Week Zero: SDSU vs Ohio Preview

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Caden McDonald leads the Aztecs into Snapdragon Stadium last season (Don De Mars/EVT)

Game Details

Date: Saturday, August 26, 2023

Time: 4:00 pm PT

Channel: Fox Sports 1

Betting Line: SDSU -2.5, O/U 49 (BetMGM Sportsbook)

Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)

Records: SDSU 0-0 (0-0), Ohio 0-0 (0-0)

Series: Ohio 1-0

The San Diego State Aztecs begin their 101st football season in Week Zero against the Ohio Bobcats. Coming off a disappointing 2022 season that finished 7-6 (5-3) and saw a mid-season offensive coach firing, head coach Brady Hoke looks to regroup his team and finally achieve that elusive 22nd conference championship.

Despite the struggles, the Aztecs completed their 13th consecutive season with at least a .500 or better overall record (sixth-longest streak nationally) and a winning conference record. 

Heading into 2023, SDSU was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Preseason Poll by the media. The top two finishers will play in the championship game as the conference removed the use of divisions starting this season. 

The Bobcats (10-4, 7-1) won ten games under second-year head coach Tim Albin last year for the first time since 2011 and the fourth time in program history. After winning the MAC East Division, they fell to Toledo in the MAC championship game, 17-7. They capped off the season with an overtime victory over Wyoming in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl. 

Albin served as the school’s offensive coordinator for 16 years under Frank Solich before taking over as head coach in 2021. Ohio was picked to win the MAC East Division again this year in the MAC Preseason Poll by the coaches. 

As the only common opponent between the teams in 2022, Toledo lost to SDSU, 17-14, last September at Snapdragon Stadium. In his press conference this week, Albin said he spoke with his conference rival to learn more about the Aztecs.

The only meeting between the schools was in the 2018 Frisco Bowl when Ohio shut out SDSU 27-0. The game was the only time SDSU has been shut out in its last 204 games and the only loss against a current MAC member in 17 contests.  

SDSU’s offense erupts in celebration after scoring a touchdown in practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

When SDSU has the ball: Advantage – SDSU


The Aztecs return six starters from an offense that averaged 21.5 ppg (107th in FBS), 143.5 rushing ypg (71st), and 170.8 passing ypg (116th). As low as those numbers are, they are markedly higher solely due to Jalen Mayden’s transition from backup safety to starting quarterback for the final eight games of the season. 

Ryan Lindley’s main task is unleashing Jalen Mayden’s potential. (Don De Mars/EVT)

With Mayden, the pass offense improved from 131st (65.6 ypg) to 40th (254 ypg), and the time of possession improved from 101st (28:21) to 13th (32:37). 

Mayden passed for 2,030 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing nearly 60% of his passes. He also added 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Mayden’s downfall ultimately became interceptions, throwing ten but five in the final two games. 

Under new offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley, the Aztecs will look to replicate the things they did well offensively with Mayden at the helm while reducing the turnovers. Lindley will also try to jump-start a running game that was mostly non-existent in 2022. The Aztecs did not have a player with more than 390 rushing yards on the season. 

Kenan Christon, Cam Davis, and Jaylon Armstead will battle for snaps and carries in the running back room, while walk-on Martin Blake will compete to join the mix. 

“We can’t simulate (Christon’s) speed in practice,” Albin noted during his Monday press conference when discussing SDSU’s offense. “We won’t see speed like that all year.”

SDSU’s two leading receivers in 2022, Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers, are in the NFL. Mekhi Shaw (29 rec for 349 yards, 3 TDs) looks to move up from the no. 3 receiver to the no. 1 and build off the success and rapport he developed with Mayden at the end of last season. 

With an inexperienced wide receiving unit, the coaching staff has spoken at length over spring and fall camp about the versatility and talent of the tight end group led by Mark Redman. After being selected Second-Team All-Conference in his first season on the Mesa after transferring from Washington, Redman (21 rec for 233 yards, 2 TDs) is poised for a breakout season and will likely lead the team in targets in 2023. 

Jay Rudolph, Cameron Harpole, and Logan Tanner will be more involved in the passing game than the secondary tight ends were in 2022 under the old offensive regime.  

As of the release of the Two-Deep depth chart on Monday, the offensive line still has three unknown starters. While Hoke stated during this week’s press conference that those battles will be decided by Wednesday, do not expect the final decisions to be publicized until the offense takes the field on Saturday. 


The Bobcats return seven starters that allowed 28.3 ppg (80th in FBS), 140.9 rushing ypg (49th), and 286 passing ypg (125th) in 2022. Their 108th overall defense improved drastically midway through the season. After allowing 561 ypg over the first six games, they did not allow a team to gain more than 390 ypg in their last eight contests.  

Linebackers Keye Thompson (96 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2 fumbles recovered) and Byrce Houston (76 tackles, 11 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 2 fumbles recovered) led the defense in 2022. Senior defensive end Vonnie Watkins led the team with 14 TFLs and nine quarterback hurries rushing off the edge. 

The strength of the defense likely lies with the secondary with returning corners Torrie Cox (3 INTs, 6 PBUs) and Justin Birchette (8 PBUs). Incoming transfer safeties Miles Fleming (Minnesota) and Walter Reynolds (Holy Cross) shore up the secondary.  

Despite the struggles preventing opposing offenses from gaining yards on them, the Bobcats’ defense excelled in one major category: forcing turnovers. Their 25 turnovers gained was 11th best in the country, which led to the 8th best turnover margin (+0.86). Albin pointed to turnovers as the key to Saturday’s contest.

Key matchup: Mark Redman, TE, vs Walter Reynolds, FS

Mark Redman leaps over a tackler at Fan Fest (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

In his senior season at Holy Cross, Reynolds picked off five passes and made eight pass breakups. Against an Aztecs offense that will predominantly utilize 12 personnel, Reynolds will be matched up against SDSU’s primary tight end often. Whether the play design is play-action or a straight dropback, Redman will need to find openings in the secondary to provide Mayden a solid target over the middle to convert first downs. The Aztecs were one of the worst 3rd down-conversion teams in the country last year, converting only 29.5% (122nd). In order for this statistic to improve in 2023, a Mayden-to-Redman connection will need to be established early and often. 

SDSU defense stops a QB sneak against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

When Ohio has the ball: Advantage – Ohio


The Bobcats return nine starters from an offense that averaged 31.8 ppg (40th in FBS), 143.4 rushing ypg (72nd), and 278.1 passing ypg (23rd). 

Senior QB Kurtis Rourke, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, returns after suffering a torn ACL against Ball State toward the end of last season. The Bobcats list Rourke atop the depth chart and tweeted a picture of Rourke with the caption “QB1” following Monday’s practice. Rourke passed for 3,256 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only four interceptions before his injury. 

Backup QB CJ Harris stepped in for Rourke last year and played well. If any issues arise with Rourke’s knee, Harris can fit back into the offense seamlessly. 

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Sophomore RB Sieh Bangura rushed for 1,078 yards and 13 TDs on his way to MAC Freshman of the Year honors. He added 27 catches for 226 yards and two receiving touchdowns as well. Senior RB O’Shaan Allison returns to the fold this year after missing last season due to a shoulder injury to provide a 1-2 punch in the backfield. In 2019, Allison ran for 869 yards and six touchdowns as the starter for the Bobcats. 

Senior Sam Wiglusz had one of the best seasons of any wide receiver in college football last year (73 rec for 877 yards, 11 TDs). The former Ohio State transfer pairs with junior Jacoby Jones (45 rec for 777 yards, 6 TDs) to form a menacing receiving duo.

The offensive line starts four seniors and one junior with an average size of 315 lbs.


The defense’s midseason turnaround led to finishing in its usual top 20 rankings by the end of last season. They allowed 20.5 ppg (19th in FBS), 113.9 rushing ypg (19th), and 208.9 passing ypg (39th). Overall, their total defense ranked 15th in the country (322.8 ypg). 

Those statistics are rendered obsolete, considering 8 of the 12 defensive players with the most snaps played are no longer on the team, including five of the six starters at DL and LB. 

True freshman Marcus Ratcliffe competing to start at aztec safety. (Don De Mars/EVT)

In addition to relying on returners Garret Fountain (6 TFLs, 3 sacks), Zyrus Fiaseu (24 tackles), and Cooper McDonald (41 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks) along the front 6, the defense added New Mexico transfer and All-Conference LB, Cody Moon, to the mix. While Moon is listed as the backup WILL LB on the Two-Deep for this game, he is expected to play a large role in making sure the defense does not take a big tumble in the rankings. 

The strength of the defense lies in its secondary, with three returning veteran starters flanked by first-time starters Chris Johnson (sophomore) and Marcus Ratcliffe (freshman). The three leading tacklers among the returners are all in the secondary, led by warrior safeties Cedarious Barfield (49) and Davaughn Celestine (48) and cornerback Dez Malone (43). Dallas Branch and Malone led the team with three interceptions each. 

Albin noted in his weekly press conference on Monday that the Aztec defense presents problems for any offense because the 3-3-5 can lead to various and multiple front alignments that can confuse offensive lines, particularly in run blocking. Given the youth and inexperience of the defensive line, expect defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix to dig deep into his playbook to add deception and ease the burden on the newcomers.

Key matchup: Sieh Bangura, RB vs. Zyrus Fiaseu, MIKE LB

Zyrus Fiaseu brings down a ball carrier while his teammates bring 11 hats to the ball. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

The Bobcats’ offense employs a lot of run options and misdirection from their playbook. Given this contest is the first game since Rourke’s injury, the Bobcats will look to lean on their backfield duo to take the pressure and hits off their star quarterback. With an experienced offensive line and talented backfield, this game plan can help Ohio continue their dominant time of possession advantage (19th in FBS last year). Fiaseu’s insertion as the MIKE LB midway through last season solidified DC Kurt Mattix’s defense, which had been leaky against the run to that point. 

Fiaseu will have to continue to play disciplined against the different formations and actions Ohio will utilize to get defenders out of position, especially with an inexperienced defensive line playing in front of him. If Fiaseu and the defense can contain Bangura and the Ohio running game, the possibility to blitz and attack Rourke in the passing game can force much-needed turnovers.

Jack Browning was named the MW Special Teams Player of the Year. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

Special Teams: Advantage – SDSU

SDSU boasts the returning MW Special Teams Player of the Year, Jack Browning. Browning is also the only player on both the Ray Guy Award (punter) and Lou Groza Award (placekicker) Preseason Watch Lists. 

Additionally, SDSU ranked 2nd in FBS in 2022 with a 72.2 Special Teams Efficiency rating by ESPN, led by Browning, returner Jordan Byrd, and punt block and coverage specialist Tyrell Shavers. While Browning returns, replacing Byrd and Shavers’ roles will be paramount to continuing SDSU’s overall ranking among special teams’ units across the country. 

RB Kenan Christon and WR Mekhi Shaw have the first crack at replacing Byrd’s kickoff and punt-returning prowess, respectively, while S Max Garrison and others will look to replace Shaver’s’ versatile roles.

Ohio ranked 68th in FBS last year with a 49.3 Special Teams Efficiency rating by ESPN. Wiglusz is their primary punt returner (2.7 yards per return last year), while Keegan Wilburn returns kickoffs (23.7 yards per return and one touchdown last year). 

True freshman Gianni Spetic takes over placekicking duties after Nathanial Vakos (22-of-27, long of 55) transferred to Wisconsin. Vanderbilt graduate transfer Jared Wheatley is the new punter after Jack Wilson (37.3 avg) held the role in 2022.

1 thought on “Week Zero: SDSU vs Ohio Preview

  1. AZTECS coming off great 2022 Season playing at HOME will BANG and CLANG BOBCATS winning 28-10 in EXCITING WARM UP for 2023!

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