Win in Hawaii a ‘Ohana’ affair for the Aztecs

SDSU runs out onto the field against Hawaii, led by Martin Blake. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

Covering a football game in Hawaii is unique. Without use of the condemned Aloha Stadium, the Rainbow Warriors play at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex. It is a rough equivalent to SDSU’s Sports Deck, with thousands of seats added around the track.

Since the facility was created for a different sport, the locker rooms are inadequate for hosting visiting teams. The Aztecs were forced to utilize the space in the adjacent Les Murakami Stadium, the school’s baseball facility.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a business trip, no more, no less,” WR Mekhi Shaw said postgame. “We don’t have time to go to the beach or things like that. Just came here on a mission to win this football game, and that was the only thing on the forefront of our mind.”

Ryan Wintermeyer just before kickoff. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

While the players may have been there to win a football game, their families were not. At the conclusion of the game, lining the concourse between the football and baseball stadium were hundreds of relatives of the Aztecs players. Tupu Alualu led the team, with over 40 well-wishers in attendance. He is from Honolulu. Each wore a matching white T-shirt specially made for the occasion.

Their ecstasy in the moment was palpable. They were not alone.

When Leo Kemp made a reception midway through the first quarter, his supporters filled the north endzone with applause. Shaw, LS Ryan Wintermeyer, S Eric Butler, RB Lucky Sutton, and a host of others created a festive atmosphere for the visitors.

After the conference-realignment musical chairs stopped without providing SDSU its expected seat, recruiting in the program is recalibrating. One selling point the school would be wise to emphasize is that by choosing to be an Aztec, a player provides those closest to them with a reason to visit Hawaii.

It may have been a business trip for the athletes, but it was anything but that for their families.

“Hawaii is a great opportunity for our SDSU football families to come together and support the team,” Adria Shaw, Mekhi Shaw’s mother, explained. Her husband made the trip to last season’s Hawaii Bowl. Saturday was her turn. “It was the first time for many families to finally meet each other since it’s a smaller venue and not as crazy as attending home games. … ‘Ohana’ means family in Hawaiian, and that’s truly what our presence meant to all that traveled.”

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Negative fans

The gathered throng of supporters contrasted greatly with the vocal chorus of negativity that has dominated social media the past month. Despite playing and winning an entertaining contest on Saturday, the morose wing of Aztec Nation remains unsatisfied.

Chris Johnson covers Hawaii’s gunner on a punt. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

Beyond just venting, their aim is to raise awareness of their displeasure with the school’s decision-makers. While their overtures and constant criticism will likely fall on deaf ears with the administration, others are taking notice.

“Us players talk about it,” LB Zyrus Fiaseu said postgame. “Four losses in a row, that hurts. Fans are saying that we suck. People are doubting us, so for us to come out and with this game, it was really big for us. You see us celebrating inside the locker room, so it was a big win. We love the feeling. It’s a lot better than the past four weeks.”

One parent, who spoke to EVT but wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against their child from the same toxic fans, lamented about allowing their child to enroll at SDSU because it exposed him to such nastiness and a lack of support.

After four consecutive losses to three ranked teams and the preseason conference favorite, SDSU faces a lot of obstacles as it seeks to turn its season around. Add some of the most passionate supporters of the program to the list. As athletes typically do, the team is using their “haters” as fuel. It is driving them closer together as a team.

“Yeah, it fuels us, but at the same time, we’re all we got sometimes,” Fiaseu explained about the outside noise. “On the field, we’ve got to look at us eleven players. We’ve got to know we’re the only guys we’ve got on that field. If fans say this and that – yeah, they can say it all they want – but at the end of the day, we know who we got and who we are going to play for.”

SDSU comes together pregame (Paul Garrison/EVT)

How to view the defense

SDSU’s reputation as one of the best defenses on the West Coast has rightfully taken a hit this season. While it appears doubtful this year’s iteration will reach the heights of its predecessors, seven games is enough of a sample size to evaluate the 2023 defense on its own merits. Saturday’s contest is an example of what an excellent defensive outing looks like for this group.

Big plays have been the defense’s biggest bugaboo this season. That continued on Saturday, with the defense giving up three receptions over 50 yards. In fact, every Hawaii scoring drive included at least one completion over 20 yards. Of their 427 total passing yards, 300 came on just nine completions. The other 20 receptions netted the remaining 127 yards.

Deshawn Mccuin started and played well for the Aztecs. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

Expecting this defense to solve this issue this late in the year is probably wishful thinking. What it must do is counter these with equally important plays that it creates. Against the Rainbow Warriors, they excelled in this area. The Aztecs’ defense caused three turnovers that led to 21 points. Subtract these scores from the 34 points they gave up, and the quality of Saturday’s performance begins to come into focus.

A deeper dive reveals how clutch the defense played against Hawaii. Deshawn Mccuin’s interception return for a touchdown came on the heels of Jalen Mayden’s lone interception. After Mayden found Shaw for a 69-yard score to take a 27-24 lead, the defense forced the first of two fourth-quarter fumbles. A few minutes later, when Mayden’s fourth-quarter QB sneak on fourth and one came up short, his defensive teammates forced the second. Both created short fields and touchdowns for the team.

Quick Takes

  • Tobin O’Dell’s arm strength stood out in pregame warmups. Normally, walk-ons do not have the physical tools scholarship athletes possess. This is not the case with O’Dell. His lack of a full ride has more to do with the oddities of recruiting during the pandemic than anything else.
  • SDSU’s play calling clearly favored the run over the pass. While they found little success on the ground, it opened up the passing game for Mayden, who finished 18-24 for 221 yards. That style of game fits the Aztecs signal caller.

  • Postgame, Hoke said one of the bye-week revelations was using running backs further down the depth chart. Cam Davis and Lucky Sutton had the most carries. Sheldon Canley was used on kick returns. Canley’s explosiveness and ability to not go down after being hit impressed his head coach.
  • True freshman Brady Nassar has cemented himself in the defensive line rotation
    RT Drew Azzopardi earned the first start of his career. To facilitate the move, Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson moved to left tackle. Azzopardi brought an attacking style to the line’s play.
  • The postgame press conference for most visiting coaches occurs in odd places. When UCLA came to Snapdragon, Chip Kelly addressed the media near a loading dock. Saturday’s conversation with Hoke occurred in foul territory on a baseball field.
  • Hoke wore a couple of leis postgame. One of them was given to him by Alama Uluave’s family. Ulavae plays with the Miami Dolphins.
  • Mekhi Shaw was sensational and finished with a career-high 126 yards.
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