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Aztecs vs Roadrunners: Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl Preview

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Coming off a stunning loss to Utah State in the Mountain West championship game where 20 Aztecs were unavailable for the game, #24 San Diego State earned a berth to the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl in Frisco, TX. Although many Aztec fans were disappointed that this year’s squad missed out on an opportunity to play another Power 5 school in a bowl game closer to home, the Frisco Bowl is one of the more intriguing bowl games of the bowl season pitting 2 teams against each other who are having historic seasons.

The Aztecs will face the UTSA Roadrunners (12-1) who won the Conference USA championship game 49-41 over Western Kentucky. The game will air on Tuesday 12/21 at 4:30 pm PST on ESPN. The Aztecs are 2 point underdogs in the matchup.

You can listen to our latest Sons of Montezuma Podcast, previewing the SDSU vs UTSA Frisco Bowl matchup with special guests Alamodome Audible Podcast and myself, @sdsportsfiend.

UTSA is an upstart program who became a Division I FBS team only 10 years ago and set a program record in wins this season. The Roadrunners reached #16 in the AP Top 25 poll before falling to their rival North Texas in the regular season finale. Both team should be plenty motivated to win: the Aztecs can set the all-time school record in wins while UTSA is seeking their 1st bowl win in program history. SDSU’s seniors have the added motivation of redemption for the 2018 Frisco Bowl where the Aztecs were blanked by Ohio University 27-0.

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Aztec fans, please don’t sleep on this UTSA team.  They may be the most complete team the Aztecs have faced all year with loads of talent up and down their roster. Unfortunately, the Aztecs won’t get a chance to face arguably the best player for UTSA. Junior running back Sincere McCormick announced this week he will skip the bowl game and prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft.  He earned Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year and 3rd team AP All-America honors while rushing for 1,479 yards with 15 touchdowns. He ran for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns in the conference championship game.

Meet the Roadrunners

Coach
UTSA is led by 2nd year head coach Jeff Traylor who has a 19-6 record and 2 bowl appearances in San Antonio. Prior to moving up in the college ranks, he spent 15 years leading Gilmer High School to 3 Texas state championships. Coach Traylor is the 2021 Conference USA coach of the year and a finalist for several national coaching awards.

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QB
Frank Harris was projected to be UTSA’s starter as a true freshman in 2018 but tore his ACL before the season. In 2019, Harris started 4 games until an upper body injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Harris returned from injury in his junior season and has been the starter ever since. He is a dual threat QB who has thrown for 2,906 yards and 25 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions. He’s also the 2nd leading rusher on the team with 565 yards and 6 touchdowns. With McCormick not playing in the bowl game, I would expect Harris to carry the ball even more this game.

RB
Replacing McCormick in the backfield will be senior Brenden Brady who has 232 yards on 49 carries for a 4.7 yard average. B.J. Daniels may also see more carries in this game. He has 34 carries for 161 yards on the year.

WR
The Roadrunners have a 3 headed monster at wide receiver. Here are the guys and their 2021 stats:

Zakari Franklin
73 rec. 938 yards 11 TDs

Joshua Cepheus
69 rec. 793 yards 6 TDs

De’Corian Clark
46 rec. 683 yards 6 TDs

This group of receivers is as good as any trio of receivers the Aztecs will face this season. They all have speed and an ability to make tough catches in traffic.

Defense

While UTSA’s offense gets most of the attention and accolades, their defense ranks in the top 50 in rushing yards allowed although that statistic may be skewed a bit by facing several pass heavy offenses this season.

Outside linebacker Clarence Hicks is their best pass rusher with 10 sacks on the year. He reminds me of another great pass rusher the Aztecs faced: UNLV’s Jacoby Windmon who had 12 tackles and 3 sacks vs. the Aztecs this season. You can see the explosiveness Hicks has off of the line of scrimmage in the video below.

Other notable defensive players are safety Rashad Wisdom who leads the team in tackles with 86 and cornerback Tariq Woolen who has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl.

Keys to the Game

    1.    Run All Over the Roadrunners

 UTSA’s only loss was to North Texas 45-23. The Mean Green are 3rd in the nation in rushing at 245 yards per game. They rushed for 340 yards against UTSA and dominated the time of possession to keep UTSA’s prolific offense off of the field.  One caveat is that the game was played in the rain which favored the run dominant team in North Texas. Most of their chunk yardage came outside the tackle box on counter plays with a pulling tackle sealing off the defensive player on containment. The video below shows the type of play North Texas was successful running vs. UTSA.

While SDSU’s doesn’t pull its guards and tackles like North Texas, the return of 2 tight end sets with Daniel Bellinger and Jay Rudolph who were missing against Utah State should help the run game wall off edge defenders to create running lanes for Aztec running backs.  The Aztecs are going to need blocks like the one below from their tight ends along the line of scrimmage.

The Roadrunner interior defensive linemen are big but not fast like the Aztec defensive line or even what SDSU faced against Utah State. I would compare UTSA’s defensive line in terms of size to Utah’s defensive line and SDSU rushed for 204 yards and 4.5 yards per carry against the Utes. Due to UTSA’s size, the Aztecs may have more difficulty getting forward push on UTSA’s linemen but by moving the pocket laterally they can use speed and leverage to create running lanes. UAB did a really good job of this in their game vs. UTSA as you can see in the clip below.

UAB nearly beat UTSA by controlling the clock and running the football for 220 yards on the ground. If the Aztecs run for over 200 yards like they did against Utah, I like their chances of winning this game.

    2.    Poor Tackling
Normally when you see a key to the game you think I’m talking about the Aztecs being a poor tackling team. I’m not. Another reason why the Aztecs need to run the ball is UTSA is not a good fundamentally sound tackling team. As you saw in the clip above, the UTSA linebacker acted as if he was a matador with a bull charging at him. The defender even let go of the running back because he wanted no part of bringing him to the ground before he reached the end zone. If you think that was an embarrassing look for UTSA then you REALLY need to check out this clinic of poor tackling by the Roadrunners.

I counted 5 missed tackles on that play alone.  It’s not like it was an abberation either as the Southern Miss QB forced the most missed tackles that week in all of college football when he played against UTSA.

The Aztecs need to use this to their advantage. SDSU is built on toughness and physicality. If the running backs and receivers can force several missed tackles in the game either by poor technique or self-preservation, it could spell trouble for UTSA.

    3.    Minimize Penalties

SDSU racked up the most penalty yards this season (120 yards) against Utah State- a lot of them on personal foul penalties. In 2021, the Aztecs average almost 7 penalties a game for 64 yards. In the Utah State game, the offense consistently found themselves in long yardage situations because of penalties and the defense extended Aggie drives because of their costly mistakes. On offense, SDSU ranks 124th out of 130 teams in 3rd down conversions at 31.1%. Conversely, UTSA is converting 45% of their 3rd down plays.

Much like the key to winning against Utah State, the Aztecs will need to sustain long drives on offense to keep the Roadrunners’ high powered offense on the bench. The Aztec defense will need to force 3 and outs and short drives so that they aren’t fatigued later in the game due to more snaps. Penalties kill or extend drives and the 3rd down conversion rates for each team don’t bode well for SDSU. The Aztecs must play smarter and limit penalties if they want to win the game.

Enjoy the game! Tune in to Sons of Montezuma for the postgame recap & podcast. Let us know what you think are the keys to an Aztec bowl win. As always, Go Aztecs!

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