The San Diego State Aztecs defeated the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors this past Saturday on the islands 17-10. The game had all the makings of a typical Aztecs game this season. A tough, grind it out, ugly at times clash that highlighted so many aspects of the game towards a victory.
After a critical week of self analysis coming off a tough loss the week prior, many in Aztec nation had transformed their energy of enthusiasm, experienced all season, over to feelings of anxiety. Several factors played into that: a struggling offense, an uncharacteristic defensive performance last week, and a capable Hawaii team that is tough to beat on the islands.
This game was played before a small but excited Hawaii student body that was experiencing their first 100% capacity game on their makeshift stadium on campus. So it was key that SDSU get off to a fast start to quiet down the crowd early and not help the energy spill over into the game. So when Greg Bell put up the games first points on the Aztecs 2nd possession of the first quarter, that was the start Coach Hoke and staff were looking for.
SDSU 7 HAWAII 0
There was a noticeable Aztecs contingent in the stands behind the endzone, including some Aztecs players family and friends as shown below by Alama Uluave’s tweet. What a great experience for those Hawaiian Aztecs like Alama (Laie, Hawaii by way of Punahou High) to be able to perform before their supporters. Somebody please tell these in game officials to chill out from trying to stop these College players from having some fun on the field in celebration mode. This is not the “No Fun League” yet. Can the NCAA try to loosen up here please? I mean this IS College right?
After the early score, the Aztecs defense appeared to be in full control forcing Hawaii to their 2nd punt of the opening quarter. But after only two plays in the Aztecs 3rd possession, on a passing play with no open receivers, QB Lucas Johnson with seemingly a lot of time in the pocket was hit and fumbled the ball over to the Warriors.
Great field position gave Hawaii the momentum as the very next play QB Chevan Cordeiro found standout Calvin Turner on a quick slant over the middle and he out paced the defense on his way to the end zone. Turner was seemingly Cordeiro’s only explosive target to keep both eyes on with Hawaii’s other standout offensive target Dae Dae Hunter out for a consecutive game, . The early touchdown was not a good sign for an Aztecs defense that was trying to regroup.
SDSU 7 HAWAII 7
But what is every defenses best friend? An offense able to string together long, time consuming go ahead drives. And thats just what Lucas Johnson and the offense did. Marching 82 yards on 15 plays taking a total 7 minutes and 38 seconds, Aztec Nation saw the offense control the game in a way not often seen all season. With a mix of runs by Greg Bell and Lucas Johnson, and a few passes completed to both TE Daniel Bellinger and WR Tyrell Shavers, the drive was steady.
Even after a holding call on the offensive line set them back to a 3rd and 14, we saw the running ability that Coach Hoke wanted from Lucas play out in action. Lucas took a 3rd down play for 17 yards to move the chains.
But once inside the red zone it appeared the Aztecs offense was settled on aggressive chances through the air and instead chose to run the ball 3 straight times. When a 3rd down attempt fell short and left the drive stalled at 4th and 2 out came the kicking crew led by potential all-american Matt Araiza.
For most if not all Aztecs games a special teamer has come up big to make a noticeable difference. So credit to coach Deakin for dialing this one up. When on 4th down the call was made for the placeholder Jack Browning to catch the hike, and once in place Browning sprung to action, tucking the ball and turning the left edge of the line on his way to his first ever collegiate touchdown and the score that proved to be the difference in the game.
Truly a masterful call as the 4th down and 2 yards were a possible go for it down. But this was one of the instances where Coach Hoke’s & Offensive coordinator Hecklinski’s conservative game plan worked in their favor. The unlikely nature of taking a gamble at this spot certainly allowed the Hawaii defense to be caught off guard by the trickery by the Aztecs.
AZTECS 14 HAWAII 7
The game almost took a complete turn in the Aztecs favor when on the next possession the secondary got their hands on a Cordeiro pass tipping it up and Trenton Thompson was there to reach up and make the games first interception. But the ensuing drive stalled and when the Aztecs attempted a true field goal of 53 yards the Matt Araiza attempt was off the mark.
As the 2nd half opened up Matt Araiza provided some more social media highlights to be spread around that children will tell tales of well into their older years. The opening kickoff of the half was so big it hit the goalpost with no chance of return. A boom that got the announcers and everyone in the stands attention.
The third quarter saw back and forth punts and a monstrous hit by Taylor Hawkins to force a fumble by Hawaii. But both offenses could not get anything going. The only scoring from the Aztecs offense for the rest of the game unfortunately came in the 4th quarter with 7:51 on the clock and a field goal by Matt Araiza made it a two score game heading down the home stretch.
AZTECS 17 HAWAII 7
After the field goal Hawaii knew they had to pick up the pace offensively down two scores. With just under 5 minutes left to go in the game Hawaii drove down into Aztecs territory but settled on a field goal to make it a one score game.
The Aztecs offense had to earn some first downs to force Hawaii to burn their timeouts, knowing that if they were to get the ball back again, they would have little to no time to drive down and score a game tying score. An argument could be made that SDSU played things too conservatively by not passing for a first down to seal Hawaii’s fate. Especially when Greg Bell fumbled a carry but quickly recovered it. These are the kind of plays that could easily bring heat down on a coaching staff. But nonetheless, the strategy to run the clock down and rely on your potential All-American punter and dominating defense proved to be the correct one.
After Araiza’s 46 yard punt to the Hawaii 32, Cordeiro was able to operate a 9 play drive down to the SDSU 23 yard line. But on that 9th play, a third down with no timeouts left in Coach Todd Graham’s holster, Cordeiro made a gut wrenching costly mistake. With just 14 seconds left in regulation, a short over the field completion brought up 4th down. But it also kept the clock ticking. When Hawaii tried to get back to the line of scrimmage to run one final play, the clock hit 0:00 and time had run out on the Warriors. Most puzzling was the lack of awareness the entire Hawaii offense seemed to have. No players were running back to the line of scrimmage. Most were jogging in a casual manner. It was a confusing and undoubtedly embarrassing conclusion for a Hawaii program. But for the Aztecs it proved to be part of the winning strategy. Game over.
AZTECS 17 HAWAII 10
But what did we learn from this game And why was this game so much more meaningful than what the casual fan may have thought initially?
Moving up the Poll
For starters, the victory boosted the Aztecs to an 8-1 record and 4-1 in conference. That is significant because with SDSU already coming in ranked in the College Football playoff poll at #24, this victory ensures another week climbing up to a higher standing. This is crucial at this late stage of the season to stay in the media’s eye. Not to mention the longer more potential recruits see SDSU as a top-25 team while others fall by the wayside the better. More on that below.
Controllers of their own destiny
The Aztecs didn’t allow the previous weeks loss to dictate their future. In other years, we have seen this SDSU program lose one game, only to allow that downward momentum carry over into future games on the schedule. Not the case here. The Aztecs defense ensured that this game would offer up every opportunity possible for the offense to put up some points and come out with a victory. Led by defensive lineman Keshawn Banks, Cameron Thomas and Jonah Tavai, SDSU tallied 4 sacks and kept the defensive pressure on the Hawaii passing game.
Back to that winning formula
At this point of the season we clearly see what Coach Hoke’s intent is offensively. Run the ball heavy, but continue to grow the passing game for just enough balance while not taking too many risks of turnovers. Let Araiza’s punting strategy come into play to leverage the field position together with the opposition making a mistake of their own.
This is a much clearer formula to follow when facing an opponent of Hawaii’s caliber however. While the Rainbows were previously the only conference team to take down Fresno State, they continue to fail in reaching that same conclusion against any other conference opponent. While they offer up quality on both sides of the line, they are hardly the same level of competition that the Aztecs will still have to face this season. Will Hoke & Co. continue to hold as tightly to this formula against Nevada, UNLV, or Boise State? Yet to be seen.
What also remains to be seen is the appearance of a third quarterback behind center. Lucas Johnson performed and did what needed to be done within this formula. Often using his legs to move the chains brought a different element to the offenses production. It was one that Coach Hoke spoke openly about all week and it proved to be a big factor. But will Lucas be able to implement this same X factor to the offense this Saturday vs Nevada? More on this prospect to come in this weeks preview article of the Nevada Wolfpack.
Playing up to the big moment games
Fresno State, who had just defeated the Aztecs and held a tie breaker advantage over them, failed to keep their lead over SDSU in the Western division. As the Aztecs took the field in Hawaii, they were equipped with the knowledge that Fresno State had gotten destroyed at home by a 4-4 Boise State team. That final score, 40-14.
Fresno lost to their former WAC rival who seems to have them on a leash historically. It was a disaster of a game that saw Boise jump on the Bulldogs early and continue to squeeze the pressure on in the 2nd half. Before a sold-out crowd in the Valley, this game proved that the big moment may be too much for the Bulldogs to handle at this point. The same couldve been said about SDSU just one week earlier.
The pressure and build up leading to these all important conference tilting matchups can have a heavyweight effect on a team–in both their mentality and their preparation during the week. Watching highlights and reading press clippings can be a hinderance to younger performers at times. The frustrations of results not happening automatically in game can cause things to fall apart. This loss by the Bulldogs could be taken as a great example of how mentally tough this SDSU team actually is. By not allowing the misfortunes of that game two weeks ago derail their efforts of playing through til the final whistle they may have proven it to themselves. The SDSU defense held strong in the second half and multiple times the Aztecs were in position to strike back.
Fresno fans began to erupt with this frustration by fighting in the stands and even on the field. But these fights were not against their rival fans who came from Idaho, these fights were from their own fans against each other! Numerous videos made circulation around the internet showcasing the drunken barrage of brawls in many different sections of the stadium. While the game carried on with no interruption, the Fresno City Police department were carrying away drunken Bulldog fans off of the field and onto ambulance gurneys.
Time will only tell if the Aztecs will be able to play up to the big moment game again, but one thing is for sure, the Aztecs faithful will not embarrass the University or the football program in this way down in the Valley.
Tribute to Robert Kekaula
We cannot let this game recap be complete without giving some respect and rest in power to Hawaii’s long time play by play man Robert Kekaula. Kekaula was the signature voice of Hawaii football. The familiar bridge that connected the Rainbow Warriors towards the mainland’s ears. We certainly missed his voice and always his complimentary calls towards our Aztecs players. Such a gracious voice despite not being on the home team. If and whenever the new Aloha Stadium will be complete, it is our hope that Robert will be honored in some way, for all he contributed towards the University of Hawaii football.