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Championship Week: San Diego State vs Utah State Preview

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By @sdsportsfiend

Championship week is here and the San Diego State Aztecs have fought and clawed their way to the top of the West Division, after a thrilling comeback victory over Boise State 27-16. With the win over Boise State, the Aztecs moved up to #19 in the AP poll and will be curious to see where they land in the College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday.

On Friday vs Boise State it was the backup quarterback Jordon Brookshire who led the Aztecs to 24 unanswered points and the defense pitched a 2nd half shutout in dominating fashion. All that stands between the 11-1 Aztecs and their 22nd conference championship is Utah State (9-3). The Aggies, who beat New Mexico on Saturday 35-10, owned the tie breaker over Air Force that punched their ticket to the title game.

The Mountain West Championship game kickoff is set for noon PST time, Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, CA and will be broadcast nationally on Fox. Tickets for the game can be purchased through the link below. 

The last time SDSU played Utah State in 2020, the Aztecs soundly defeated the Aggies 38-7 on the road by racking up over 400 yards on the ground while limiting Utah State to 215 yards of total offense. This year’s Utah State team is much improved and their success can be attributed to one man in particular.  

Jonesboro to Logan

Utah State’s turnaround from a 1-5 season a year ago to being in the championship game is impressive. Former Head Coach Gary Andersen was fired after the 3rd game of the season in 2020 after the Aggies started 0-3. After the season, Utah State hired Blake Anderson who had recently resigned from Arkansas State and had led the Red Wolves to 6 bowl games and 2 Sun Belt conference championships. Anderson is known for his signature uptempo offense that consistently ranked in the top 25 nationally for points scored while at Arkansas State. After Anderson moved to Utah State, he reached out to 2 of his former players who had entered the transfer portal: starters QB Logan Bonner and WR Brandon Bowling. Both players followed their coach to Utah State and 2 pieces were in place for Andersen’s high-octane offense to take off in Logan. 

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Utah State Offense

The Aggies’ prolific offense scores 32 points per game. Nationally, they rank 15th in passing yards, 12th in passing yards per completion and 20th in 1st downs. Their rushing attack ranks 73rd with 152 yards on the ground. They run it enough out of a run-pass option formation to keep defenses honest. Where Utah State has struggled this year is in their red zone production. Only 75% of their trips inside the 20 have resulted in points. The Aggies are very aggressive on offense and will gamble quite often with going for it on 4th down.  

Quarterback

As mentioned, Junior QB Logan Bonner transferred to Utah State from Arkansas State. He was the starter in 2019 until a ligament injury in his thumb cut his season short after 4 games. He resumed the starting role in 2020 which included a win over Kansas State from the Big 12 conference. Bonner has flourished in Coach A’s offensive system in 2021. He has passed for 3,242 yards with 32 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Logan likes to air the ball out to his receivers on vertical routes and has shown incredibly accuracy when he has time in the pocket as you see with these throws to his wide receivers

Bonner has been sacked 20 times in 12 games so he lacks a lot of mobility but can scramble for yardage if he needs to as seen below.

His backup is speedy Andrew Peasley who came on in relief for a banged-up Bonner and threw 3 touchdown passes in the 2nd half to rally Utah State from 11 points down in a victory over Air Force. The following week vs. Boise State, Peasley was largely ineffective and has played sparingly since. 

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Receivers

The receiving corps may be the strength of the team and the Aggies have 4 outstanding receivers who have speed, route running skills and great hands. 

Deven Thompkins is one of the best receivers in college football. The senior Biletnikoff semi-finalist has caught 87 balls and is leading the nation with 1,543 receiving yards, a mind-boggling average of 17.7 yards per catch. He averages 128 yards per game and has 9 touchdown receptions on the year. He is a burner with speed who can take the top off of a defense on a vertical route and snatch a ball out of thin air. Aztecs fans may remember him beating Cedarious Barfield to the corner of the endzone and making a spectacular over the head, toe-tapping 37 yard touchdown grab as the halftime horn sounded in 2020. 

Derek Wright has 699 yards and 10 touchdowns. Bowling has 630 yards and 7 touchdowns. 6’6” Justin McGriff is a big red zone target and has 368 yards and 5 touchdowns on the year. 

Running Backs

Calvin Tyler Jr., a transfer from Oregon State, is a compact runner who has gained 723 yards, scored 5 touchdowns and is averaging a very efficient 4.7 yards per carry. 

Elelyon Noa who broke Reggie Bush’s career rushing record at Helix High is the brother of Boise State linebacker Ezekiel Noa. He is similar in build to Tyler and has gained 546 yards on the year.

Defense

Utah State runs a 4-3 defense and is a bit undersized upfront but fast. They give up 26 points and 397 yards per game. Statistically they are about average for both pass and run defense nationally. Their biggest defensive lineman is UCLA transfer Marcus Moore who is 6’2 and 255 pounds. Linebacker Justin Rice leads the team in tackles with 105 and shares the lead in INTs with 3. Nick Heninger brings heat off of the edge and leads the team in sacks with 5 to go along with 5 forced fumbles. Shaq Bond is the most active in the secondary with 65 tackles and 3 INTs. 

Special Teams

It’s a good thing that San Diego State has a kicker like Matt Araiza whose kickoffs go mostly unreturned. Savon Scarver is tied with SDSU’s Rashaad Penny and 3 others for the NCAA record for career kickoff returns for a touchdown with 7 house calls.

Kicker Conner Coles is 18-25 on field goal tries this season.

Keys to Victory

  1. Hit Logan Bonner Hard & Often

I remember an interview with Coach Buddy Ryan who designed the 46 defense and coached one of the best NFL defenses ever: the 1985 Bears. When talking about his defense he said something to the effect, that if they needed to bring 7 or 8 rushers, they would do it–but they weren’t going to let you sit back there comfortably and pick them apart. 

Logan Bonner is incredibly accurate if you give him enough time to throw the ball. The Aztecs were successful rushing 3 against Boise State and QB Hank Bachmeier last week. Bachmeier spent most of the second half picking himself off of the turf at Dignity Health Sports Park. The uptempo offense the Aggies run neutralizes to some degree the strength of a good pass rush because the defensive linemen can’t sub out as frequently. Utah State is snapping the ball within 15 seconds of their last play. Tired defensive linemen have trouble getting pressure on the QB and their tackling gets sloppy. 

All SDSU has to do is look back to the last time a team played uptempo versus them: the 4th quarter of the Utah game. Backup QB Cameron Rising led the Utes from 14 points down by going to a hurry up offense. The Aztecs played mostly prevent defense dropping their linebackers into coverage on each drive and only rushing 3 or 4. The Utes marched down the field for 2 relatively easy scores to send the game to overtime. The Utes hadn’t moved the ball on the Aztecs all night until they went uptempo. The beginning of the video below shows what Cameron Rising leading an uptempo attack and a lack of pass rush did to the Aztecs defense.

In order to limit the explosive plays that Utah State gets, the Aztecs are going to have to make Bonner feel pressure. BYU, Boise State and Wyoming all dialed up pressure in the 2nd half of their games and all resulted in Aggie losses and many bruises for Bonner.

In 3 or 4 wide receiver sets that Utah State operates out of most of the time, at least 5 pass rushers with a linebacker spy on the QB/running back are needed up front. Depending on the formation, 3-4 corners in man coverage and 1-2 deep safeties can help protect the back end of the defense from vertical threats while still bringing heat on Bonner with the pass rush. It is crucial that SDSU brings pressure every down.

The Aztecs need to keep Bonner and his offensive line guessing where the pressure is coming from too. BYU illustrates this formation and pass rush attack very well in their interception of Bonner in the video below. 

Wyoming punished Bonner with hit after hit in the 2nd half that rendered him ineffective and the Aggies were shut out in the 2nd half. The Aztecs must hit Logan hard and often if they want to slow down his passing attack.

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  1. Control Time of Possession

In all 3 of Utah State’s losses to Boise State, BYU and Wyoming, they lost in time of possession. Winning this battle is critical to resting the Aztec defense who are going to feel like they are in a track meet with the Aggies all game. Long sustained drives that end in points by the SDSU offense is going to be important to keeping the defense fresh so that they can tee off on Bonner in the Aggie backfield. 

  1. Secure the Ball

The Aztecs running backs have collectively put the ball on the turf 3 times in the past 4 games and have lost 6 fumbles on the year. Utah State makes a living at trying to strip the ball from opponents. The Aggies have 12 forced fumbles on the year. You can see in the clip below how they make it a point of emphasis of dislodging the ball from ball carriers. 

In order for the Aztecs to control the time of possession, give their defense a rest, and not give up points or short fields, it’s important that every Aztec who possesses the ball tightly secures it against their body. 

This is it Aztec fans.  San Diego State has an opportunity to win another conference championship and set a school record for victories in a season. I hope you make the trip up to Carson for the game and we can all sing “We Are The Champions” together as our young men lift up the championship trophy. This has been a historic season already and hopefully our winning streak will continue. Aztec Nation, I will see you on Saturday. Go Aztecs!

Stay tuned Wednesday as the Championship Week episode of the Sons of Montezuma Podcast will be released.

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