When the Aztecs took the field Saturday night vs the Nevada Wolfpack, a lot more than just a number in the win or loss column was on the line. Both teams breathed new life into their Mountain West Conference Championship game hopes thanks to a Fresno State loss the previous week. Whichever team would get on their travel busses after this divisional matchup, would either be riding high knowing they would continue to be in control of their destiny, or be rolling down & out virtually locked out of any hope to get back into the race. With Fresno holding tie breaker advantages over both teams, at this late stage of the season with only two games remaining on the slate, a loss here would almost 100% seal their fate.
San Diego State came in to the 2021 season with a ton of potential, but with equally the same amount of question marks. The quarterback position and the consistency of what that position requires was a big uncertainty. The defense long regarded as one of the best in the nation year in and year out, was perceived to be one of the best over the Coach Hoke/Rocky Long tenures. In summation however, the Aztecs were picked to be in the middle of the divisional standings by years end, as voted on by the media.
Nevada on the other hand, came in to this season as the favorites to win the West division. The exciting brand of offense in the form of the air raid passing attack is led by potential professional prospects. The quarterback Carson Strong and a slew of big talented targets for most part of this season have lived up to that hype.
Armed with the confidence of their offensive abilities, the Wolfpack also came into this once in a lifetime SDSU Homecoming game in Carson, California, carrying within themselves the swagger of a 3 season win streak against the Aztecs. Though the two schools have not had much historical numbers to draw heavily upon, the two sides since playing each other inside of the Mountain West conference, have had some of the fiercest and exciting games to date. This one proved to fit right in line with those classics of the recent past.
But the college football season is a long journey for any team and the grind of it all begins to take its toll down the stretch. The Wolfpack unfortunately for them, came limping in to this game. QB Carson Strong’s knee has been an issue most of the season, but has reached its peak these last two contests. And after a vicious illegal targeting hit last week vs San Jose State, Nevada was without talented tight-end Cole Turner.
The Aztecs have been fortunate to weather the storm of injuries. This has undoubtedly helped keep their success going strong as well as their visibility in the National media’s spotlight the longest for any team in the conference. RB Greg Bell has ran through the middle of the season churning tough yards all while trying to manage the many hits a season takes on that starting position.
But by kickoff time these concerns are met with adrenaline the biggest game of the Conference season brings. It was imperative the Aztecs start fast and not fall behind. So when RB Greg Bell (104 yds) was able to break the Nevada defense open on the 2nd Aztecs possession, it was just the kind of play SDSU needed to dictate the pace.
50 yards down the middle of the field to flip the position after starting deep in their own territory. From there RB Chance Bell earned another first down on two plays showing good signs that the line of scrimmage was won by the Aztecs early. A few plays almost derailed the 12 play drive from yielding any points. An almost lost fumble by G.Bell and Jordan Byrd was the first miscue. Then when the drive stalled in the red zone, a Matt Araiza FG attempt was blocked by Nevada.
While the stadium was stunned, the appearance of a yellow flag indicated Nevada needed help in order to do it. The defensive lineman was called for an obvious holding on the Center snapper. The penalty moved the Aztecs to within two yards of the end zone but the 4th down remained the same. This is when Coach Hoke used his first calculated risk and decided to allow Coach Hecklinski’s offense to go for it.
Lined up in a goal line offense QB Lucas Johnson (21-34, 176 yards 1 TD) ran the play action fake to Greg Bell, scooted to his left and threw to the left side of the end zone where an open Daniel Bellinger caught the game’s first touchdown.
SDSU 7 NEVADA 0
At the end of the 1st quarter Carson Strong led Nevada to an 8 play drive to even the score. Aided with a defensive pass interference the Wolfpack set up for a 2nd and 1 play inside SDSU territory. That’s when Strong connected on a 28 yard touchdown pass perfectly thrown to Tory Horton.
The Aztecs on the next drive continued to move the ball on the ground and QB Lucas Johnson also found a continuing connection with WR Elijah Kothe through out the drive. The drive lasted all the way to the 30 yard line, and took 5 precious minutes off the clock. But it stalled there and finished with a terrific Matt Araiza 48 yard field goal.
This drive was key for SDSU to answer back quickly to take the lead over Nevada. Keeping the Nevada offense off the field and sitting for those 5 minutes off the official clock, helped cool down the Wolfpack from getting into any sort of groove. The next two Nevada possessions failed to score any points and after a long missed field goal by SDSU’s Matt Araiza, the score going into the the half was a small advantage SDSU.
SDSU 10 NEVADA 7
Starting the 2nd half, it appeared as though SDSU was going to open the game up. The Wolfpack came out with the ball first in the 2nd half but immediately went 3 & out. The ensuing Aztecs possession was headed by three straight positive run plays to Greg Bell. On a 2nd down play QB Johnson scrambled away from the defensive pressure for 14 yards. It was then that Chance Bell again came in to spark the running attack with runs of 18, 9 and a 5 yard run to the end zone.
SDSU 17 NEVADA 7
After a significant injury occurred to a Nevada defensive back after SDSU OL Billy Dunkle barreled through the line to finish a run play, the Wolfpack seemed to band together. In the quiet moments of the injury staff helping the fallen player, shouts from the Nevada bench could be heard to light a fire within themselves. Down two scores and getting punished at the line of scrimmage, Nevada began a comeback.
Being held to a mere 7 points, Nevada’s next drive was all thru the air. Taking only 2 minutes and 46 seconds off the clock, the offense went 80 yards in 9 plays and when at the 5 yard line Strong found WR Romeo Doubs for his first score on a back shoulder one on one pass & catch.
SDSU 17 NEVADA 14
After an Aztecs punt, the defense tightened up and forced Nevada into a 3 & out deep within their own territory. Nevada boasts an outstanding field goal kicker in Brandon Talton. He is their most accurate kicker in their programs history and sealed up their last second victory over San Jose State last week. But as great of a special teamer as Talton is, can he punt also?
Nope—didn’t think so. When the Aztecs received the punt it was the 4th quarter the offense had great field position just shy of midfield. The seven plays ran gained 15 yards, just enough to give SDSU’s star kicker/punter Matt Araiza the room to nail a 39 yard field goal. The kick kept Nevada needing a touchdown in order to take a lead.
SDSU 20 NEVADA 14
And that’s just what happened. In years past, these games had featured the unlikely factor of SDSU giving up yards on the ground to Nevada. When that happens, it severely hampers SDSU’s defensive effectiveness. So with QB Carson Baker struggling so much with his knee injury and limited mobility, it’s curious as to why they did not attack SDSU more on the ground to try and wear down the lighter Aztecs D-Line. Nevada had long ago abandoned the run in this game however. And it didn’t matter on this particular drive.
Strong and the air raid attack set the Aztecs secondary up for a huge 54 yard touchdown throw to non other than Romeo Doubs. Despite not running for more than 31 yards total, the play action pass can still be effective under the air raid offense. A short screen pass fake to a receiver, followed by a fake hand off to a running back and all the defensive eyes and attention get sucked into the backfield. The untouched Doubs glided passed the secondary, made the catch and into the endzone he went as the game was now in the control of Nevada.
SDSU 20 NEVADA 21
It appeared as if the game was going to slip through the Aztecs hands. Immediately the SDSU offense had no juice going 3 & out. It was time for the defense to seize back the momentum that Nevada had jumped on. Taking almost 5 minutes off of the 4th quarter clock helped their cause but the Aztecs defense harassed Nevada when it mattered. A false start penalty added 5 yards against them and Nevada facing a 3rd and 14 needed to keep the SDSU offense off of the field.
Outstanding play from the Aztecs D-line featuring Cam Thomas, Keyshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai has been the foundation that this years team has built their performances off of. With Strong’s inability to move out of the pocket with much speed, he was forced to throw the ball away and the Aztecs were goin to get one last drive to try and win the game.
With the play of Lucas Johnson showing little opportunities in Hawaii, the need to open things up more and keep up with an explosive offense on the other side was a given. With a running attack helping out the cause, Johnson was afforded many ideal situations to take calculated risks to air it out at times and when to keep the ball and move the chains.
On this day you could see the growth from the San Diego native Johnson. Consistent passes to receivers Elijah Kothe, Tyrell Shavers, Jesse Matthews as well as tight end Daniel Bellinger, all helped the offense to a balanced output. For this final opportunity to take the lead, it was the leadership of Johnson that proved to come up clutch yet again.
When early in the drive at their own 36 yard line the Aztecs faced a 4th and 4. The reliable Jesse Matthews caught a tight zip pass for 6 yards.
Two plays later it was the big Elijah Kothe snatching out of the air a 19 yard gain to the Nevada 39 yard line.
With just under 2 minutes left on the clock at a 2nd and 10, it was time for an unsung hero to show the underrated wide receiver depth this Aztecs team is putting together. Thats when Mt. Carmel High’s Junior WR TJ Sullivan caught a 10 yard back shoulder pass enough for the first down. But it was the strength and awareness of the situation that showed valuable as TJ broke out of the defenders grasp and added almost 8 more yards to the play.
Many in Aztecs nation began to debate among themselves. Should the offense run the ball and get closer for a go ahead field goal or continue to be aggressive and go for the touchdown score.
The Hoke & Hecklinski team did both. When on the first two plays Chance Bell ran for 4 and 2 yards, the offense faced a 3rd down and 5 and 1:30 left on the clock. The two previous run plays forced Nevada to call two timeouts. Only one was left in their holster. This decision is one that keeps head coaches up at night. Knowing the ability of Nevada’s field goal kicking meant that an incomplete pass allows Nevada to stop the clock if they need to in order to set their special teams formation up. But run the ball and you most certainly gain at least one more yard and leave Nevada throwing hail mary’s.
This kind of calculated risk allowed Coach Hoke to play aggressively and pass for the first down, knowing that on the back end he had a defense that had performed well all night long. Often forcing Strong to throw from different spots and use unconventional ways to score. With his hobbled leg, the Aztecs could open up their arsenal of defensive pressures or coverages and force Strong to beat them. So Hoke & Hecklinski went for the win.
But it was not to be on this 3rd down call. Johnson’s pass to big WR Tyrell Shavers was the right read, just not the proper execution. In Johnson’s defense, the pass was placed where only Shavers could go up and get it. But just a little too far out of reach after some physical grabbing back & forth that slowed his route down by the Nevada defender. The play easily warranted a pass interference call. But thats’ not great TV.
The Aztecs settled up, brought in the special teams unit and the player receiving all the national buzz for changing the game as a PUNT GOD and field goal kicker. Matt Araiza put the Aztecs ahead and did his job.
SDSU 23 NEVADA 21
1 minute and 21 seconds left to play with one timeout, is plenty of time for this Nevada offense to operate. And on their ensuing drive’s first play, a 16 yard completion, all Aztecs nation knew that was true. When the next play on 1st down gained 8 yards, Nevada was sitting in a favorable spot at mid field already.
But with the lack of any running game success and the clock beginning to dwindle down, Carson strong did the unimaginable, the unthinkable, the completely uncharacteristic set of downs that all of Reno were used to.
2nd and 2–incomplete pass.
3rd and 2–incomplete pass.
4th down and 2 with the game on the line. Not an uncommon situation that the Wolfpack hand’t come through before. But when the Aztecs defense forced Strong to miss his first option and pull the ball back for the next option, both sides had to quickly reassess who was open. Strong found the open WR Melquan Stovall over the middle and gunned for him. But the pass attempt was keyed in on by Aztecs safety Patrick McMorris who raced to Stovall and with perfect timing reached and knocked down the pass crushing any comeback attempt and turning over the ball on downs.
The incompletion brought a rush of emotion to both sides. The Aztecs fans in attendance for the homecoming game were treated to an unbelievable contest of two quality teams with two very different strategies. On that final play the two converged perfectly. One side could give the biggest compliments to a defense that made the play happen. But one could also look at the offense and notice there was a completely wide open Wolfpack receiver on the far side line running deep down the field unnoticed. He raised his arms for the ball, but Strong never even looked his way.
Did the Aztecs escape once again? Are the football God’s on their side? For these kind of fortuitous outcomes, you have to be thankful for. But also realize the game could’ve gone either way. There is plenty for the Aztecs defense to tighten up on. You can enjoy both sides of the thrilling ending below in our clip of that 4th down stand.
SDSU 23 NEVADA 21
West Division Standings
The Aztecs victory immediately puts SDSU squarely in the driver seat for winning the West division of the Mountain West Conference. With two games remaining in the season (UNLV, Boise State), it will the two biggest games in SDSU football in the last 5 years. Fresno State still holds the tiebreaker over SDSU. Fresno State has one game remaining on the schedule a road game versus rival San Jose State. Both teams are on a bye this weekend and will play their important game next Thursday on Thanksgiving. There are several scenarios that can play out to make this final weekend a jumbled mess. Until then, SDSU needs to take care of business over UNLV. more to come on our preview article at sonsofmontezuma.com.
Mountain West Players of the Week
For the biggest game of the conference this season, honors get awarded. Big congratulations to DL Cameron THomas and K/P Matt Araiza for their stand out play in the big victory.
Cam Thomas-10 Tackles, 2 sacks 3.5 Tackles for loss
Matt Araiza-3/4 FGs Game winner. 5 Punts 55.6 AVG