Week One: SDSU vs Idaho State Preview

The Aztecs joined the students and band to sing The Fight Song after the victory against Ohio. (Credit: Don De Mars/EVT)

Game Details

Date: Saturday, September 2, 2023

Time: 7:30 pm PT

Channel: CBS Sports Network

Betting Line: SDSU -28.5, O/U 51.5 (DraftKings Sportsbook)

Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)

Records: SDSU 1-0 (0-0), Idaho State 0-0 (0-0)

Series: SDSU 2-0

The San Diego State Aztecs head back to Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday night against the Idaho State Bengals, intending to start the season with their second straight victory.

“It is good to win, obviously,” said SDSU head coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday about the opening game. “(But) we’ve got to get better as a football team. We got to be more physical on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”

HC Brady Hoke on the sidelines against Ohio. (Credit: PJ Panebianco/EVT)

The Bengals play in the Big Sky Conference (BSC) in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The Aztecs hold a 32-13 record against BSC opponents, including 18-2 against teams not named Cal Poly.  

The schools met for the second time in series history last year in San Diego. After Bengals’ WR Xavier Guillory scored a 75-yard TD on the second play of the game, the Aztecs reeled off 38 consecutive points for a 31-point victory. The onslaught was fueled by 380 rushing yards, led by Jaylon Armstead (96 yards) and QB Braxton Burmeister (80 yards, TD). 

The Bengals have a new coaching staff for the third straight season after a 1-10 (1-7) record in 2022 led to head coach Charlie Ragle’s resignation. Cody Hawkins took over the program and brought in an influx of new players (only 40 returners from 2022). Finding repeatable keys or a valid scouting report on the Bengals becomes a challenge before they have played their first game. 

Hoke mentioned on Tuesday that this was as difficult of a preparation for an opponent as he could remember during his long coaching career, given the new systems on both sides of the ball with limited backgrounds plus 70 new players. 

The Bengals were selected to finish last in the conference by both the coaches and media in the preseason polls and did not have a player selected to the Preseason All-Conference Team.  

Hawkins was the offensive coordinator at UC Davis the past three seasons under his father and head coach, Dan Hawkins, utilizing a passing offense that featured dynamic wide receivers and reached as high as third nationally in passing offense and eighth in scoring offense. As a quarterback, Hawkins earned Idaho Statesman State Player of the Year (2004 and 2005) and Gatorade Player of the Year (2005) at Bishop Kelly High School and played D1 football at Colorado. 

Given an FCS opponent and a peak ahead to two Pac-12 opponents in the following weeks, there might be a tendency to look at this contest as a trap game for the Aztecs.

“We respect every opponent that we play, so we don’t take any opponent lightly,” said LB Cooper McDonald on Tuesday when asked about a potential trap game. “This is their first game, so they are going to be pumped and ready to go to come down to San Diego.”

“One game at a time,” insisted QB Jalen Mayden on Tuesday when asked about overlooking Idaho State before the matchup against UCLA.

The Aztec offensive line works together on a play against Ohio. (Credit: Don De Mars/EVT)

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU


The first performance of the Ryan Lindley-led Aztecs’ offense could be described as a tale of two halves (give or take one minute at the end of the first half). While the team totaled 309 yards in their victory against Ohio, 235 of those came in the final 31 minutes of the game. 

After starting 4/10 for 37 yards, Mayden went 13/17 for 127 yards and two touchdowns to finish the game.

“Just first-game jitters,” said Mayden on Tuesday when asked about his poor start. “(I) start(ed) off a little tight, and as the game progress(ed), (I) got more comfortable and allowed to let my guys play and play around them.” 

“He actually kept me calm,” said Mayden when asked whether Lindley exhibited the same first game as offensive coordinator jitters. “He was like, you know, ‘You are seeing it well.’ I sped my footwork up, or I skipped a read. He said, ‘Calm down. You know what you are doing, and let’s get this (win).'” 

After speaking about the talent and versatility of the tight end room since the day Lindley was hired in January, the coaching staff’s words came to fruition, at least for one game. Mark Redman caught five passes for 62 yards and both touchdowns from Mayden.

WR Mekhi Shaw (3 rec, 48 yards) was the only other player with more than 19 receiving yards. WR Phillippe Wesley missed the opener due to an undisclosed injury. The Aztecs would like to get Wesley, one of fall camp’s best offensive players, into the fold as soon as he is healthy. 

SDSU hopes the balanced success towards the end of the game against Ohio will carry over to the matchup against Idaho State. Most importantly, they protected the football in the passing game while collecting first downs on the ground.

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Despite Armstead (8 carries, 78yds) leading the team in rushing, he only played 11 snaps, while starting RB Kenan Christon played 39 per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Cam Davis and Martin Blake rounded out the running back unit with 9 and 7 snaps, respectively. Both of Christon’s receptions, while only totaling 10 yards, converted key 3rd and shorts to keep scoring drives alive.  

The offensive line will be without 2022 starting RT Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (BCD) again as he serves a two-game suspension due to a school violation, but Myles Murao stepped in well at the spot against Ohio. BCD came out of fall camp listed as the starter at RT, but the coaching staff may not insert him immediately back into the starting lineup upon his return if the current group of five starters continues to perform well. 


New defensive coordinator Josh Runda was previously the Defensive Quality Control coach at Iowa State for the past two seasons. He employs a similar 3-3-5 system that the Aztecs have played for the past 14 seasons under Hoke and Rocky Long. 

The top two players returning from last year’s defense are S Calvin Pitcher and DE Cortland Horton. Both were named team captains. Pitcher was second on the team with 62 tackles, while Horton was tied for a team-high 6.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. He also added 38 tackles. 

Jaylon Armstead upended against Ohio. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Both starting cornerbacks also return this season. Josh Alford (47 tackles, 1 INT) led the team with nine pass breakups, while Jihad Brown (32 tackles, 1 INT) added five. 

One of the biggest newcomers on the defensive side is Lincoln High School alum Herman Smith. Smith initially committed to SDSU before switching his pledge to Jackson State. He played 21 games at Jackson State the past two seasons, collecting 33 tackles, six passes defended, one sack, and one forced fumble. Smith is listed as one of the three starting safeties on the depth chart.

Key matchup: Jaylon Armstead, RB vs Calvin Pitcher, S

Despite only playing 11 snaps against Ohio, Armstead was the most impactful rusher for the Aztecs and earned his way up to second on the depth chart at RB behind Christon. With the expected talent and size mismatch up front, expect Armstead to find open holes at the line of scrimmage to run through. That means The Bengals’ three safeties will be required to step up into the box and meet Armstead head-on. As a captain and leading tackler among returning players, Pitcher will most likely take on that challenge. If Armstead can wiggle free from the safety, he could be in for another big performance.

LB Cooper McDonald rushes QB CJ Harris, oh, Ohio. (Credit: Don De Mars/EVT)

When Idaho State has the ball: Advantage – SDSU


Hawkins looks to implement his pass-centric offense into the fold in his first year. In years past, it would usually take a year or two for a new coach to bring in the players that fit his system best. With the transfer portal frenzy and the removal of the redshirt year for first-time transfers, teams can turn over the roster in just one offseason. 

The incumbent starting quarterback, Hunter Hays, returns and is competing for the role once again this year. In 23 games as a Bengal, Hays has passed for 2,332 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. In last year’s matchup against the Aztecs, he entered the game after starting QB Tyler Vander Waal was knocked out and completed 18 of 30 passes for 140 yards. 

“I remember he was a pretty good football player … he was dishing it out pretty well,” said McDonald on Tuesday when asked what he remembered from Hays in last year’s game.

Hays has been competing in fall camp with two other QBs: Jordan Cooke and Matt Cavallaro. 

Cooke has only one year of collegiate playing experience, passing for 1,565 yards, 14 TDs, and 5 INTs last year at Diablo Valley College in California. Cooke is super-athletic, and Hawkins noted he ran the fastest 40 on the team in shells in camp. 

Cavallaro, a grad transfer from West Virginia, starred at Lackawanna College in 2019 before moving to Morgantown for the past three seasons. He did not receive any playing time there. 

“Everybody should expect to see multiple guys in the first couple of games,” said Hawkins when asked last week about the competition. “I’m not in a rush to (name a starter). You want to pick the right guy, it’s not about right now.” 

Cyrus Wallace (33 rec, 249 yds), a TE last year, caught six passes for 44 yards against the Aztecs. Under the new coaching staff, the Santa Barbara College transfer is now listed as a WR. The only player that bested Wallace’s 249 receiving yards last year was Guillory, who caught 52 passes for 785 and 4 touchdowns. Guillory transferred to Arizona State in the offseason. 

Sixth-year senior Mike Davis is one of three captains on the team and the lone one on the offensive side. He is making the switch from tight end to offensive line this season. 

Junior RB and San Diego High alum Raiden Hunter led the team with 451 rushing yards and rushed for 53 yards against the Aztecs last season.  


On the surface, the Aztecs’ defense played a stellar opening game, holding the Bobcats to only 13 points, collecting three interceptions and two sacks. If you listen to Hoke’s postgame, he was upset with the way the defense played in the first half, alluding to the poor tackling and physicality that allowed Ohio to control the ball for 27 of the first 40 minutes of the game. He also noted the two decisions to go for it in the second half in lieu of kicks were largely the result of the lack of confidence he had in the defense.  

According to PFF, the Aztecs’ defense missed 12 tackles in the game. They allowed 380 total yards, 26 first downs, and 9 of 19 (47%) conversions on third and fourth downs. 

“Our back end, they covered pretty well, (but) something we need to improve on as a defense is our pass rush,” said McDonald on Tuesday. “Getting more pressure on the quarterback and having that relentless effort to get there. Working different moves and not just doing the same moves every time. That just comes with practice so we have another week to do that, and we’ll get it done.” 

Despite Hoke’s and McDonald’s comments, given the number of new starters on the defensive side of the ball, the team has to feel encouraged by the overall performance in their first game. 

Five of the seven linebackers who received snaps splashed in the opener. New Mexico transfer Cody Moon led the team with 12 tackles and put a hit on QB CJ Harris that caused a fluttering pass to be intercepted by fellow LB Trey White. Zyrus Fiaseu collected the first sack of the season for the Aztecs and added another tackle for loss. McDonald added three tackles, a 0.5 sack, and six total quarterback pressures. New Zealand Williams sealed the victory with an interception on the next-to-last play of the game.

Noah Tumblin (10), Cedarious Barfield (3), and Max Garrison (22) line up in punt coverage against UNLV in 2022.  Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

“We had some guys step up,” said McDonald about his positional group. “Cody Moon (was) Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week. Zyrus also played a really good game. I made a couple of plays here and there. I think we played really well as a unit, but from game 1 to game 2, you should see a lot of improvement.” 

CB Dez Malone (87) and S Cedarious Barfield (80) played the most snaps defensively per PFF. Noah Tumblin led the secondary with five tackles and three pass breakups as he split time opposite Malone with Chris Johnson and Dallas Branch. 

Statistically, Tupu Alualu was the only defensive lineman with a tackle for loss or sack (combined with McDonald on a sack), but the group improved throughout the game and did a better job holding up the line of scrimmage against the run in the second half. 

Key matchup: Cyrus Wallace, WR/TE, vs Cedarious Barfield, S

On the Bengals’ roster, Wallace is now listed as a WR. In fact, the roster does not list any player as a TE, likely based on the offensive philosophy of the new head coach. But the Bengals’ depth chart lists a TE instead of a third WR, with Wallace as the starter. In a spread offense, expect Wallace to line up in the slot frequently and be matched up against the Aztecs’ field warrior safety. The 6’3 receiver has the height advantage over the 5’11 safety, so the super senior will have to use his experience and instincts to get the better of the matchup.   

K Jack Browning boots a field goal against Ohio. (Credit: Don De Mars/EVT)

Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU

Another week, another honor for SDSU’s Jack Browning. Despite missing one of his three field goal attempts, he earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week after averaging 56.3 yards per punt on three attempts and flipping field position for the Aztecs when their offense was struggling to move the ball early in the game. While the kickoff and punt returns were mostly nullified, the Aztec coverage units did an excellent job corralling the Ohio returners. 

Thomas Kopcho replaces Ian Hershey as the punter and placekicker this season. Hershey transferred to Arizona State this summer to reunite with Ragle, the new special teams coordinator at the program. He made 7 of 11 FGs and averaged 38.7 yards per punt in 2022. Aaron Blancas, Jr. and Chedon James are listed as the kickoff and punt returners, respectively, on the team’s depth chart.

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