Date: Saturday, September 30, 2023
Time: 5:00 pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: Air Force -10.5, O/U 43.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Falcon Stadium (Colorado Springs, CO)
Records: SDSU 2-3 (0-1), Air Force 4-0 (2-0)
Series: Air Force 20-18
The San Diego State Aztecs look for their first conference victory of the season when they travel to play at the Air Force Academy on Saturday.
This matchup completes a brutal four-game schedule where the Aztecs were at least seven-point underdogs in each contest. The Aztecs lost the first three and will look to avoid their first four-game losing streak since head coach Brady Hoke’s first season in 2009.
Air Force, led by head coach Troy Calhoun (17th season) and picked in the Preseason Media Poll to finish second in the conference, rides in on a nine-game winning streak. The Falcons defeated Robert Morris (42-7) and Sam Houston (13-3) in non-conference play to start the season. They are the only Mountain West team to play two conference games, defeating Utah State (39-21) at home and San Jose State (45-20) on the road.
The Falcons snapped the Aztecs’ nine-game series winning streak on the final day of the regular season last year. In their 13-3 victory, the Falcons controlled both lines of scrimmage, holding a rushing advantage of 271 to -1 and nearly doubling time of possession (39 to 21 min). Three Jalen Mayden turnovers, including two fourth-quarter interceptions in the end zone, sealed the Aztecs’ fate.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – Air Force
In their first three FBS games, the Aztecs only scored 39 total points against three defenses ranked in the top 45 in the country. Against a struggling Boise State defense, they scored 31 in their best offensive performance of the season to date. Can they keep it going against the best defense (at least statistically) they will play all season?
The performance on Saturday slightly improved the Aztecs’ overall rankings. They now average 21.2 ppg (107th), 194.8 passing ypg (102th), 151.4 rushing ypg (71th) and 346.2 total ypg (96th).
QB Jalen Mayden completed 73% of his passes for 241 yards and did not throw an interception. His connections with WRs Braylin Brooks (5 rec, 117 yards, 1 TD) and Brionne Penny (5 rec, 97 yds) were a welcome sight for a passing offense that struggled to get receivers involved down the field.
Entering the game, the longest reception by an Aztec was 29 yards by TE Mark Redman and RB Martin Blake. In the first half against Boise State, Brooks (2) and Penny (1) combined for three receptions of at least 30 yards. Penny added another in the second half.
Protection from the offensive line gave Mayden time to find receivers. After allowing six sacks against Oregon State, Mayden was only sacked once by the Broncos.
“We are getting more comfortable with each other,” said LG Cade Bennett on Tuesday when asked about the progression of the offense through the first five games of Ryan Lindley’s OC career. “The receivers have really stepped up in a big way. We had a couple of weeks with a lot of sacks, and we kept that down last week. So just working to get better every week. … We’re not where we want to be, but we are on our way.”
Mayden did it with his feet as well, rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown, but two lost fumbles (the only turnovers in the game) proved critical in a three-point loss. His rushing performance put him atop the Aztecs’ season rushing leaderboard with 278 (3 TDs). Jaylon Armstead is second in rushing (230 yds) but first with four rushing scores.
Redman continues to lead the team in receptions (18), receiving yards (208), and receiving TDs (2), but Penny and Brooks are closing the gap. WR Mekhi Shaw missed the last two games due to an unspecified injury. His eventual return could add another boost to an offense that needs as many playmakers as possible on the outside, given the struggles running the football.
The team’s ten turnovers put them in the bottom 15 in the country (118th). They are split evenly between interceptions and fumbles.
The Air Force defense ranks in the top 14 in five major statistical areas. They have allowed 12.75 ppg (14th), 161 passing ypg (12th), 62 rushing ypg (4th) and 223 total ypg (2nd). They were first in total defense in 2022. Dating back to last season, the defense has held 11 straight opponents to 21 or fewer points.
Factor in the 13th-best 3rd down conversion % allowed (28.6%), and there is little doubt the Falcons defense has continued its dominance through four games this season.
“They are getting guys in the right place, and they are tackling well,” answered Hoke when asked about how their defense can be so effective.
Astonishingly, they did not allow a 3rd down conversion in 21 attempts in the final two games of last season against SDSU and Baylor.
DT Payton Zdroik and S Trey Taylor earned Preseason First-Team All-Conference honors. Taylor was also named to the Watch List for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (most outstanding defensive player), Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back), and Chuck Bednarik Award (most outstanding defensive player).
Taylor led the defense with 69 tackles last season. Currently, he is second on the team with 25 tackles but is coming off his best performance against SJSU when he tallied eight tackles, a tackle for loss, and an interception.
LB Alec Mock leads the team with 31 tackles and two forced fumbles and also added three tackles for loss and two sacks. DE PJ Ramsey’s 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.88 sacks per game averages are ranked 18th in the nation.
Key matchup: Mark Redman, TE, vs Jayden Goodwin, SS
With the emergence of Brooks and Penny last week, Redman took a back seat in the passing game (2 rec, 29 yds). Against a stellar defense like the Falcons, it will be difficult for the Aztecs to generate a consistent run game, given their struggles in that department this season. More attention will be placed on the receivers after their performance last week, which could create open spaces for Redman underneath and over the middle of the field. Goodwin is fifth on the team with 15 tackles but tied for first with two pass breakups. In last year’s matchup, Goodwin led the Falcons with seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and had one of the team’s two interceptions. Redman will need to win his one-on-one matchups to give Mayden a safety blanket on crucial third-down plays and break free on play-action shots.
When Air Force has the ball: Advantage – Air Force
Each of the three service academies employs the triple-option offense, but the other two have not been able to replicate the success the Air Force Falcons have had through the years.
The Falcons led the country in each of the last three years in rushing yards per game and have finished in the top 10 in the category in 35 of the last 36 years.
No surprise that after four weeks, the Falcons are at the top once again, rushing for 340.5 ypg. The next closest team is nearly 70 yards less (Liberty averages 271.2).
“They just have a bunch of plays that are real simple, but since they move so fast and they know it so well, and they have been running it for years, it’s just hard to stop,” stated SDSU LB Zyrus Fiaseu on Tuesday about the offense.
Last year, FB Brad Roberts earned Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year by leading the nation with 1,728 rushing yards. This year, the Falcons are balancing the workload a bit more as they had two running backs rush for more than 100 yards in each of their last two games.
FB Emmanuel Michel, who was named Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week two weeks ago, leads the Falcons with 322 rushing yards (on 73 carries) and six touchdowns.
RB John Lee Eldridge is third on the team with 254 rushing yards (on 27 carries) and three touchdowns. His 8.1 career ypc is the highest by any player in program history.
The running game and their exquisite 3rd down conversion rate (58.8%, 3rd nationally) help the team possess the ball for long stretches of the game, evidenced by their 36:38 time of possession average, 2nd in the nation behind only Penn State’s 37:06 (SDSU is 18th).
First-time starting QB Zac Larrier is second with 259 rushing yards (on 54 carries) and three touchdowns. His first career completion to WR Jared Roznos went for an 84-yd touchdown. He’s only thrown 12 total passes but completed eight for 221 yards.
“You don’t see it a lot, and it’s always harder when you have good athletes in those positions,” said Hoke when asked why the Falcons’ triple-option is so dominant. “I think they’ve recruited very well. The quarterback (Larrier) was a track guy also, so when he gets out on the edge, he can go.”
Larrier is a two-time Mountain West 200m champion who moved to WR last year before returning back to QB in 2023.
You cannot lead the country year after year without having the horses up front to do the dirty work. Back in 2018, the Air Force offensive line became nicknamed the Diesel, developing the motto, “It starts with us.”
All five starting linemen are seniors, including Preseason First-Team All-Conference center Thor Paglialong.
The group holds a secret ceremony to give out hats with a diesel pump and a drop of fuel on the front to players who have earned it.
The Aztecs’ defense is in unchartered territory, allowing 27.2 ppg (86th), 268.6 passing ypg (110th), 163.8 rushing ypg (100th) and 432.4 total ypg (121th). This is not the same defense that the program has relied on for dozens of victories in the Hoke and Rocky Long era.
After struggling against two ranked Pac-12 teams, the lack of quality defensively against Boise State was highly surprising. They allowed 205 rushing yards to Ashton Jeanty, who forced 12 of the 17 missed tackles the Aztecs had on Friday night.
Hoke and Fiaseu spoke at length on Tuesday about the emphasis the team places on tackling in practice, with Hoke even stating he thinks they practice tackling as much as anybody in the country.
“All we have to do is wrap up and get them down,” added Fiaseu. “Coaches emphasize it every week, every day, as part of playing defense. At practice, we have to get better and practice our technique, so it’s really just on players. We got to be the ones to step up because it’s our job.”
Statistically, Fiaseu has been the best player on the defense, leading in tackles (30) and tackles for loss (6). No other defender has more than 21 tackles or 2.5 tackles for loss on the team, struggling to bring running backs and quarterbacks down behind the line of scrimmage.
S Cedarious Barfield leads the team with three interceptions, but CB Noah Tumblin has excelled in the secondary as a shutdown corner, picking off two passes with a team-high eight pass breakups. CB Dez Malone has six pass breakups himself but struggled with two bad missed tackles on WR Eric McCalister last week and was rotated out for a few drives.
Against the Falcons offense, the emphasis this week will be on all 11 players stopping the run and forcing the passing game to be utilized more than three times per game.
“They are very disciplined with what they do,” said Hoke about the Falcons’ offense. “We got to make them a little undisciplined.”
Hoke and Fiaseu acknowledged the difficulty with playing the triple-option is not being able to simulate the speed at which their offense moves with the scout team in practice. This typically requires a drive or two for the defense to get a feel for it.
“One of the hard parts about defending the offense is getting the look of the offense for your defense,” emphasized Hoke. “Usually the first series of the game … their offense has some success, and part of it is catching up with the speed of the game, the speed of the offensive tackles veer blocking inside. The speed of the offensive tackle art blocking outside. How fast the fullback gets to the line of scrimmage with the play fake.”
The Aztecs’ defense has had success against the Falcons’ offense in recent years, holding them below their rushing averages. On the road in 2021, the Falcons only rushed for 192 yards on 48 carries, and their longest run was only 16 yards by Larrier. Facing a 20-0 deficit, the Falcons were forced to pass the ball 15 times, only completing five for 67 yards (1 TD, 1 INT).
In last year’s matchup, the Aztecs allowed a similar 4.1 ypc average, but it came over 66 carries for 271 yards. On the second play of the game, Roberts broke free for a 63-yd run that led to the only touchdown of the game. Playing with the lead for the entire game allowed the Falcons to only pass twice (1/2 for 14 yards).
Key matchup: Emmanuel Michel, FB vs Tupu Alualu/Samuela Tuihalamaka, DT
In the last two matchups, the Aztecs have moved away from their typical 3-3-5 defensive alignment, opting for more 4 and 5-man fronts and playing a linebacker instead of a third safety. This allows the defense to match up better physically across the line of scrimmage and close gaps before they open. Every year in the week leading up to the game against Air Force, Hoke emphasizes the necessity to first stop the “FB Dive” to give the defense a chance to win the game. Roberts’ 187 yards was too much to overcome last year. It will be imperative for SDSU’s interior defensive linemen to be more disruptive than they have been this season and to hold up blockers, allowing linebackers to get in holes and meet Michel at the line of scrimmage. If the DTs are pushed around like they have been in recent games, Michel will find similar results as Roberts.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
Jack Browning has struggled this season, missing his fourth field goal in 11 tries against Boise State (a 40-yd attempt). His punting average has also dipped to 43.2 on the season.
The kick and punt return units received a major boost in the first quarter against Boise State when Kenan Christon returned the opening kickoff 71 yards, and Dez Malone returned the first punt of the game 36 yards. The Aztecs may be due to break one for a score soon.
Like Browning, PK Matthew Dapore is on the Lou Groza Award Watch List. He has made all three field goals on the season (long of 49). Reagan Tubbs replaced Dapore last week (illness) and made his only attempt from 30 yards out.
P Luke Freer averages 41.4 ypp on eight punts. Only one of them has been longer than 50 yards, and two inside the 20.
The Falcons have only returned two kickoffs (17.5 avg) and two punts (-0.5 avg) on the season.
The Aztecs (63.3) are 35th in the ESPN Special Teams Efficiency metric, while the Falcons (48.0) are 71st.
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.