“The gambler who expects to lose is the happiest person at the track.” – Ruby Martin
Last Friday night in Las Vegas, the Aztecs brought their 9-1 record, along with their #19 National CFB Playoff Poll ranking, to Allegiant Stadium where they faced the UNLV Rebels. Though UNLV came into the matchup winning just two games on the season and with clearly no post season opportunity to play for, there would be no expectations for a loss and no feelings of happiness by the time this grudge fest was over.
This would be the first matchup between the two sides away from the old Sam Boyd stadium and instead at the Rebels new home on the strip. As mentioned in last weeks Monty’s Den Blog Posting looking at the SDSU vs UNLV past games, the Aztecs historically had their share of bad luck at the old off-campus field in the desert.
For the Aztecs, everything was on the table to play for. A win would catapult them into this weeks conference championship game clinching opportunity vs Boise State. A loss would set the team back in a highly unlikely position of reaching that same goal, needing help from others to make a way for them.
So on the games opening drive it was apparent the night was going to deal the Aztecs some wild cards, as UNLV marched right down the field and scored a quick 3 points on an Aztecs defense that hadn’t given up any opening scores all season long.
SDSU 0 UNLV 3
The previous game revealed some much needed improvement in the Aztecs passing game as Lucas Johnson led SDSU passed Nevada with his arm. And despite Lucas connecting with Las Vegas native Elijah Kothe (5 rec 84 yds) for a nice 15 yard pass completion, the Aztecs opening possession was short lived. Matt Araiza came out to pin UNLV deep with in their own 15 yard line.
And there was the beginning of the Aztec Formula for success. Punt, field position, and devastating defense. The Rebels took the ball and on the 1st and 10 went backwards. UNLV’s all time leading rusher Charles ‘the chuckwagon’ Williams (16 att 35 yds) was stopped for a loss of 3 pushing them even deeper into their own territory. And that’s when on the next play UNLV QB Cameron Friel threw an over the middle pass just behind his intended receiver who couldn’t bring it in. With Taylor Hawkins on the coverage he tipped the bobbled ball up in the air and Andrew Aleki was in perfect position to high point the ball for an interception and return to the house for his 2nd pick 6 of the season.
A bobbled catch, a tipped up in the air ball for a pick 6? Yes the football God’s and Lady Luck were just getting things rolling. The touchdown by Aleki would be the first non-offensive score by the Aztecs since week 4 against Towson.
SDSU 7 UNLV 3
After that defensive score, each team traded a few punts with not much offensive action. But this is where the Aztecs defense did what they do once again. A stunt by Aztecs DL Keshawn Banks brought his big body to take down QB Friel on a big 3rd down sack. Friel went down and came up limping in pain. He eventually was carted off the field and the Aztecs took out yet another opposing starting QB in game. On paper this seems like a great trend, but for this years team it has meant quite the opposite.
When QB Justin Rodgers checked in for UNLV, all of Aztecs nation knew no matter how bad he had played previous to this game, the Aztecs defense would have their hands full, facing yet another QB that was not the #1 focus in their game-planning. And right off the bat, Rodgers did just that.
SDSU 7 UNLV 10
With the flurry of UNLV passing plays and blown defensive coverages by the Aztecs, things began to feel uneasy for the many SDSU fans in attendance who made the trip watch this game live. But the Aztecs went on their on attack through the air. Lucas Johnson connecting with his receivers and OC Jeff Hecklinski through his play-calling, began to show how all the hard work on the passing game during the weekdays was paying off.
Though this was a great sign of things to come, it was also in part due to some bad offensive line penalties and a lack of running game success that also made way forcing the passing game to step up. It was after a false start inside the 5 yard line that pushed the ball back and set up this 2nd & goal touchdown strike for the first of three from Johnson to Matthews.
SDSU 14 UNLV 10
With a tight game at hand and the first half coming near to a close, the Rebels next possession had just crossed mid field and they faced a 3rd and 1. No doubt the Chuckwagon Williams would get the carry. But the Aztecs defense was stingy shutting down the run attempt and forced a 4th down.
With just 54 seconds left on the clock, UNLV and coach Arroyo decided to roll the dice and risk putting his defense in a bad position by going for it. The sudden success of Rodgers passing abilities and SDSU receiving the ball to open the 2nd half, undoubtedly were the pressing issues giving Arroyo the confidence to gamble. But the gamble did not pay off. The pass attempt was quickly batted down by last week’s defensive play of the game hero Patrick McMorris. Turnover on downs and 49 seconds for SDSU to try and get some points.
The failed gamble was almost made void when on the first play, a Lucas Johnson pass was nearly an interception. After a few short gains, the Aztecs Brady Hoke faced his own first opportunity to roll the dice. Just like UNLV the Aztecs went for it on 4th and short. This gamble paid off when Johnson found former walk on WR BJ Busbee who bobbled the catch in for 9 yards and the conversion extended the drive with just 31 seconds left.
Another quick pass to WR Kothe, a spike to stop the clock and then a beautiful dime of a pass to extend the Aztecs lead by two scores and give the Johnson to Mathews connection their 2nd touchdown hookup of the half.
SDSU 21 UNLV 10
Coming out of the halftime it was clear UNLV had renewed energy. Led by LB Jacoby Windmon (12 tackles 3 sacks) the Rebel defense forced the Aztecs to punt.
Building on that momentum the Rebels were ready to pounce when Rodgers found his big tight end in the corner of the endzone with a backfoot lob over the Aztecs defenders. The pass catch was Rodgers second touchdown of the game and brought UNLV within four points.
By this time all the UNLV fans that actually made the live football game over the live basketball game vs Michigan being played at the nearby T-Mobile arena, started to feel good. They felt even better when the Aztecs went 3 and out on their next drive. Another offensive line penalty and another Windmon sack forced SDSU to trot out the All-American Matt Araiza to do his work. A 59 yard punt and the Rebels were back with the ball and an opportunity to take the lead again.
The Rebels almost did take the lead when they connected down the sideline for a pass and reception of 39 yards down to the 4 yard line. But after the Aztecs defense deflected a third down pass attempt in the back of the endzone, Arroyo decided to pull within one point and opted for the field goal. The kick was successful and the game was clearly leaning towards another huge historical upset for UNLV.
Things got crazy when…
Jordan Byrd broke free on the left sideline for the Aztecs on the ensuing drive. A track star in his native New Mexico, Byrd is one of the fastest runners in all of FBS. When he is in the clear, its usually a six up for the Aztecs. But these SDSU/UNLV games are unlike any other. So when Jordan was miraculously tripped up from behind at the 19 yard line, just steps shy of scoring a TD, the excitement from Aztecs nation had to take a seat.
And they wouldn’t be able to get up out of their seat at all. The UNLV defense made one of the craziest plays of the night when a defender read the pass route and jumped to defend the smaller intended receiver Busbee. Breaking up the pass would’ve been a nice play on 2nd down. Instead the ball was hit up in the air and as both players came down, so did the ball, right into the belly of the Rebel cornerback.
Turnovers in the red zone hurt bad and Lucas Johnson doesn’t do it often. It was starting to feel tense as the 4th quarter took shape and the Aztecs couldn’t seem to find any room to score again.
But the Aztecs as they’ve done all year, ride with the defense and their ability to cut through momentum. So when Cam Thomas was able to finally get some pressure on the UNLV QB with a sack on 3rd down, it was just the timely play SDSU needed.
Coming off an unbelievable performance against Nevada last weekend, Thomas’ play had really started to take on National attention–and for good reason. The Carlsbad High product has led the team this season in sacks and QB hurries rank amongst the National leaders.
With each team alternating 3 and outs offensively, the Aztecs took the ball in the 4th quarter with just over 8 minutes left and seemingly put the game out of reach. The field position and punt game once again positioned the Aztecs perfectly at the 50 yard line to start the important drive. Mixing pass & rush plays down to the 13 yard line set up another 4th down and short opportunity.
“There are two great pleasures in gambling; that of winning and that of losing.” – French proverb
The Aztecs have added offensive analysts to the staff that clearly have been integral components of the games. Last week Coach Hoke expounded on how analytics are a growing and big part of each game, however within the same game there is a gut feeling to each one that the coaches must be able to feel and act upon. Rolling the dice has not been the characteristic most Aztecs fans would give this years staff. However, as the Nevada Wolfpack found out many years ago, UNLV was about to learn this night.
Brady took a timeout, called his kicking team back off and onto the sidelines, and summoned his offense together and back out onto the field. A run to Greg Bull up the middle and Aztecs held onto the ball eating up more clock time and pushing closer to the goal line.
In years past, pounding the rock or play action passes would be the immediate go to for this offense. But on 3rd down and 6, the offense in shotgun with receivers Matthews to the wide right and Kothe to the shallow left, a fake handoff to Greg Bell and Lucas zipped in a touchdown pass into the belly of Jesse Matthews for his 3rd TD grab on the evening.
SDSU 28 UNLV 20
The game was over when…
A last minute pass by Rodgers was intercepted by Aztecs LB Seyddrick Lakalaka. The Aztecs escape from Las Vegas with all the money in the bag, a 10-1 record and a sweet start to playing these divisional road games at the new Allegiant Stadium.
It’s Thanksgiving week and the Mountain West Conference is thankful that a resurgent Boise State team has found their way. The Mountain Division is still up for grabs now that Utah State was absolutely destroyed by Wyoming. A 3 way tie for Air Force, Boise State, and Utah State has the Broncos coming into Carson this Friday morning with some possibilities on their mind.
Stay tuned for our SDSU vs Boise preview article tomorrow to get the scoop on how the game can be won or lost. It’s a big one for the Aztecs to win and they are into the Conference Championship game the following week if so.