San Diego State vs Boise State—The Grudge Match Worthy of a Championship Game

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By SDSportsfiend (via Twitter)

The San Diego State Aztecs escaped Las Vegas with a 28-20 win over UNLV and still control their destiny to play for a 22nd conference championship. One last hurdle in the Aztecs path may be their toughest test of the season: the Boise State Broncos on Senior Day at Dignity Health Sports Park. The final regular season “home” game is set for Black Friday at 9am at will be televised nationally on CBS. The game is being billed as a “Red Out” and Aztec fans are encouraged to dress in red for the game.

Boise is coming off a 37-0 thrashing of New Mexico at home where they gave up the fewest yards to an opponent since a 55-7 victory over Northern Illinois in the 2015 Poinsettia Bowl. The Broncos’ hopes of reaching the Mountain West title game are still alive with the following scenario: a win over the Aztecs and an Air Force loss to UNLV later in the day. As such, the stakes of this game will be very high for both teams. 

A Tale of Two Seasons 

Boise State’s 2021 season is really a story of two seasons in one. After a 24-17 home loss to divisional foe Air Force, the Broncos found themselves for the 1st time in 24 years with a 3-4 record to start the season. Some within their fanbase even questioned on social media if the Broncos would even become bowl eligible this season. For a proud football program who has 3 Fiesta Bowl wins, 3 Mountain West conference championships and receives extra revenue from the conference each year just because they are Boise State, the 2021 season was shaping up to be a disaster for the program and its 1st year head coach Andy Avalos.

During the postgame press conference of the Air Force game, Avalos stated that consistency and commitment in preparation was an issue within the team—using people within the program being late for meetings as an example. That lack of preparation and focus was evident on a 4th & goal play with Boise State trailing the Falcons 21-14. The Broncos only lined up 10 players on offense and with one less blocker, let’s just say it didn’t end well for QB Hank Bachmeier.

After a week off focusing on “reestablishing the foundation”, Boise State emerged from their bye week with a must win divisional game at Colorado State (3-4).  The Broncos fell behind the Rams 13-0 early in the 1st quarter and 4 consecutive possessions ended in a Boise State punt. With the season hanging in the balance and the team staring a 4th conference loss straight in the face, Bachmeier lead the Broncos on a 13 play 97-yard drive for a touchdown right before halftime.

This was the turning point of their season. The offense scored 3 touchdowns in the 2nd half to win the game 28-19 and stop a 3-game losing skid. Boise State has not looked back since going 4-0 including a 40-14 road demolition of 23rd ranked Fresno State who had soundly defeated the Aztecs in Carson a week before.

Boise Offense

3-year starter Bachmeier leads the potent Boise State passing attack (2,857 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs). The junior from Murrieta has thrown 6 TDs with only 1 INT during the 4-game winning streak. He is a pocket passer with limited mobility who has been sacked 21 times this year.

Backing up Hank at QB is someone Aztecs fans know well. Jack Sears signed a grant-in-aid to transfer from USC to San Diego State in December 2019. After the coaching change at SDSU, Sears withdrew his commitment and eventually transferred to Boise State where, aside from a complete game vs. Air Force in 2020 as the starter, he has worn a yellow vest and headset on the sidelines for 2 years backing up Bachmeier. The senior from San Clemente has thrown for 42 yards and 0 TDs in 2021. 

The playmaker on the Boise State offense is senior WR Khalil Shakir. The 6’1 senior speedster from Murrieta leads the Broncos with 71 receptions for 1,043 and 6 TDs. He has speed and great hands with an ability to make eye-popping acrobatic catches anywhere on the field.

WRs Octavious Evans (409 yds, 2 TDs) and Stefan Cobbs (381 yds, 5 TDs) also help stretch the field for the Broncos.

Sophomore RB George Holani (499 yds, 1 TD) was injured in the loss to Nevada. His return from injury has been a major boost to the Boise State offense. Through 8 games, the Broncos had no 100-yard rushers. Holani has rushed for more than 100 yards the past 3 games- all Boise State victories. 

The offensive line had been banged up in the 1st half of the season and shuffling positions on the line led to poor pass protection and run blocking. The unit stabilized after the Air Force game. It has given up only 6 sacks in the last 4 victories after giving up 16 sacks through the 1st 7 games.

Boise State beat writer B.J. Rains announced this week that starting center Jake Stetz will likely miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. This is devastating news for the Broncos and one has to wonder if this will cause the offensive line to regress back to their earlier season woes.

Boise Defense

The Broncos have experience and playmakers at all 3 levels of their defense. 

Junior Scott Matlock anchors the defensive line with 7 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. “Super” senior Riley Whimpey from San Clemente and Helix High senior Ezekiel Noa are productive linebackers. “Super” senior nickleback Kekaula Kaniho has a high football IQ and is the playcaller in the secondary. Junior safety JL Skinner from Point Loma High leads the team in tackles.  

Boise Special Teams

Boise State blocked 2 New Mexico punts last week and returned them for touchdowns. 

The Broncos have dangerous return specialists in Shakir, Cobbs and senior CT Thomas. 

Placekicker Jonah Dalmas tied the school record with his 25th field goal of the season against New Mexico. He is 25-27 on field goal attempts this season.   

Keys to the Game

  1. Pressure Bachmeier

After a dismal start to the year, the Broncos’ rush blocking and pass protection has improved during their 4-game win streak. The loss of Boise State center Jake Stetz could create an opportunity for the Aztecs to take advantage of miscommunication and missed blocking assignments along the line. San Diego State had success pass rushing UNLV out of its “ghost technique” look where all defensive lineman rushed the QB from a standing position instead on being in a 3-point stance. NFL All-Pro Von Miller has used that technique to bend around larger, slower offensive tackles to get to the quarterback. 

The weak link on the Broncos line is on the right side. 6’8 315 lb. Boise State right tackle Uzo Osuji, a transfer from Rice, is a massive human being but like UNLV’s massive tackles, he’s a step slow as well. Keshawn Banks, Cameron Thomas and Jonah Tavai should be able to use their speed on the edge and up the middle to get by him and hassle Bachmeier. Look for Boise State to use a tight end or running back to provide additional help on Cameron Thomas in pass protection.
  1. Better Communication in the Secondary

Two straight weeks in a row, the Aztecs have blown assignments in the secondary resulting in long touchdowns for Nevada and UNLV. On both plays, Noah Tumblin and Trenton Thompson were not on the same page and the wide receiver slipped behind them for an easy score. This can’t happen versus Boise State. You better believe that the Broncos are going to test the Aztec secondary to see if they bite on a fake handoff to a running back or pump fake to a receiver in the flat while sending a wide out on a vertical route. The secondary needs to clean up these mistakes or the Aztec defense could be giving away easy points again. 

  1. Ground & Pound

In order to beat Boise State, SDSU is going to have to establish the run game. The Broncos’ run defense has stiffened since giving up 4.9 yards per carry to Air Force. In the 4 games since- they have given up only 3.1 ypc. Of those 4 games, Wyoming had the most success running on Boise State with 4.6 ypc while also running on 61% of their offensive snaps. The Wyoming game was also the most competitive game for the Broncos during their 4-game win streak as the Broncos needed a late interception midway through the 4th quarter to stop a Cowboys drive and take control of the game for a 23-13 victory. This game will be won or lost for the Aztecs in the trenches. 

  1. Lucas, Don’t Take the Bait

Jesse Matthews had a career day with 3 touchdown receptions vs. UNLV. It’s no secret that Matthews is Johnson’s top target especially near the goal line. On the game winning touchdown throw, Lucas locked on to Matthews early and delivered the ball accurately. I expect Boise State to mix up their coverages, bait Johnson into throwing to his primary target and then undercut the throw.

Johnson’s interception vs UNLV was a disguised zone coverage where the cornerback showed man coverage on the outside and then jumped B.J. Busbee’s route. If the DB had arrived sooner, that ill-advised throw would’ve been 6 points for the Rebels. In that situation, Johnson needs to either look Matthews’ direction long enough to look off the corner so that he can’t make a play on Busbee or pump fake to Busbee right away and throw it over the top for a TD to Matthews. 

Boise State’s Kekaula Kaniho is one of the best defensive backs in the Mountain West and very good at disguising coverages. Against Fresno State, he picked off Jake Haener by passing off his receiver to another DB and then jumping the underneath route. It is going to be important for Lucas to use his eyes to look off defenders and use pump fakes so that Boise’s defense can’t zero in on his primary reads. 

Be sure to listen to the new Sons of Montezuma Podcast for more coverage as we recap the SDSU victory over UNLV and preview the big game this Friday against Boise State.

Basketball & Football

Aztec fans have a unique opportunity to watch both basketball and football on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. The Aztecs men’s basketball team takes on Georgetown in the Wooden Legacy tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim at 8:30pm on Thanksgiving. The Aztecs football game is at 9am on Black Friday in Carson. Men’s basketball concludes their tournament in Anaheim later on that evening vs. either USC or St. Joseph’s. I’m hoping that Aztec basketball fans attending the tournament will come out and support Aztec football and vice versa since the venues are only 26 miles away from each other. Let’s get up there, dress in red and cheer both teams on to victory. Go Aztecs!

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