Date: Saturday, October 14, 2023
Time: 8:00 pm PT
Channel: CBS Sports Network
Betting Line: SDSU -5.5, O/U 52.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Clarence T.C. Ching Complex (Honolulu, HI)
Records: SDSU 2-4 (0-2), Hawai’i 2-4 (0-1)
Series: SDSU 23-11-2
Coming off the first of two bye weeks in October, the San Diego State Aztecs hope to break out of their four-game losing streak in Honolulu.
The Aztecs were underdogs by at least seven points in each of their four defeats this season, with only one ending in a one-score game. The worst performance came most recently against Air Force in a 49-10 loss on the road.
Hawai’i, led by head coach Timmy Chang (2nd season), is also coming off a bye. The Rainbow Warriors were picked to finish 10th in the conference in the Preseason Media Poll after a disappointing 2022 season (3-10, 2-6).
The Rainbow Warriors played five non-conference games, defeating FCS Albany (31-20) and New Mexico State (20-17), while losing all three contests to Power 5 teams Vanderbilt (35-28), Stanford (37-24), and Oregon (55-10). They lost their first conference matchup at UNLV, 44-20.
The Aztecs have won the last three meetings against the Rainbow Warriors. Last year’s matchup at Snapdragon Stadium signified Jalen Mayden’s first start at QB and Ryan Lindley’s return to SDSU as QB coach. Mayden threw for 322 yards and led the Aztecs on the game-winning field goal drive to prevail 16-14.
SDSU played at the retrofitted Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex in its first year of existence in 2021. This past offseason, the stadium increased its seating capacity from about 9,000 to 15,000 and installed Aloha Stadium’s 75-ft scoreboard.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The Aztecs average 19.3 ppg (116th), 182.7 passing ypg (112th), 143.7 rushing ypg (t-83rd), and 326.3 total ypg (112th).
The performance against Air Force was a giant step back for the offense that looked like it had found its stride against Boise State the week before. Even a 17-play, 80-yard scoring drive on the second possession of the game yielded heavy optimism. Unfortunately, outside of an end-of-half 61-yard field goal, the Aztecs did not produce any more points in the lopsided loss.
QB Jalen Mayden (99/162, 1,064 yds, 5 TD, 5 INT) struggled after the TD pass to Josh Nicholson early in the second quarter. On at least three occasions, he rolled out and had opportunities to run for first downs but instead attempted difficult passes that fell incomplete.
Mayden continues to lead the team in rushing (295), but Jaylon Armstead (248) and Kenan Christon (228) are trying to make up ground. For the Aztecs to become the offense that Lindley envisioned, one of those two backs has to step up and take the lead role. At the very least, somebody other than the QB needs to lead the team in rushing.
Christon has hauled in 15 receptions but for only 100 yards. Finding opportunities to put the fastest player on the field in open space with the ball has to be one of the primary focuses of this offense.
TE Mark Redman continues to lead the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (235) and receiving TDs (2). WRs Brionne Penny (15 rec, 196 yds) and Baylin Brooks (12 rec, 206 yds, 1 TD) have stepped up in Mekhi Shaw’s absence the past three games but need to be consistent game-by-game. Shaw was in uniform and active against Air Force but did not receive any offensive snaps.
The Rainbow Warriors have allowed 34.7 ppg (121st), 208.5 passing ypg (40th), 172.5 rushing ypg (106th) and 381 total ypg (77th).
In each of their last two home games, the Rainbow Warriors have returned a fumble recovery for 41 yards. It is their only fumble recoveries on the year, and they have recorded only one interception (Elijah Palmer).
LB Isaiah Tufaga leads the team with 40 tackles and is tied for the team lead with 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
DT Daniel “Sauce” Williams is ranked 3rd among interior defensive linemen in the Mountain West with a 76.2 defensive grade per PFF. Against NMSU, his 97.4 grade was the highest among all defensive players in the country that week.
CB Cam Stone transferred from Wyoming to Hawai’i in the offseason and was the only Rainbow Warrior named to the Preseason All-Conference Team. He has five pass breakups to go with 11 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss on the season.
CBs JoJo Forest (seven) is tied for 4th nationally in pass breakups. As a team, the Rainbow Warriors have 29 total.
Hawai’i has been outscored in the first half, 130-50, but outscored opponents in the second half, 83-78.
Key matchup: Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli, C vs Kuao Peihopa/Daniel “Sauce” Wiliams, DT
The 330lb Williams can be a game wrecker for opposing offenses if given the opportunity, as he did against NMSU. Peihopa is his sidekick at the position. Ulugalu-Maseuli, along with the guards next to him, will need to account for the massive lineman when he is in the game.
SDSU’s offensive line has done a much better job in conference play, only allowing 3.5 tackles for loss per game (and one sack per game) after having major difficulty in non-conference action. If they can continue to perform well in that area, their running backs may finally have an opportunity to break some runs and tally a 100-yard performance.
When Hawai’i has the ball: Advantage – Hawai’i
The Rainbow Warriors average 22.2 ppg (t-101st), 278.7 passing ypg (30th), 58.5 rushing ypg (130th) and 337.2 total ypg (t-106th).
After a few years away from it, Hawai’i went back to its famous Run and Shoot offense this season, boosting their passing offense by about 73 ypg from last season. The offense helped Chang become the NCAA all-time leading passer during his time as a player for Hawai’i.
QB Brayden Schager has excelled under the new offense, ranking 16th and 11th, respectively, in passing yards (1,661) and passing touchdowns (14). He has thrown 14 touchdowns but also seven interceptions.
WRs Pofele Ashlock and Steven McBride have shown to be a dominant one-two punch. Ashlock (38 rec, 465 yds, 3 TDs) earned Mountain West Freshman of the Week honors twice this season already, while McBride (30 rec, 469 yds, 6 TDs) has eclipsed his total production from three years at Kansas in six games.
The only two rushing TDs on the season are by QBs (Schager, Dalen Morris). RB Jordan Johnson (192 yards, 6.2 ypc) is the only player on the team with more than 100 rushing yards on the season.
In two seasons under Chang, Hawai’i has converted 28 of 51 (55%) 4th down plays.
Only four FBS teams have allowed more sacks (25) than Hawai’i this season.
The Aztecs have allowed 30.8 ppg (103rd), 255.3 passing ypg (103rd), 184.3 rushing ypg (t-112th), and 439.7 total ypg (116th).
Perhaps the most telling statistic that feeds into why the major categories are ranked in the 100ths is eight total sacks in six games. But it feels familiar.
Last year, the defense appeared to be spiraling through six games as well, ranked 92nd in rushing and 86th in total defense with the same total number of sacks as this season. With the aid of a bye week and personnel changes at LB, DC Kurt Mattix was able to flip the script in a big way in the second half of the season.
In the final seven games, the Aztecs were 2nd in total defense and rushing defense, 13th in scoring defense, and tripled their 1.3 sacks per game to 4 per game (along with an increase of 4.8 to 8.6 TFLs per game).
All of Aztec Nation is hoping for a similar turnaround in 2023. Without All-Conference players Jonah Tavai, Caden McDonald, Michael Shawcroft, and Patrick McMorris this time around, the task will be much more difficult.
LB Zyrus Fiaseu, who went from 3rd string LB to starter in the 6th game last season, has continued his great play, leading the team with 39 tackles (12 more than the next highest). His 6 tackles for loss are more than double the three players who are second on the team with 2.5, and he has forced the only two fumbles by the defense.
The Aztecs’ eight interceptions still rank fifth nationally (tied with 13 other schools), but they have not had one in two conference games.
Outside of Fiaseu, CB Noah Tumblin has been the most consistent performer for the defense, leading the team with eight pass breakups (t-2nd nationally) to go with two interceptions. Tumblin’s 85.7 defensive grade per PFF is fifth-best among all FBS CBs. Like the Rainbow Warriors, the Aztecs also have 29 pass breakups as a team.
Key matchup: Pofele Ashlock, WR, vs Dez Malone, CB
The Rainbow Warriors want to throw and want to throw it often. With the SDSU pass rush struggling mightly on the season, Schager will have plenty of opportunities to look for Ashlock, McBride, and the rest of his pass catchers. Malone struggled against Boise State’s Eric McCalister (two missed open field tackles) and UCLA’s J. Michael Sturdivant (two defensive pass interferences and one missed open field tackle) and will look to rebound against another talented receiver.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
Jack Browning turned his fortunes around against Air Force, connecting on a record 61-yard field goal and averaging 46.4 ypp, his best average since the opening game against Ohio. On the season, he has made eight of 12 field goal attempts and averaged 43.8 ypp on the season, 28th in the country.
Matthew Shipley handles field goal and punting duties for the Rainbow Warriors. He has connected on seven of eight field goal attempts, but his longest make was from 35 yards—his only miss from 50+ yards out. Shipley averages 41.2 ypp, 55th in the country. On 29 punts, five went longer than 50 yards, and only three inside the 20.
While the Rainbow Warriors have not returned any kick for more than 30 yards, they allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in their opening game against Vanderbilt.
The Aztecs (66.8) are 19th in the ESPN Special Teams Efficiency metric, while the Rainbow Warriors (34.0) are 124th.
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.