2021 was a record breaking year for the San Diego State Aztecs football program. Surpassing the 12 win mark for the first time in history made this team one for the ages. When the realization sets in that this team accomplished so much success, despite every game played on the road, it becomes even clearer just how special this season was.
There were so many ups, downs, near makes and near misses, that we just had to compile our best plays to celebrate this special team. So, in honor of the 12 win landmark, we compiled our Sons of Montezuma Top-12 football plays of the 2021 season.
These were our picks and ours alone. The ranking criteria factored in the decisions were; difficulty of the play, the timing, eventual importance of the play, and of course just overall memorability of the play. Feel free to comment on a play we may have missed or one that stood out to you!
For the next four days through New Years Eve, check back as we reveal 3 plays on the ranking each day!
#12 Greg Bell 55 yard TD run vs Arizona
Greg Bell came into this year, his super senior season, as the clear focal point of the Aztecs offense. It didn’t take very long for the Aztecs to put UofA on notice of this fact when SDSU traveled to Tucson in week 2. Bell dashed through a big hole, made a man miss and it was off to the races—untouched and 6 points on the board! The big first score of the game immediately set the tone for how the day would go, showing both physical dominance over the Wildcats and also giving the offense early confidence in their ability to have their way in this game.
#11 Kaegun Williams blocks the punt and Tyrell Shavers runs it in for the score vs Arizona
The victory over UofA was full of big plays, but this next one on our list was one of many special teams successes this season. Having so many capable veteran players on the special teams was a huge factor. When RB Kaegun Williams burst through the UofA punt formation and made a clean block of it, the Aztecs were up 14-0. But it was the coinciding recovery and score by WR Tyrell Shavers that turned this big game against a Pac-12 opponent into a route. It took all of 6 foot 6 of Tyrell to snatch the deflected punt in mid air and outpace the surrounding Wildcats into the end zone to make this play truly special. Tyrell would get a punt block of his own later in the season vs Towson, but this score was truly the most memorable of the two.
#10 Andrew Aleki Pick-6 vs New Mexico State
In week 1 the Aztecs came out flat to start the season vs the Aggies of NM State. The first half saw very little success at all and put an uncomfortable feeling to the first fans to watch their team in Carson, CA. But in the 2nd half the Aztecs came out on fire. After finally taking a 14-10 lead late in the 3rd quarter, the SDSU defense scored some points of their own. Jalil Lecky the pass rusher used great hands against the right tackle to get by and put a hit on the Aggie quarterback. The hit came as he was mid pass, sending the ball directly up for grabs and straight into the hands of LB Andrew Aleki! Aleki alertly caught the interception and was instantaneously escorted to the end zone by his fellow Aztecs brothers. Though Andrew showed off more of his defensive abilities in his other pick-6 against UNLV later in the season, it was this INT that put this game out of reach and secured the first win of the season. Cheers to Aleki!
#9 Jack Browning Fake Field Goal TD vs Hawai’i
#9 On our list was a unique play at a unique time. The Aztecs had a tough game on the islands vs the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors. The low scoring game needed everything the Aztecs could give. So when the field goal unit came out to take a lead in the 2nd quarter, the unexpected fake field goal was the perfect decision. Jack Browning took the hike and slipped by around the edge, with some power blocking help, into the endzone and an unforgettable moment. That score helped distance SDSU enough and eventually got the Aztecs off the island with a big bounce back victory to propel their season along.
#8 Jordan Byrd’s 101 Yard Kickoff Return TD vs Utah
In week 3 the Aztecs hosted the eventual Pac-12 Champion Utah. The game was a defensive stalemate for the entire first half. Neither team could move the ball offensively with much consistency and Utah scored first on a punt return touchdown. The Aztecs special teams answered back to keep the game within reach however. Jordan Byrd the lightning fast return man caught his flash opportunity when he took a kickoff return for 101 yards to the house. Not one Ute player put a hand on Byrd and it wasn’t the only time we saw Byrd return a kickoff this season, but definitely the most crucial one!
#7 Matt Araiza Blasts 86 Yard Punt vs San Jose State
Perhaps no other player this season helped catapult SDSU in the minds of the college football world like punter/kicker Matt Araiza. Ray Guy Award winner and All-American, Matt proved to be a phenom that changed every game he played in–one way or another. A rockstar of a player that even Ricky ‘Wild Thing’ Vaughn would be proud of. In this game vs San Jose State, scoring was non existent and field position took center stage. Leave it to Araiza to win that matchup every time. When his booming 86 yard punt pinned the Spartans deep within their own end zone, Matt successfully flipped the Aztecs position in a must win game and also gave the internet a highlight for weeks to come.
#6 A: Jesse Matthew’s Gets Horizontal vs Boise State and B: Jesse Matthews’ Diving TD in the Frisco Bowl
This countdown list could’ve easily been made of all Jesse Matthews highlights (there’s a thought). #6 Was way too difficult of a decision to make, SO we chose an A & B tandem (hey, beat it haters…this is our ranking countdown so we can do that!) Jesse Matthews sideline catch vs Boise State was actually not just extremely difficult, but at a point in the game where SDSU extended their lead to two scores in a must have have win. It was seriously a ridiculous catch. But the catch, run and dive into the end zone against UTSA in the Frisco Bowl will be an iconic highlight for years to come. It was a TD to even the score and get the offense rolling on their way to 38 points.
#5 Trenton Thompson Steals an INT vs San Jose State
Trenton Thompson returned to SDSU for his Super Senior season and boy are we thankful. His hard hitting & aggressive play helped solidify an Aztecs secondary in need of experience. And that experience came though big time when vs San Jose State, in overtime, the Spartans threw up a duck of a pass attempt in the endzone. Now by first glance this interception by the Aztecs defense may seem like a gimme, but when you factor in how crucial it was, in the moment of the game and then watch Trenton’s play in slow mo, you realize the moment and athleticism it took to bring that ball down without any question of a bobble. This huge INT set the Aztecs up for perhaps another great play on our list.
#4 Dallas Branch One Handed Pick vs Air Force
The SDSU defense is near the tops in the nation for most interceptions in the last several years and this play is an obvious one. Whenever there’s a game vs Air Force, turnovers are a must to get if you dont want to spend your whole game with the defense on the field gasping the thin Colorado air. When Dallas Branch made this unbelievable one handed snag out of the air, it was just how the Aztecs needed to start the game. Forcing the Falcons into a necessary third down passing situation was half the battle, but attacking the passing lane how Branch did was such a heady decision. The ball skills to bring it in as an INT along with his really good return deep into the red zone was an iconic play to the season and a no doubter to rank high on our list!
#3 Patrick McMorris’ Deflection Saves the Aztecs and Crushes Nevada
Coming in to this particular SDSU vs Nevada game, the Aztecs had lost 3 of the last contests against the Wolfpack. This was a trend that needed to end badly. For this years team, in order to keep Mountain West Championship game hopes alive, it was a must win. So when Nevada just needed to get into field goal range for their high caliber kicker, the task seemed like a simple one for the Air-Raid offense led by QB Carson Strong.
That was until the Aztecs Defense buckled up. On three consecutive downs the defense held strong forcing short passes and pressured Strong into incompletions. On fourth down and needing just two yards for a new set of downs, Patrick McMorris read Carson Strong’s progressions and pounced at the first sight of a pass. The end result was the conclusion of one of the best defensive stances of the season. McMorris got on his horse and rode straight towards the open receiver. When the pass reached the Wolfpack waiting for the catch, McMorris reached him just the same.
Patrick played it to perfection—providing physicality on the receiver to disable his focus and also positioned his swat of the ball in a clear and legal way. It was a textbook and clean deflection, ending the Nevada win streak and ignited both the Aztecs players and fans up in the air in celebration. This is our #3 Play of 2021.
#2 The Monty Special: Matthews to Johnson Thrills the Aztecs Over Utah in Triple Overtime
If there’s one thing that San Diego State does very well, it’s beat Pac-12 schools. Yes, you read that right. What used to be the near impossible has now become the norm. With the complete dismantling of the Arizona Wildcats a week prior, SDSU was set to host the eventual Pac-12 Champion Utah for a tough defensive show down.
As we’ve already noted on our Top-12 list play at #8 Jordan Byrd put the Aztecs on the scoreboard with his electrifying kickoff return for a touchdown. The Aztecs then raced out ahead of Utah with big plays on both sides of the ball placing them firmly ahead by multiple scores. But in the 4th quarter a new Utah QB willed the Utes to even up the score and send the game in to overtime. With both teams scoring first possession touchdowns and each team also missing 2nd round field goal attempts, the game came down to the 3rd round of overtime.
From this point out all the rounds would be a one play, two-point conversion scoring effort with the Aztecs taking the first possession. That’s when the play that offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski worked on, months in advance with the team for just this moment, paid off. As quarterback Lucas Johnson wandered off to the side of the offensive line as if confused of the play or giving a directive, Center Uluave hiked a direct snap to RB Greg Bell. He quickly lateral tossed it to Jesse Matthews coming around the left end from the slot position, and as he raced around the backfield the wide open Johnson was waiting in the end zone for the toss.
But not so fast! Throwing on the run is as difficult as it gets in football. Let alone to an open receiver, in the end zone, with all the hopes of another victory over a Pac-12 opponent hanging in the balance. The crowd all held their breath for that one brief second as Matthews toss to the end zone began to dip lower and lower. But a crouching Lucas Johnson, falling backwards, scooped up the pass in his arms and brought it in as he rolled back on his side. Ball secured, touchdown scored, ball game over! Well, almost over.
The tying score by the Utes was determined to have hit the ground earning an incomplete. The Aztecs rushed the field and the stands, and one of the craziest victories in all Aztecs football history set the stage for an unbelievable rest of the season. This play makes our #2 on the Top-12 Plays of 2021 Ranking because of the preparation, execution, athleticism, and tremendous balls it took to make this call.
#1 Jesse “Jumpman” Matthews: Lucas Johnson’s Touchdown Pass and Catch by Jesse Matthews Overtakes the Spartans in Double-Overtime
So many close makes and near misses to this 2021 Aztecs football season. None came closer than this game winning walk off pass and catch from Lucas Johnson to Jesse Matthews. As described already in our Top-12 Plays of 2021 Ranking in plays #7 and #5, the Aztecs offense had little to show in this revenge game against San Jose State. The defending Mountain West Champion Spartans (Yes, that actually happened) suddenly played up to their potential against the Aztecs, after having a surprisingly lackluster start to the season. Backup QB Lucas Johnson entered late in the ball game and didn’t exactly change the flow of things either. But once overtime began and the focus of the game narrowed down to each side of the field, it was the Johnson to Matthews show.
On the first possession Lucas found Jesse in an arguably similar scoring throw and catch. But when San Jose answered with a scoring drive of their own, the stakes were raised even higher. San Jose would take the first possession of the 2nd round as overtime rules dictate. Maybe San Jose QB Nick Nash was inspired by this magnificent play by the Aztecs offense. Because inexplicably to everyone, Nash heaved a long pass deep into the end zone hoping similar magic would rain down in Spartan Stadium that night for the home team. Except Trenton Thompson would make his finest interception of his career. This gave the Aztecs just a field goal necessary to win the game and get their revenge for last years embarrassing loss.
Revenge is received with a victory, any way you can take it. But Lucas and Jesse weren’t out for just sliding by with an ordinary win. No…they wanted sweet revenge. THAT is what makes legends in this game. Lucas admits to making the call to pass to Jesse. Legend will tell that he changed the original play in order to make this pass. If you thought #2 on our list took balls…this is why we rank the Johnson to Matthews play as our #1 of 2021. To shoulder the responsibility of this decision, knowing that there could be a big risk of failure is as competitive as it comes. Lucas put his confidence in his own abilities, as well as the sure hands of Jesse. The result was the start of what ended up being a tremendous season for the Junior Matthews.
Always the super talented receiver, Jesse hadn’t caught fire all season long with the passing game not being consistent. But this performance ignited some pretty key improvement through the year. Matthew’s ability to locate the pass, sense his location in the end zone, and then time his jump were all flawless. But to then actually make the catch, have the body control to come down with it and secure the ball with no questions was something every GM & coach at the next level will notice when reviewing his game tape. The score was made, the jubilation erupted and the Aztecs players and all it’s fans were convinced, this season was bound to be a special one. And boy was it ever. This play made sure of it.
Choosing these plays was not an easy task. It takes so many individuals playing as one to conduct such intricate plans, practiced over and over and over again. Unfortunately it was not able to create a more complete ranking showing the importance of the footballers in the trenches doing the dirty work. Often their work is the most important but less rewarding. We here congratulate ALL the Sons of Montezuma that make up this 2021 record breaking team. For this one season, we’ve been blessed to be supporters of all their hard work and success. And with that we raise our banners high in honor of this 2021 San Diego State Aztecs football team.
If there were any plays missed that you feel should’ve been mentioned, please share with us via social media or on our YouTube channel in the comments. Until next year…Go Aztecs!
Check back tomorrow at 12 noon (PST) for the next three plays on our Top-12 list!