Date: Saturday, October 21, 2023
Time: 6:00 pm PT
Channel: Fox Sports 2
Betting Line: SDSU -13.5, O/U 47.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
Records: SDSU 3-4 (1-2), Nevada 0-6 (0-2)
Series: SDSU 9-6
The San Diego State Aztecs return home for their only game at Snapdragon Stadium in the month of October after ending their four-game losing streak with a win at Hawai’i.
They look to even their record before heading into their second and last bye week of the season. So far this year, the Aztecs have won all three games they were favored in and lost the four they were not.
Head coach Brady Hoke spoke postgame on Saturday and again on Tuesday about the resiliency of his team to bounce back from not just the losing streak but falling behind in the fourth quarter.
Under second-year head coach Ken Wilson, Nevada enters on a 16-game losing streak dating back to last season. This year’s opponents hold a combined 32-9 record, but the Wolfpack have lost by an average of 22 points, including to FCS Idaho by 27 at home.
“You can’t take anything for granted, and you can’t underestimate these guys,” said DE Garret Fountain on Tuesday when asked about overlooking a winless team. “If you watch the film, they are a talented team, and they play well on offense and defense. (They) just have some mistakes, and who are we to say anything about that. We’ve made mistakes, and part of the last month, we were making some mistakes that were more mental than anything.”
The Aztecs won last year’s matchup in Reno, 23-7, behind a Patrick McMoris 30-yd fumble recovery return for a touchdown on the second play of the game and a dazzling 32-yd touchdown run by Jalen Mayden.
When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The Aztecs average 22.4 ppg (102nd), 188.1 passing ypg (112th), 145.6 rushing ypg (74th) and 333.7 total ypg (107th).
When the Aztecs have not played a top-45 defense, they have scored at least 31 points. Against Hawai’i this past Saturday night, the offense scored 34 of the team’s 41 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter after blowing a 17-0 lead and falling behind 24-20.
At times this season, QB Jalen Mayden (117/186, 1,285 yds, 6 TD, 6 INT) has looked like the best player on the field, utilizing his arm and legs to lead the offense down the field and into the end zone (Mayden also leads the team in rushing with 348 yards and added 3 TDs).
But costly mistakes and missed passes have kept the offense from reaching a consistent level.
“Just still trying to put that full game together,” said Mayden on Tuesday when asked about his progression. “As always there are little spurts here and there. I’ll catch a quarter here that is really good, and the next quarter I’ll drop off.”
Until Saturday, the running game had not helped the senior QB, considering Mayden continues to lead the team in rushing with 348 yards (3 TDs), 91 yards more than the next-highest back, Jaylon Armstead (5 TD).
While Armstead added his fifth touchdown on the season against Hawai’i, it was Cam Davis (10 carries, 53 yds) and Lucky Sutton (7 carries, 23 yds) who supported Mayden’s efforts. After not receiving a carry through the first six games of the season, Sutton scored two goal-line touchdowns.
Hoke credited the backs with making the first defender miss more often than in previous games and helping dominate the time of possession battle (36 to 24).
The first game after the bye also saw changes to the offensive line, with Drew Azzopardi earning his first career start at RT and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson sliding over to LT. Azzopardi took reps at RT with the first team all throughout spring and fall camp before ceding the position to Myles Murao (first two games) and Crenshaw-Dickson (last four games).
The changes did not impact the success the line has had in conference play, protecting Mayden, only allowing one sack per game.
WR Mekhi Shaw’s return after missing three games provided a major boost as well. Shaw caught the game-winning 69-yard TD pass from Mayden early in the fourth quarter on the way to his career-setting game.
The Wolfpack allows 39.5 ppg (129th), 314.7 passing ypg (127th), 195.3 rushing ypg (119th) and 510 total ypg (130th).
They will likely be the worst defense the Aztecs play all season, unable to stop the run or the pass. Five of the six teams they played scored a touchdown on the opening drive.
S Emany Johnson leads the Wolfpack with 45 tackles. Both of his interceptions came against Fresno State. CB KK Meier has the only other interception on the team, but he returned it 98 yards for a score against Texas State.
The most successful area of Nevada’s defense is forcing seven fumbles and recovering five. LB Drue Watts (All-Conference Honorable Mention as a freshman last year) leads the country with four fumble recoveries, one each in the first four games of the season.
LB Tongiaki Mateialona is second on the team with 34 tackles and leads with two forced fumbles.
As a team, the Wolfpack have only collected eight total pass breakups. SDSU’s Noah Tumblin has nine of his own this season.
They have also allowed 50% third down conversions (35/70), which is one of the worst in the nation (124th).
Key matchup: Kenan Christon, RB vs Drue Watts, MIKE LB
Christon entered the season listed as the starting RB, starting KR (to replace Jordan Byrd), and named one of the four team captains. The hometown hero was primed for a monster year. Things have not gone as well as he or the team would have liked through seven games. His 64 carries are the most by any RB but for only 234 yards (3.7 ypc). He also has 16 receptions for only 103 yards (6.4 ypr). His longest run and reception have been 22 and 16 yards, respectively, and he has yet to score a touchdown. For someone with elite speed, this has been extremely surprising. His touches have decreased week over week as well. Against a defense that struggles in all facets, this would be a prime opportunity to get Christon out in open space to show off his explosiveness and ignite the Snapdragon Stadium crowd on Saturday night.
When Nevada has the ball: Advantage – SDSU
The Wolfpack average 17.3 ppg (126th), 203.3 passing ypg (97th), 119.3 rushing ypg (107th) and 322.7 total ypg (114th).
QB Brendon Lewis (Colorado transfer) has completed 92 of 159 passes for 907 yards and thrown two touchdowns and six interceptions. He also leads the team in rushing with 311 yards (and three touchdowns).
Lewis was a 4-star recruit in the class of 2020 from Melissa, TX, and ranked as the 12th dual-threat QB by ESPN. After starting all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2021, passing for 1,540 yards and ten touchdowns (only three interceptions), he entered the portal midway through the 2022 season.
Last week against UNLV, the offense had its best performance of the season, totaling 474 yards after only averaging 292.4 through the first five games.
“It looked like what we wanted an offense to look like,” said Wilson when asked on Monday about the success against UNLV. “In the pistol with a lot of different moving parts. QB run game active. Quick throws to the outside and when teams give it to you, (taking) shots … being able to run the ball effectively, opening up lanes for Sean Dollars, getting balls to the tight end. It was a big step forward as far as spreading the ball to a lot of positions.”
Lewis set career highs by throwing for 287 yards and rushing for 115 yards. Both of his passing touchdowns on the season came in the game as well.
“I think (Lewis) is one of the more talented guys we have seen this year,” said Fountain when asked about Nevada’s QB. “He’s up there with the best in the conference. He’s a very good athlete and throws well, too. He’s able to elude the pressure, so we have to make sure we are doing everything right and keep him contained.”
RB Sean Dollars is second on the team with 241 yards but on only 3.1 ypc.
Jamaal Bell is the top receiver, catching 26 passes for 247 yards (1 TD). Spencer Curtis (18 rec, 214 yds, 1 TD) and Dalevon Campbell (12 rec, 205 yds, 1 TD) are the only other receivers with greater than 200 yards on the season.
TE Keleki Latu (14 rec, 179 yds) injured his ankle against UNLV and will be out for several weeks, according to Wilson.
Joey Capra, the former SDSU offensive lineman who transferred to Nevada two years ago, starts at right guard for the Wolfpack.
The offensive line for the Wolfpack has struggled this season, with nearly three sacks and 8.2 tackles for loss allowed per game. Only five FBS teams have allowed more tackles for loss than the Wolfpack.
The Aztecs allow 31.3 ppg (104th), 279.9 passing ypg (121st), 165.6 rushing ypg (102nd) and 445.4 total ypg (119th).
For the first five drives of the game against Hawai’i, any spectator with no prior knowledge of the season would swear they were watching one of the best defenses in the nation. The Aztecs only allowed one first down and returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown on those five drives.
From the sixth drive on, they reverted back to the defense that was ranked 116th entering the contest. Almost all of the damage was done in the air as Hawai’i employed a lot of “shoot” and very little “run” from their patented offense.
The pass rush continued to disappoint, unable to get to QB Brayden Schager (only one sack for the game despite 49 dropbacks), giving him time to find receivers open in the secondary.
The saving grace turned out to be two forced fumbles in the fourth quarter that gave the SDSU offense short fields to turn into touchdowns to seal the game. Those two turnovers were the only drives the defense kept Hawai’i from scoring from the sixth drive on, except for the one at the end of the first half when the clock ran out.
In the prior two games against Air Force and Boise State, the defense was unable to force any turnovers while allowing the offenses to march down the field at ease.
LB Zyrus Fiaseu has forced three of the four fumbles by the defense. He was initially credited with the second fumble forced against Hawai’i, but it has since been corrected to credit DL Ryan Henderson instead. Fiaseu leads the team with 43 tackles and seven tackles for loss.
S Deshawn McCuin, who started at safety in place of Davaughn Celestine, scored on the interception return but was injured towards the end of the game. Hoke stated on Tuesday McCuin was going through a battery of tests related to a concussion, and although the results were positive so far, it was too soon to know if he would be cleared to play against Nevada.
Key matchup: Isaiah World, LT / Frank Poso, RT vs Vai Kaho, WILL LB / Cooper McDonald SAM LB
While the Nevada OL has been one of the poorest in preventing negative plays, the Aztec defense has, conversely, been one of the poorest in making them. SDSU’s 1.3 sacks and 3.9 tackles for loss per game are in the bottom tenth of the nation. Last week’s matchup was similar, facing a Hawai’i team that was one of the worst in pass protection, but the Aztecs only mustered one sack by DE Ryan Henderson. In the past four games, the Aztecs have a total of two sacks. They have not collected more than five tackles for loss in any of their seven games. Eventually, the front six will flex their muscles on an OL, and no time better than against Nevada. As outside linebackers who will play close to the line of scrimmage, Kaho and McDonald should have ample opportunities to make negative plays in the pass-and-run games. On the season, they combine for two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. If they can more than double those numbers on Saturday, the Aztecs’ defense should have its best performance of the season.
Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU
Jack Browning had his best game of the season against Hawai’i, earning Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week for the second time this season. Browning’s 56.0 ypp average and 54.2 net average over four punts were both career highs and included a career-long 66-yarder and also a 63-yarder. While he made two short field goals, a miss from 50 yards out kept it from being a perfect evening.
The rest of the special teams unit also played a large role in the victory. Eric Butler’s blocked punt on the first drive of the game gave the Aztecs exemplary field position that led to Browning’s first field goal. A recovery of a muffed punt by Fiaseu later in the game also provided great field position for the Aztecs, but that drive ended with Browning’s miss.
Nevada’s Brandon Talton has been one of the best placekickers over the last five years. His 72 made field goals is the most by a Mountain West kicker in the conference’s history. This season, he has made four of six attempts (long of 44). Both of his misses came from 50+ yards out.
Punter Matt Freem holds a 40.8 ypp average (long of 62), but only three of his 30 punts have been greater than 50 yards.
Jamaal Bell’s 1,508 kick-return yards are third all-time at Nevada. With five more yards, he will pass Elijah Mitchell into second place. Mike Ball leads with 1,695. He is averaging 16.8 ypr on 14 returns this season.
The Aztecs (71.7) are 7th in the ESPN Special Teams Efficiency metric, while the Wolfpack (40.9) are 106th.
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.