have converted 58% (7/12). When needing six or more, they have converted only 14% (2/14). Being efficient on 1st and 2nd downs to ensure manageable distances on 3rd down and keep the pass rush neutralized will be crucial.
New defensive coordinator, D’Anton Lynn, plays a very aggressive style. The strength of the defense is its defensive line and its ability to control the line of scrimmage. Against Coastal Carolina, they only allowed 56 rushing yards (versus 289 passing yards) and collected four sacks and ten tackles for loss.
Leading the charge is Laiatu Latu, an All-Pac 12 selection last year with 10.5 sacks. He began the season with three against Coastal Carolina. Latu transferred to UCLA in 2022 after the doctors at Washington would not medically clear him from a neck injury that forced him to sit in 2020 and 2021. After playing one season and undergoing a full offseason conditioning program, he is on track for a superlative season.
“Latu is a big dude,” said Stevens. “I mean, he’s 6’5, 265, and he looks like he’s 230 the way he moves around. He has a year under his belt with Chip Kelly. He’s in better shape, so I think he’s where he wants to be physically. He’s a (NFL) first-rounder.”
DT Jay Toia (6’3, 325) is a mammoth lineman who eats up blocks up the middle, allowing linebackers to make plays behind him in the run game. Setting up third and long situations is where UCLA’s defense excels.
Identical twins Gabriel (6’3, 260) and Grayson Murphy (6’3, 260), who play on the edge on 1st and 2nd down, move inside to play defensive tackle in passing situations, flanked by Latu and Carl Jones, Jr. (6’2, 230), to provide an explosive and fast group.
Latu and Grayson Murphy led all Power 5 Conference players in QB pressures in week 1 per Pro Football Focus (PFF) with 10 and 9, respectively.
Safeties Kamari Ramsey and Kenny Churchwell III play aggressively and like to come to the line of scrimmage on run support frequently. Cornerback John Humphrey struggled at times against Coastal Carolina but rebounded with a nice interception late in the game.
Linebacker Darius Muasau (who led the team with nine tackles in the opener) played at Hawai’i and earned All-Mounain West First-Team honors in 2020 and 2021 before transferring to UCLA for the 2022 season. Stevens credits Muasau’s experience and great instincts.
“He’s really good in pass coverage,” remarked Stevens. “He’s a guy that gets everybody lined up.”
Linebacker Kain Medrano impressed against Coastal Carolina with seven tackles. The former wide receiver plays sideline-to-sideline, and Stevens believes, he played one of his best games as a defender last week.
If there were downsides to the performance against Coastal Carolina, UCLA head coach Chip Kelly would first point to five offside penalties on the defensive line. The aggressiveness that the line plays with hurt them early in the contest as they tried to time the snap count and get a head start on the pass rush. However, once Latu and the rest of the group had the timing down in the fourth quarter, they were able to take immediate advantage.
Despite outgaining Coastal Carolina and winning by 14 points, UCLA lost the time of possession battle by almost ten minutes, mostly in the 3rd quarter, due to the inability to get off the field defensively. Coastal Carolina converted 50% (8/16) of its 3rd down conversion attempts in the contest.
Key matchup: Brandon Crenshaw Dickson, RT / Christian Jones, LT vs. Laiatu Latu, OLB/DE
The Aztecs’ success offensively will hinge on their ability to be efficient on 1st and 2nd downs and stay out of 3rd and long situations. Otherwise, the offensive line will have very little chance of protecting Jalen Mayden against the relentless pass rush of the Bruins. But Latu has the ability to disrupt a play on any down or any situation by himself. The experience of BCD will be vital in this matchup as he returns from a two-game suspension to protect Mayden’s blind side, but Latu could also line up against Jones, a sophomore making his third career start. Keeping Latu as far away as Mayden throughout the game will give the Aztecs a major boost to put up enough points to win the game.
When UCLA has the ball: Advantage – UCLA
Head coach Chip Kelly continues to assert a 3-way competition at QB heading into the matchup against SDSU. Ethan Garbers (Washington transfer) started against Coastal Carolina due to his experience and split snaps with true freshman and five-star recruit Dante Moore.
Garbers (10/17 for 121 yards) led a 78-yd opening drive that ended on a 21-yd TD pass and drove the Bruins 72 yards inside Coastal Carolina’s ten-yard line on his second drive before throwing an interception in the end zone that seemed to get him off his game the rest of the night. He added a second interception later in the game and did not lead a scoring drive after the opening TD.
Moore (7/12 for 143 yards), who Stevens says is about as talented a freshman QB as he has seen, threw two touchdown passes and led the two field-goal drives in the 4th quarter to ice the game. Moore threw a pick of his own as well.
The third QB in the mix, Collin Schlee, did not play, but Kelly stated all week that Schlee would play against SDSU. As a junior at Kent State last season, Schlee threw for 2,109 yards, 13 TDs, and 5 INTs while rushing for 489 yards and 4 TDs.
Schlee is the most comparable to UCLA’s starting QB for most of the past five years, Dorian Thompson-Robinson (DTR), in his ability to run the RPO and utilize his running abilities. Garbers and Moore prefer to drop back and use their legs more to buy time in the pocket rather than run downfield.
“I’m sure Chip Kelly wants that (running QB) weapon in his offensive attack, and that’s why they want to give (Schlee) a chance to play,” remarked Stevens.
Sturdivant (6’3, 215), the son and nephew of former NFL players, led all freshmen nationally in 2022 with 65 receptions and 755 receiving yards while tying for second with seven touchdowns. In his first game as a Bruin, Sturdivant caught five passes (on ten targets) for 136 yards. His 62-yard TD reception from Moore at the start of the 4th quarter was the biggest play of the game.
“I call him mini-Megatron,” said Stevens. “He is the fastest guy. He can jump the highest. He could probably (play) on the basketball team. He has twitch moves. He’s really quick. I mean, this guy is an NFL first-rounder. It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for UCLA; you’re going to throw it to (him), and (he) cannot be guarded one-on-one. You are going to have to put a safety over the top or walk out a safety underneath him. He’s just a special talent.”
Ford, an experienced receiver who caught 20 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns at USC last year, runs crisp routes and gets open. He caught two passes for 39 yards against Coastal Carolina.
Two running backs split carries in the opener, both rushing for 76 yards each. T.J. Harden rushed for 325 yards on 44 carries (7.4 ypc) and two touchdowns as a freshman last year. According to Stevens, Harden uses his low center of gravity to get tough yards.
Carson Steele (Ball State transfer) led the MAC and was ninth in the nation with 1,556 rushing yards in 2022. The versatile back who scored 14 TDs is a hard runner and can catch the ball out of the backfield (29 receptions last year).
The Aztecs defense only allowed 68 rushing yards per game in their two contests, 23rd in the country. In contrast, the 293.5 passing yards allowed per game is only 103rd. The statistics are a bit skewed, considering the Aztecs had double-digit leads in both second halves, and the opposition was forced to rely on their pass offense. Idaho State came out of the gates passing, attempting 63 passes in 78 plays.
Against a large number of passes to defend, the Aztecs’ six interceptions through two games lead the country. Five different players have recorded at least one (Barfield is the lone with two). Surprisingly, the team has yet to force one fumble.
LB Cody Moon (14 tackles) is the only player with more than eight tackles. DT Tupu Alualu leads with two sacks, followed by 1.5 by LB Cooper McDonald.
Allowing 41% 3rd down conversions and only recording three tackles for loss (two sacks) per game have significantly hurt the defense. Add in multiple pass interference and offsides penalties, and the defensive coaching staff had a lot to work on this week.
“Two things you can’t do as a defensive lineman: jump offsides and run around the quarterback,” said Hoke. “And we did both of those things (against Idaho State).”
DE Garret Fountain, one of the four team captains, has yet to make his mark on the season. His tallies of five tackles, 0.5 sacks, and two quarterback hits are below the expectations placed on him in his first year as a starter. Fountain and the rest of the front will need to ramp up the pressure against the UCLA signal-callers, or it could be a long day for the secondary.
Key matchup: J.Michael Sturdivant, WR vs. Dez Malone / Noah Tumblin, CB
Sturdivant, whom Stevens labels as one of the best players in the country, will be the best outside wide receiver the Aztecs will likely play all year. Through the first two games, the majority of the damage done against their defense has come from the slot receivers over the middle of the field. Tumblin and Malone have excelled in coverage on the perimeter, picking up four pass breakups each and earning team-high 87.5 and 81.7 coverage grades per PFF, respectively. But they have yet to play the caliber of talent that UCLA possesses at receiver. If the two corners can cover the explosive receiver without requiring mandatory safety help, that would free up a defender for DC Kurt Mattix to utilize elsewhere, including as a blitzer.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
SDSU specialist Jack Browning has made 4 of 5 field goal attempts and averages 48.1 yards per punt. Browning’s average dipped considerably from game 1 to 2, so he will look to regain his usual form in game 3. Martin Blake’s 26.3 ypr (on three returns) leads the team, while Mekhi Shaw has only returned two punts for 17 yards total.
The Bruins use three different players for their kicking duties. R.J. Lopez is the placekicker (made attempts from 31 and 47). Blake Glessner, a transfer from Montana State, handles the kickoffs and, after kicking his first attempt out of bounds, booted the remainder in the end zone for touchbacks. Will Powers, a transfer from Princeton, had both his punts downed inside the ten-yard line, including a 57-yarder. RB Colson Yankoff returns kickoffs (19.5 average), and WR Logan Loya returns punts (no attempts).
“I thought special teams did really well, and that’s something in the first game; you often see mistakes, but UCLA shored that up,” added Stevens.
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.