Last week we drew comparisons of this SDSU vs Utah matchup to the 2017 SDSU vs Stanford game. Those proved to be spot on despite this game not suffering an electrical blackout. No there were plenty of shockers to go around. Less than 24 hours to game time the area of Carson, California felt a sizable earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale and sent fumes from the nearby refineries up into the LA County air.
So when Aztecs quarterback Lucas Johnson caught the final 2-point conversion pass on a “Philly Special” play, it wasn’t even the most dramatic event of the weekend, nor would it be the last.
The trick play was implemented into the offensive arsenal over a year ago by coordinator Jeff Hecklinski and was ran successfully in their first ever attempt to give the Aztecs the 33-31 lead after their third overtime round.
If you haven’t seen it by now, which would be hard to believe, allow us to provide the views so you can properly reference this.
What will largely go under-appreciated is the throw made by wide receiver Jessie Matthews and the falling backwards catch that Lucas Johnson had to make.
The Utes had an opportunity to tie the game in the new one-play, triple overtime rules. But when it looked like Utah backup quarterback Cameron Rising found his receiver in the end-zone, the officials’ scoring play review showed that the receiver never had control of the ball. Game over. Aztecs win!
Your San Diego State Aztecs came out on top in a down-to-the-wire nail biter upon defeating the Utah Utes 33-31 in triple overtime. Not only did this important victory improve Aztecs football to 3-0 on the early season, but it also notched the 7th victory over a PAC12 opponent in the last 9 contests. Never has the San Diego State football program been able to boast such a landmark achievement in its history.
Running back Greg Bell had another 100+ yard game and had to grind out every yard. Bell ran for 119 yards on 33 touches, averaging just over 3.6 yards per carry (down from 7+ yards per carry in the previous two games). That total has now moved Bell to #4 on the nations rushing list for this season.
The Aztecs also kept in line with their unbelievable rushing stat. In the last 52 games when SDSU totals over 200 rushing yards, they are a staggering 50-2. The Aztecs ground game rushed for over 204 yards against one of the top rushing defenses in the country. But it didnt come easy.
In the first quarter, for the most part both offenses struggled mightily as neither team was able to reach the red zone. Utah and SDSU boast two of the toughest defensive programs in the PAC12 and Mountain West and this day it showed. The Aztecs defensive line lived in the Utah backfield for most of the time stuffing the run and relentlessly pressuring the offensive line.
Keyshawn Banks, Cam Thomas and Jonah Tavai wrecked so much havoc on the Ute quarterback, that by this morning Brett McMurphy of the Action Network reported that Utah starting quarterback Charlie Brewer had left the program!
However the Utes did strike first when return specialist Brian Covey returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown. The Aztecs special teams led by standout kicker/punter Matt Araiza responded with a booming career high 51-yard field goal to get the Aztecs on the board ending the quarter at 7-3.
In the second quarter, Utah added a field goal to go up 10-3. On the ensuing kickoff however, Aztec running back Jordan Byrd fielded the ball a yard deep in the end zone, then proceeded to “take it to the house” on a 100 yard kick return to even the score at 10 going into the half.
In the third quarter, the Aztecs had all the momentum coming out of the halftime. Lucas Johnson broke a 54 yard run down the sideline to set up the first of two Greg Bell touchdown runs on the night.
Then one of the many bright spots so far of the Aztecs defense this season has been the senior emergence of Taylor Hawkins. A Hawkins interception and return down to the 7 yard line set up another Bell rushing touchdown moments later.
In the 4th quarter, the game looked as though the Aztecs were going to run Utah completely out of the state of California before the 4th quarter ever began. The Utes however answered back by scoring two touchdowns of their own in the final five minutes to steal back the momentum and force over time.
In the overtime period, Utah once again won the toss and opted for the struggling Aztecs offense to play first. The Aztecs on the third play of the extra period scored the go ahead touchdown when Lucas Johnson option scrambled out of the pocket and hit tight end Jay Rudolph through a short tight window. When it was the Utes turn, they scored right away through the air on their first play, forcing the second overtime.
The Utes got the ball to start the second overtime, but were unsuccessful in punching it in for the touchdown and had to kick a field goal. As fans anxiously watched knowing the Utah kicker already missed an extra point previously, the field goal went wide right and the Aztecs faithful erupted in cheers. In return, the Aztecs got as close as they could on a series of three straight run plays and lined up for the game winning field goal, but the often steady Matt Araiza missed his second of three attempts, sending the game into the third and final overtime.
By the time both teams walked down to the opposite side of the field to conduct the final two point conversion attempts, Jeff Hecklinski undoubtedly had his time to get the Philly Special together as he has prepared this offense to do for so long now.
You can listen about the Philly Special decision in more detail here with OC Jeff Hecklinski.
Where do the Aztecs go from here at Quarterback?
Backup quarterback Lucas Johnson added 87 yards on 8 carries. Johnson saw his first start of the season due to a Jordon Brookshire foot injury he suffered during last weeks victory over Arizona. Jordon was suited up however and deemed available by head coach Brady Hoke. Just how long Brookshire will remain out is up for speculation.
“He’s a pretty special kid,” said coach Hoke about Lucas. “I think he’s a young man that in the short brief time that i’ve gotten to know him, to some regards i think he’s grown up. I think just on the sidelines and being around him. He comes over and says, Hey coach we’re going to be fine. He’s settling me down and I’m trying to settle him down.”
Was Lucas Johnson’s Week 3 performance all that Aztecs Nation envisioned it would be after witnessing his unbelievable start in the Nevada matchup last season? Not exactly. But that’s not exactly a bad thing either.
Lucas and the offense this past Saturday night did against Utah what they couldn’t get done in Nevada—WIN. No one with a grasp of college football knowledge will mistake the Nevada defense for the Utah defense that has been a pillar of toughness and consistency under Kyle Whittingham for almost two decades. They certainly gave Lucas and the offense all they could handle.
Which makes what the Aztecs offense did that much more impressive when you put things into perspective. All week long the Utah media acknowledged that SDSU’s running game has been so successful and had placed running backs into the pros—Realizing the Aztecs are not quite the service academy option style running attack, but equally as dedicated to it. Having a quarterback of Lucas’ athletic ability, who operated an option offense during his time at Georgia Tech, made this game a particularly ideal matchup for being behind the center.
The cutback move Johnson made to get past the line of scrimmage in that 3rd quarter 54 yard run was something Donnel Pumphrey would be proud of. Sticking his foot in the ground and cutting to his right, Lucas dug in and out paced the entire Utah defense on his down the field before being caught up by the last safety. This is the kind of weapon that will make this running attack even more dangerous.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski acknowledged as much that the offense needs to be more balanced moving forward and that there were times in the second half that the play calling could’ve ran a few more passing/play action decisions to give Lucas the chance to throw the ball.
Such decisions during the regular four quarters of play tend to balance out between killing the clock with the running game, while trusting your defense will overcome a struggling Utah offense with no timeouts left. But in the overtime periods things get a little more urgent and sway the game to bring about touchdown results if you want to win. So it was the bright side of Lucas being able to make plays happen with his arm in the overtimes that is sure to press our coaches even more on who to start at the quarterback position moving forward.
But will this weekends matchup vs Towson do a lot to shape the decision on who will be QB1 any? While Jordon Brookshire’s two games vs New Mexico State and Arizona showed us a glimpse of his leadership and quick learning abilities, the coaches will expect the same marked improvement of Lucas for this upcoming matchup vs an FCS Towson team. The Aztecs offense should surely be able to exploit on the ground, through the air and anywhere else they should choose to execute.
The ruling of Brookshire would hopefully lean on getting him 100% healthy and allowing Lucas to get more comfortable running the offense. But also allow the possibilities for the depth of the position to get some experience. As noted, true freshman Will Haskell has coincidentally moved up the depth chart passing transfer sophomore Jaylen Mayden.
Coming in to this season with the quarterback battle up for grabs, the one piece of mind Aztecs nation held onto was that each player competing had a shared level of athleticism that would allow the offense to run successfully while being interchangeable at times. Though Brookshire runs with power and authority, Johnson’s swift cutback ability gives him the edge to create those long runs that we’ve seen in both of his starts.
Head coach Brady Hoke and staff have their work cut out in deciding who to move forward with at the QB1 spot for the remainder of the season. But by design it is the great problem they have with their patented Aztecs offensive system. As long as the powerful offensive line continues to dominate the line of scrimmage, either of these leaders behind center have what it takes to win a lot of games for the Red & Black this season. Just how far they can go is up to them and only time will show who can lead them to where they want to go.
Full Sons of Montezuma highlights available in our Film Room or directly at our YouTube channel below.