Date: Friday, September 22, 2023
Time: 7:30 pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: BSU -7, O/U 45 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 2-2 (0-0), BSU 1-2 (0-0)
The San Diego State Aztecs begin Mountain West Conference action by hosting the Boise State Broncos on Friday night. The school announced a REDOUT for this game, encouraging all fans in attendance to wear red.
With the elimination of divisions this season, the teams with the two best conference records after eight games will play in the championship game. The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth, while the Broncos were selected first in the conference by the media in the Preseason Mountain West Poll. The Broncos have finished undefeated in regular-season conference play in three of the last four seasons but only won one title in that span.
“This is a game that I feel is really one of the more important games, especially going into conference play,” said CB Dez Malone on Tuesday. “This game can really show a lot, and it can turn a lot of heads, so this is a big game.”
The Broncos, under third-year head coach Andy Avalos, lost their first two games of the season (at No. 8 Washington, UCF) before earning their first victory against FCS North Dakota this past weekend. They will close out their non-conference schedule at Memphis next weekend before returning to conference play in October.
SDSU is the only current Mountain West team BSU does not own a winning record against. In last year’s matchup in Boise (also on a Friday night), the Aztecs wasted a 13-0 halftime lead and lost 35-13. The Broncos outgained the Aztecs 450 to 117, with most of the yardage (316) coming on the ground. Three Broncos players rushed for at least 82 yards and a combined five touchdowns.
The Broncos have seven players from the San Diego area and should be represented well by friends and family on Friday night.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The Aztecs have put up 18.8 ppg (114th), 175.3 passing ypg (112th), 147.8 rushing ypg (76th) and 323 total ypg (109th).
Against Oregon State on Saturday, they reached Beaver territory in nine of their 11 drives but only scored on two of them for a total of nine points. QB Jalen Mayden (20/32 for 256 yards) had his best passing game of the season, but four drops by his receivers kept the performance and possibly his team’s scoring output from elevating higher.
Entering the game, Mayden had only been sacked five times. Against the Beavers, he was taken down six times, most of which came on crucial third downs.
“We have to do a better job protecting the quarterback, and that is an everybody deal,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday. “That is receivers, route running. That is upfront. That is running backs. That is the quarterback. It’s everybody’s fault when he’s on his back.”
Senior RT Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson called the number of sacks “unacceptable” on Tuesday and stated the offensive linemen are focused on ensuring Mayden takes fewer hits overall, whether he is sacked or not.
With leading WR Mekhi Shaw out with an injury, Brionne Penny stepped up with six catches for 77 yards, both career highs. If Shaw can return on Friday, it would provide Mayden with a fully healthy five-man receiving unit for the first time this season.
TE Mark Redman (16 rec, 179 yds) is close to matching his 2022 totals in catches and yards that earned Second Team All-Conference honors.
The biggest question mark for the Aztec offense continues to revolve around the lack of a rushing attack against FBS opponents. In the three FBS contests, they have only averaged 95.7 rushing ypg.
Jaylon Armstead’s 195 rushing yards lead the team, with Mayden close behind with 193. Both have rushed for two touchdowns a piece, while Martin Blake (73 yds) has the only other rushing touchdown.
Starter Kenan Christon, who was forecasted to take over primary back duties this season with the departures of Jordan Byrd and Chance Bell, has yet to catch his stride. The USC transfer has rushed for 126 yards. His 3.7 ypc is the lowest of the three backs with the most carries this season.
In 2022, the Broncos’ defense was one of the best in the country behind S JL Skinner and DL Scott Matlock. So far in 2023, it has been quite the opposite as the team searches to replace the holes left behind by several departed starters. It has not helped that their two FBS opponents are high-powered offensive juggernauts and the only teams in the country this season to average more than 600 total yards per game.
The defense has allowed 30.7 ppg (106th), 301.3 passing ypg (121st), 125.7 rushing ypg (68th) and 427 total ypg (110th).
Six of the team’s eight sacks came against North Dakota this past week.
Sixth-year senior LB DJ Schramm, coming off a 107 tackle season, entered 2023 on three Preseason Watch Lists (Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award, Chuck Bednarik Award). He has collected 13 tackles and one TFL, but an injury kept him off the field last week against North Dakota. His status is unknown for Friday night.
Backup LB Marco Notarainni started in place of Schramm and led the team with 13 tackles in the game. His 20 tackles and two sacks on the season lead the team. The sophomore went to nearby Torrey Pines High and was recruited by SDSU before committing to BSU.
DL Ahmed Hassanein, the first player from Egypt to ever play DI football, is second on the team with 1.5 sacks.
DL Demitri Washington (9 tackles, 2 TFLs) is also a San Diego native, attending Santa Fe Christian High in Solana Beach.
The defense has only forced four turnovers (2 INTs, 2 fumbles), but interceptions by Alexander Teubner and Jaylen Clark thwarted UCF scoring opportunities in the red zone in week two. Teubner is second on the team with 18 tackles.
Key matchup: Mekhi Shaw, WR, vs. Seyi Oladipo, NCB
Assuming Shaw returns from injury, he will be lined up in the slot frequently against BSU’s nickel corner. Last season, Shaw thrived in the slot role, particularly in his breakout game against New Mexico. If the M&M connection is to continue to spark, Shaw must find spaces in the middle of the field to give Mayden cleaner and shorter throws that could yield big yard-after-catch potential.
When BSU has the ball: Advantage – BSU
The Broncos have put up 25.7 ppg (84th), 245.7 passing ypg (60th), 147.7 rushing ypg (77th) and 393.3 total ypg (69th).
New offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan took over from Dirk Koetter after his midseason appointment in 2022. At Monday’s press conference, Hamdan explained the blueprint for his offense.
“For us to be at our best, we got to be clicking on all cylinders,” he explained. “That’s a physical downhill run game. That’s the ability to extend the run game with perimeter stuff, which we took advantage of, I thought, last game. But when people come down in the box, we got to be explosive in those situations.”
Jeanty leads the team with 202 rushing yards (on 50 carries) and has also caught 14 passes for 236 receiving yards. He has six total touchdowns but lost two fumbles. Against North Dakota, the team used him in wildcat formations to vary the way to get him the ball.
If Holani continues to miss games, Jeanty’s heavy workload may eventually wear him down as conference play progresses.
Sophomore QB Taylen Green (46/87 for 576 yards) has thrown three touchdowns but four interceptions. He also missed time in the second half against UCF due to cramps. Green is a fast athlete who can utilize his speed as a rusher (103 rushing yards, 1 TD) and evade defenders rushing the passer (41st in the nation, allowing only 1.33 sacks per game).
The Broncos’ offensive success has been greatly aided by their 48.9% 3rd down conversion rate, 30th in the country.
Eric McCalister (15 rec, 238 yds, 2 TDs) and Stefan Cobbs (13 rec, 131 yds, 1 TD) pace the receiving unit. McCalister, especially, has worked this year to expand his repertoire beyond just a deep threat.
“Each week, he has continued to take the next step,” said OC Bush Hamdan on Monday. “When you can run like that, you can create a lot of stuff underneath for yourself. His vertical ability is a huge skill that we need to keep developing.”
SDSU’s defense has allowed 25.5 ppg (83rd), 295.3 passing ypg (120th), 144.5 rushing ypg (84th) and 439.8 total ypg (114th).
Uncharacteristically, the defense has been plagued by big plays, both in the run and pass game, and has been unable to counter with dropping the quarterback (1.75 sacks per game is 88th) or running backs behind the line of scrimmage (3.75 TFLs per game is 127th).
In contrast, the team is tied for first with ten turnovers with four other teams. Eight of those have come by way of interceptions, second highest behind Liberty’s nine.
Malone and Noah Tumblin have solidified the starting cornerback spots with stellar play on the outside.
“We’ve taken advantage of a lot of good opportunities that we had, but also we have a lot of what we like to say “left money” on the field,” Malone said, referring to missed opportunities for more turnovers. “There were times we could have made plays that we didn’t make, but for the most part, we got takeaways, and right now, we are just focused on stopping the run more.”
LB Zyrus Fiaseu leads the team with 25 tackles and five tackles for loss (the next closest has 2.5). His two sacks are tied for the team-high with DL Tupu Alualu.
When asked to describe SDSU’s defense, Hamdan marveled at how hard and physical they play and the challenges they present with movement at the line of scrimmage.
“(They) really test you from an eye control standpoint with the amount of movement,” he explained. “The movement is the number one thing up front.”
The second-half debacle in Boise last year is still on the minds of the players, especially Malone.
“They came with 35 unanswered (points), so it was crazy, but that’s something we take kind of personally, and we know we can’t fall asleep at any moment of the game,” said Malone.
Green started last year’s contest, struggled early, and was pulled with the Aztecs leading 13-0 heading into halftime. But Green returned to start the second half and seemed to strictly run the same two or three variations of the read option. The Aztecs were unable to stop the inside run or the perimeter run by Green, which led to a 35-0 scoring half for the Broncos.
Hoke admitted on Tuesday that seeing Green start the second half played a part in the second-half collapse.
“They changed quarterbacks (and) I think he had something to do with it,” Hoke recalled. “We weren’t sure if we were going to get him or not. So the quarterback runs that piece of it. I think we prepared but not as much as or as in-depth as we needed to.”
Despite Green’s exploits with his feet, Malone believes the defense can correct the “bad taste in our mouth” from last year’s game if each of the 11 players on the field does their job and fills their assignment.
Key matchup: Ashton Jeanty, RB vs. Cody Moon/Vai Kaho, WILL LB
Considering the result of last year’s contest, the Aztecs’ primary focus will be to stop the Broncos’ potent rushing attack. Too many times, Aztec defenders were caught out of place, either giving up yards to Holani and Jeanty up the middle or allowing Green to get to the outside with ease for big runs. It will be imperative for the outside backers to keep contain and force Green’s hand to beat them with his arm. Jeanty’s elusiveness has helped him become a force catching out of the backfield, and the Broncos could look to utilize him more in that regard, knowing that the Aztecs will be hunting to stop the run by any means.
Special Teams: Advantage – BSU
Jack Browning’s 43.7 ypp average ranks 28th nationally, and despite making a 52-yd field goal against Oregon State, he missed both of his attempts inside of 50. On the season, Browning has made six of nine attempts.
For the first time since the start of the 2022 season, Browning did not handle all three kicking duties. Gabriel Plascencia took over kickoffs against Oregon State.
The Broncos have one of the best kicking duos in the country. They are one of three teams this season (Alabama and Iowa State) to have a kicker make a field goal longer than 50 yards and a punter averaging over 50 ypp.
Kicker Jonah Dalmas’ 56-yd make against UCF tied a school record and tied for the third longest in MWC history. It was his fourth make from longer than 50 in his career. The Lou Groza Award Watch List honoree has not missed on three attempts.
Punter James Ferguson-Reynolds’ 51.3 average ranks first nationally, and his seven inside the 20 is tied for fifth. The Ray Guy Award Watch List honoree has booted 11 of his 15 punts for at least 50 yards this season.
SDSU and BSU, along with Kansas State, are the only schools to have a punt return for a touchdown in each of the last six seasons.
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.