It was a spooky night this past Saturday in Carson, as the previously unbeaten Aztecs fell to the Bulldogs of Fresno 30-20 before a lively announced 11,034 fans in attendance. The Halloween weekend deterred some fans from making the trip up but nevertheless this was one of the more well attended games of the season. It was an unquestioned matchup of two of the top teams in the Mountain West conference and the only two this season to have been ranked in the Top-25 longer than one week.
The two sides came in boasting wildly different styles of play offensively with Fresno State possessing an explosive passing attack behind quarterback Jake Haener and the Aztecs with their signature ground & pound rushing machine with a running back group led by Greg Bell.
Much of the contrasting styles in this matchup was analyzed by the Sons of Montezuma in our most recent podcast. Was this game going to be controlled by Fresno in the air, or could SDSU finally gain some traction and dictate the game on the ground. You can listen back on and see how we did.
On the day for the Aztecs, QB Lucas Johnson finished 14 of 31 and a career high 220 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. The Aztecs leading rusher was Greg Bell at 15 attempts at 63 yards with one touchdown.
For Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener completed 25 for 42 passes and 306 yards and one touchdown. Jordan Mims had a career night rushing for 186 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns.
The Aztecs fall to 7-1 (3-1 in MW play) and the Bulldogs jump to 7-2 (4-1) and control their destiny in the Western division by this victory having the tie breaker above both SDSU and Nevada.
In the first quarter
After each team traded punts on their opening possessions of the game, it was clear that Fresno was going to strike first and dictate the game in a balanced manner. With starting Senior running back Ronny Rivers not able to contribute with a lower leg injury, it was up to backup runner Jordan Mims to make an impact and keep the Aztecs defense honest to the run. And he did just that after a grueling 15 play drive that ended with him crossing the endzone for the games first score on the ground. Mims a physical runner with a frame yet to fill in completely, looks to be a possible runner at the next level.
On the ensuing possession the Aztecs tried to establish their own run game. Quarterback Lucas Johnson making his 4th start of the season at times was able to connect beautifully on deep passes to the Aztecs bigger receivers in stride. And after a long pass to Elijah Kothe, the Aztecs looked as if they were ready to march into Fresno territory. But with Greg Bell and the rushing game not having any room to run, losses had the Aztecs staggering forcing long 3rd down attempts. On the 2nd attempt at converting a 3rd and long, Johnson’s pass was intercepted setting up great field position for Fresno just before the end of the 1st quarter.
In the second quarter
Quickly from there the Bulldogs passed their way into the endzone doubling the score at 14-0 and it was soon realized the Aztecs would have to play catchup for the first time this season. With plenty of game left the task wasn’t unrealistic. The Aztecs all year had received scoring plays from every direction through offense, defense, and special teams play.
But again it was the offense that couldn’t break through on the ground having back to back 3 and outs and punting the ball back. By this time SDSU had slowed down Fresno enough to give up two field goals. However this now made the game a three score contest and the Aztecs suddenly were in a hole down 20-0 before the first half was even complete.
The Aztecs suddenly came alive however, opening the up the play-calling and somewhat abandoning the run. Allowing Lucas to air it out a bit more was crucial at this deficit. Another incredible completion to Elijah Kothe for 31 yards had begun some rhythm in the offense.
This drive was finally rewarded and again through the air. Johnson found WR Tyrell Shavers in the endzone for a beautiful throw and catch where only the 6 foot 6 Shavers could get it. Over the shoulder catches seem to be the norm for this Aztecs receiving corps. It was the first receiving touchdown for Shavers, who also scored on special teams earlier in the year, and he figures to fit more into the offensive gameplan as each game passes by. 20-7.
On the next Fresno possession the Bulldogs answered back and drove down into SDSU territory. But on a 3rd and 10 Jake Haener was sacked by Jonah Tavai to force the field goal attempt. With just under a minute the Bulldogs attempt would hit the right goalpost and bounce out unsuccessfully. This gave the Aztecs great field position and some time to cut into the lead before the halftime.
A 20 yard pass finding Tyrell Shavers again and a 14 yard scramble from Lucas Johnson had the Aztecs on the move. After spiking the ball with 7 seconds left and one timeout in the holster, mysteriously the Aztecs did not run a play however. Instead they opted to call a timeout and set up for the 55 yard field goal. After a responding Fresno icing timeout, the 55 yard Matt Araiza attempt was no good and briefly cut any momentum going into the half.
Fresno 20 Aztecs 7 at the half.
In the third quarter
The third quarter started with a bright spot of SDSU receiving the ball and luring Fresno State into an off sides penalty. But with the lack of any yardage on the ground and a few more airrant passes, the Aztecs were once again 3 plays and out.
The Bulldogs struck early on their next possession passing down field to standout receiver Jalen Cropper. But as Cropper crossed deep down into Aztecs territory, a baffling injury occurred to his leg mid stride. As Cropper ran he lost control of the ball during the injury and let go allowing the ball to roll into fair territory as he stumbled out of bounds. The Aztecs defense led my Patrick McMorris on the coverage was quick to react snatching up the ball and getting a return.
The rare fluke of an injury and turnover was a gift to a defense that hadn’t given up much ground until this game. But the offense after a few scattered positive yards couldn’t sustain a drive and were forced to punt again.
After a strong defensive stand at 4th and 1 the Aztecs held their own and got the offense the ball back quickly. Just as soon as getting the ball the offense gave it right back when Johnson and Bell fumbled their RPO fake exchange and the Bulldogs picked it up. Their position lead to another Fresno field goal after yet another strong defensive stand.
After the fumble, all the air was sucked out of the stadium. The distant noise from the Fresno Red Wave fans on the visiting sections could be the only noise heard. Though this game was a mutual venue for both teams, and more SDSU fans were in attendance, the Bulldogs had much more to celebrate thought-out the game.
Even at 23-7 the game was still in reach. So the Aztecs offense quickly pulled themselves together and on the next opportunity, Greg Bell put together a string of runs for 6 and 22 yards. A 29 yard pass reception by the Aztecs standout receiver Jesse Matthews and the RED & BLACK were marching confidently.
Lucas Johnson’s ability to escape the pocket and run from the quarterback position was a factor all Aztecs fans knew was available. Runs of 9 and 11 yards took the ball down to the 3. And when Greg Bell punched it in from there, new life was breathed into the stands as the Aztecs faithful cheered and rose to their feet to encourage the Aztecs. The two point conversion to bring the score down to within one score at 8 failed however and the score sat at 23-13 Fresno.
In the fourth quarter
The fourth quarter really slowed down the offensive fireworks as both defenses dug in and forced a few punts each. The Aztecs held strong and had the ball with a long field ahead of them but on a 1st and 10, Lucas Johnson made a mistake that would put the game out of reach. Throwing across your body is generally an act from a quarterback that is highly discouraged unless you are of the Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers caliber. So when Elijah Kothe came open for a split second as Johnson was flushed out of the pocket, his cross body rifle shot was deflected by one Fresno defender and snatched in the air by the other.
After running the touchdown in with less than 4 minutes to play in the game, it was time to make the switch. Aztecs freshman quarterback William Haskell Jr. entered the ballgame with a good amount of time to show what he could do against a Bulldog team still rotating starters on the defense. Haskell showed some early flash not so much in making incredible throws or runs, but in simply operating the offense in an efficient manner. Running back Kaegun Williams bulled his way down field for chunk gains and Haskell delivered a pass in to Mekhi Shaw for 15 yards and the longest pass play of the drive. But after 75 yards marching down the field it was Haskell who showed his supreme speed by racing around the edge untouched for the 7 yard touchdown.
An unbelievable showcasing of the skil- set through a successful onside kick by Matt Araiza suddenly jolted the team to see Haskell get out there again behind center. But a review by the officials and possibly early desire to finish the game to get on with their Halloween festivities, let to the over turning of the virtually impossible camera angle play and wiped away any chance of some near impossible heroics.
Final score from Carson, Fresno State-30 San Diego State-20
The Old Oil Can returns to the Valley.
Losing a rivalry match is never a good thing. While the results of the game will always sting the members of this 2021 team, through all of the many mistakes and frustrations, the team battled until the very end. A few different decisions and outcomes to this game were in line to be very different. The most notable however will always be at the quarterback spot. Though the Aztecs offensive game plan is always to run first and to run second with their many backs behind the offensive line, it is no doubt the daring of opposing defenses against the Aztecs quarterback room that often leads to these games where the rushing attack is left unsuccessful.
Crowding the line of scrimmage against the Aztecs isn’t a new tactic for the opposition. This years team however just has not shown to have the decision making able to overcome that challenge against a team with a bonafide offensive firepower like what Fresno State possesses. Utah, San Jose State, and Air Force all came within distance, but never were able to capitalize fully. The Aztecs for all their heroics in week 1 through 7, were barely skating by to victories despite this deficiencies on offense.
So with young Haskell Jr. entering the ball game and showing once again his efficient, natural ball handling ability, there is a glaring difference between the time he is inserted into the game and when he is not in. Certainly after this loss and his playmaking ability being on display, Brady Hoke and staff have their thinking caps on tight when it comes to naming the potential starter moving forward in the season.
Though this Fresno State game was just one game in the standings, it actually served as two loses when it comes to the tie-breaker scenario’s in the Western divisional race. So inserting William now may not be as risky as one would think. While the rest of the season slate is the most challenging the Aztecs will face all year, these games would serve both the team and young Will greatly in experience and also to truly see what Aztecs Nation has at the position and depth moving on to next season.
But don’t get it twisted—There is a ton to play for this season still. The Mountain West quality is much improved. While SDSU is next to travel to Hawaii and face the only Conference team to take down Fresno this season, the prospects of starting a true freshman in a hostile environment may not be set more perfectly. Hawaii is both beatable and certainly challenging. With Hawaii’s on campus, makeshift stadium now available at a max 100% full capacity, it will still only be a fraction of what would’ve been seen in a full stadium.
If Haskell is not placed at the QB1 spot, it would be wise to insert his skill set in many stages of the game. Stay tuned to more this week on this developing situation with the Aztecs here at sonsofmontezuma.com for our Wednesday Podcast and our Hawaii preview article. Until then, keep your spirits high never bow a knee.